As WiC noted in its review of The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream – Dan Washburn’s revealing retrospective of the sport’s development in China (see WiC245) – a government ban on new course construction was first proclaimed in 2004.
Few developers took any notice, despite at least 11 reiterations of the embargo over the next decade, according to the Beijing News.
In fact, a study by the Golf Education and Research Centre of Beijing Forestry University has suggested that the number of courses in China surged from 178 at the start of the prohibition to 528 in 2013.
But do this month’s headlines on the shutdown of 66 courses – or about 10% of the total, on consensus estimates – presage a more determined mood from the golf police?
The central government ordered the demolition of a small number of courses last year in the first real sign that it was getting serious about implementing the original ban. But the latest proclamation is a different order of magnitude, with targets stretching across a wide range of provinces. Even Hainan – the only part of the country thought to be exempt from the current ban – has three courses on the hit list.
“Governments at all levels and relevant State Council organs have proactively carried out golf course rectification work and have achieved phased results,” the land ministry said in a statement accompanying the news of the latest action. “At present, all levels of government have already banned the building of a series of illegal golf courses, and the rectification work has seen initial success.”
Why this particular group has been identified as breaching the ban remains unclear. Instead, domestic media has tended to highlight how courses in general are consuming too much of China’s limited water resources or how the fertilisers and pesticides used to grow grass have been causing water pollution.
There is also golf’s image problem. Green fees are prohibitively expensive ($100 and more) in the eyes of most Chinese, meaning that the sport is the preserve of a tiny minority of the wealthy and the well connected. Statistically speaking, the game is played by “zero percent” of the population, Washburn noted in The Forbidden Game.
At the moment the game’s profile sits even more awkwardly for government officials, in light of Xi Jinping’s ongoing crusade against illicit claims on the public purse. News in the Global Times that a disciplinary team is probing the case of a man from the commerce ministry “who allegedly played at a golf event organised by an unnamed company” seems to have been timed to accompany the course crackdown too. While there isn’t much detail on the case, the Hong Kong press says that the bureaucrat is suspected of using company funds to cover his golfing expenses.
If that’s true, government golfers will be putting their clubs into storage. But as Washburn noted at a media lunch in Hong Kong in March, the industry has always found creative ways of circumnavigating the rules in China, usually in collaboration with its local government hosts, who love the status conferred by new courses, and hope that they will attract businesspeople to the area.
A typical ruse is labelling new projects as eco-parks or tourist resorts.
“Rule number one when building a golf course is don’t call it a golf course,” Washburn explains.
The prospects for further rule-bending is probably why Washburn is reserving judgement on the 66-course shutdown, writing that it will be interesting to see how many of the venues on the list really do close, and whether they stay shut for long.
But any sign of a more restrictive stance will be worrying for golf’s global brands, who need greater passion for the game in China to offset dwindling interest in some of their more traditional markets.
Signs that course construction is going to dry up will disappoint some of the top players as well, many of whom hope to capitalise on Chinese interest in the sport (see WiC213 for our chat with English Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter on his own experience of golf in China).
Just days before the crackdown was announced it was reported that Tiger Woods had inked a $16.5 million deal to design two courses near Beijing, for instance. Projects of that type now look more uncertain, although the golf press thinks that at least one of the Woods’ courses isn’t new, and will be modified from a 27-hole facility to an 18-hole course.
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