As if the land of 1.4 billion people wasn’t already exerting influence on enough global markets, China is now a big part of golf’s future. The same sport invented on the shores of Scotland, and once derided as a bourgeois pastime by Communist China’s founding father Mao Zedong, is now relying on China for a boost.
The PGA Tour, golf’s biggest ambassador, is betting big on it: two years ago the PGA opened a mini-tour in the country as a feeder league to the big show in America. Fortune detailed the tour’s latest challenges, emerging stars, and optimism—those 1.4 billion consumers!—in its latest issue.
At the core of the PGA’s efforts in China is an effort to grow the popularity of the game. Fans who play watch tournaments on television; those who don’t rarely do. But golf’s challenges in China are unlike elsewhere. In the West, golf needs to shorten rounds to accommodate modern schedules and attract youth who just watched Tiger Woods pass 40 years old. In China, the sport needs to build a following almost from scratch.
Just 0.07% of the Chinese population plays golf regularly, about a million people. The tiny percentage reflects how out of reach the game is except to elites—and some foreigners like me who fell in love with golf long before they thought about teeing it up here.
In America golf isn’t cheap, but it’s not generally outrageous. I pay less than $50 a round at public courses. In China, you might as well add a zero to the total. Because the first golf course opened in China in 1984, and thirty years later only 600 courses dot the country (compared to 15,000 in the U.S.), the price for a round feels as steep as a V.I.P. table in a Las Vegas club.
Despite prices starting around $200 for a weekend round, the courses don’t match a Westerner’s expectations. Nice enough, but nothing special.
The 60 or so courses around Beijing are all private. China has none of the cheap municipal courses common in the U.S., but many of the private courses allow outsiders to book tee times. I play ten courses as part of a Beijing golf league. Almost all are at least an hour outside the city center, nestled between farmland and dusty roads. In the hot, humid months of summer, the fairways turn brown; in the spring and fall months, bare spots attest to the brutal months before. Greg Carlson, the PGA Tour China Series executive director, told me even the nicest courses in the country avoid hosting the league’s tournaments in mid-summer because burnt grass doesn’t look great on TV. In the country’s tropical south, nicer courses are the result of milder weather and heartier species of grass.
When I tell people about playing golf in China, I usually recount my first round I ever played down south two years ago. It illustrates what golf in China is today.
A memorable round
I arrived at Mission Hills a few minutes before my tee time. Mission Hills is the world’s largest golf complex, with 12 courses outside the tech-centric city of Shenzhen, and feels like it belongs in the Guinness Book. Your bag is whisked away by a gaggle of attendants before you climb stairs like the Lincoln Memorial’s and are ushered into a vast locker room of at least 1,000 stalls.
If you’re not a member, in order to play on Missions Hills you have to stay at its hotel and pay $350 for a weekend round. If you know a member, it’s a more reasonable $295.
A group of business guys invited me to play. There was a 40-something known as Vice Chairman Wu, a 50-something called Big Chairman, one of their mutual colleagues, and me.
On the first tee Vice Chairman Wu asked me how much money I had in my pocket. Six hundred yuan, I told him—around 90 bucks. “You need at least 2,000!” he yelled in mock exasperation. I backed out of the betting, and was glad I had. By the end of the day at least $1,000 had traded hands among the rest of my foursome, in little piles of red 100-yuan notes.
The summer air in Shenzhen was hotter than anything I’ve played in. Yet everyone else in my foursome was wearing pants and tight-fitting long sleeve sun shirts under their polos. They hardly drank any water, seemingly immune to the heat. The Big Chairman runs a business that manufactures copper wiring. He told me that after two or three hours of work, he heads to the golf course. In a month, he plays 20 times. Vice Chairman Wu sells him his copper.
I made a couple birdies. Wu got a big grin whenever he made a putt and got pouty whenever I made one. After the round, we got separated from each other in the vast locker room, then reconvened in the shopping area of the clubhouse, which resembles a luxury mall. A couple dozen shops selling ARTE Madrid diamonds and Hermes purses are there, in the most natural place the brands can find their customers.
On our way out, Wu’s jet black Mercedes followed Big Chairman’s jet black Mercedes. Wu looked on with envy. Big Chairman had the new S class. “He’s very rich,” Wu said.
Afterwards, we ate at a seafood restaurant and downed “Chinese cognac,” and Wu described his work day as two hours of telling people what to do before heading to the golf course.
My Beijing golf league has a different feel, but it’s still a rich man’s game. Most members work for multinationals or other businesses trying to grow in China. The league has discount agreements with some of Beijing’s older golf courses, which all have huge locker rooms and imposing clubhouses. Two caddies, usually young girls or guys from the countryside, join every foursome to push the bags on carts. They work for 100-yuan tips.
Until those caddies start playing the sport, golf will remain a reserve of the elite in China. The country hasn’t had a Arnold Palmer, let alone a Tiger Woods, to spread the gospel.
But it feels like it will soon. Japan and South Korea quickly rose on the global golf stage, but they never had a potential talent pool like China. Those 1.4 billion consumers.