I’ve seen the future of resort golf in China, and it looks like a modern-day American resort on steroids. Really powerful steroids.
Forget, for a moment, the 10 courses at Mission Hills Hainan on Hainan Island. The resort boasts a lazy river and an aquatic theme park, a vast collection of shopping and fine dining, and therapeutic mineral springs at Asia’s largest spa. Oh, did I mention Pulse, the Las Vegas-style disco and bar inside a faux volcano? “Why not call it ‘Eruption’?” one helpful wag suggested.
There is something oddly wrong or charmingly comforting – I still can’t decide – about flying halfway around the world and feeling as though I could be at a Ritz-Carlton in Hawaii if I didn’t know any better. And yet here I am in China, the world’s largest communist country, and Bob Marley’s revolutionary lullaby “Get Up, Stand Up,” is playing in the lobby of Mission Hills Hainan’s five-star hotel.
Can this really be?
Should you need further confirmation that the China of Comrade Mao is history, take my 20-year-old female caddie, Mai, who is wearing silver earrings shaped as money bags that look like they could double for Monopoly game pieces. Raking in upward of $500 per month for raking bunkers and tending flags is the equivalent of owning Park Place compared to the measly sum her father earns as a farmer. Her earrings are symbolic of the new China, where bucks and bling rule.
“The genie is out of the bottle,” said course architect Brian Curley, whose firm, Schmidt-Curley, sketched the master plan and oversaw construction of Mission Hills Hainan. China has embraced capitalism, Curley says, “and there’s no going back.”
Nowhere is that change more transparent than at Mission Hills Hainan, where 10 courses were built on top of a former volcano in an unfathomable three years. Like a mammoth Chia pet, this mega-resort sprouted quickly, transforming China’s southernmost province from a remote military outpost to “the Hawaii of the East.” And though a moratorium on golf-course construction was established in 2004 – the LPGA’s inaugural China event, in Guangzhou, was canceled recently after problems with course permits – the government is firmly behind promoting Hainan as the sports and leisure capital of Asia.
It took only a handful of dynasties for the Chinese to embrace golf. Led by the Chu family, they are making a bold statement. The Chus’ Mission Hills Shenzhen, located about a half-hour north of Hong Kong, stretches across 3,076 acres, the equivalent of four Central Parks. It entered the “Guinness Book of World Records” in 2004, when it had a mere 10 courses (there are now 12). Some believe that Mission Hills Hainan will surpass that number, though plans for a mind-boggling 36 courses have been scaled back due, in part, to global economic woes.
“It is still unknown how many more they will do,” said Lee Schmidt, Curley’s design partner.
What is certain is that size does matter in Asia, and when the Chu family bankrolls a project, it spares no expense.
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Golf in China still is in its infancy. According to the China Golf Association, the country has 3 million golfers. That’s impressive when you consider the total was in the low six figures in 1992. That year, Mission Hills Golf Club founder David Chu, who amassed his fortune in corrugated paper, chose a wasteland on the border of Shenzhen and Dongguan to establish the world’s largest golf complex in a region where the game was virtually unknown. The project coincided with the Chinese government’s commitment to open its economy to the outside world. Chu’s eldest son, Ken, vice chairman of Mission Hills, recalled counting cars in those early days when 100 golfers amounted to a busy month.
“I couldn’t understand what my dad was doing,” he said. “Why put so much risk into this project?”
Especially since it took more than two hours to drive to Mission Hills from Hong Kong, and twice as long if it rained. But that changed when Mission Hills landed the right to host golf’s 1995 World Cup, prompting local leaders to expedite plans for a spiffy four-lane highway connecting Mission Hills to Hong Kong’s border.
“That’s when I realized the power of golf,” Chu said.
His father, who died in August, understood that Westerners, in a vibrant region known as the factory to the world, needed a place to relax and conduct business, and that members of China’s growing business elite would adopt the game to flaunt their newfound wealth.
The X-factor from the start has been the potential marketplace: The population within a two-hour driving distance of Mission Hills is close to 200 million, though few play golf.
For now, golf remains an indulgence available only to China’s super-rich. (The CGA predicts there will be 20 million golfers in China by 2020.) Those attempting to grow the game in China believe the inclusion of golf in the 2016 Olympics will legitimize the sport in the eyes of China’s leaders.
“We’re building for the future,” Chu said.
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The Chus are placing an even bigger bet that South Korean, Japanese and Chinese tourists wishing for a winter escape will turn Mission Hills Hainan into an international resort destination. (Beijing is a 2?-hour flight, Hong Kong less than an hour away.)
To present itself as such, the resort includes water parks, spas and other family activities. Though golf remains the Chus’ bread and butter, the health and wellness center at Hainan gets my vote as the resort’s top attraction.
“We’ve taken care of the wife and kids, and golf is there as a bonus,” Chu said.
Ten courses, with green fees ranging from $100 to $250, rate as more than a bonus. Starting in 2007, Schmidt and Curley began reducing the landscape from a chain of dormant volcanoes that last erupted in the northern part of Hainan province about 10,000 years ago.
“We nuked it,” Curley said.
He was kidding. I think.
A regiment of heavy machinery graded the courses while an army of 50,000 laborers toiled around the clock, excavating 25 million scoops of dirt, enough to fill 35 football stadiums. Seven lakes and 800 acres of ecological wetlands later, Schmidt-Curley left all 10 courses accented with black lava rocks, serpentine lava walls and native lychee trees.
Their biggest challenge: how to break the mold from course to course. Though not replicas, the courses at times showcase Schmidt-Curley’s riffs on iconic golf images: Oakmont’s Church Pew bunkers, a bunker in the middle of a green patterned after Riviera, and wicker-basket pins like those found at Merion. One design resembles the Australian Sandbelt region, another pays homage to the likes of C.B. Macdonald and Seth Raynor. There’s even a tribute to Schmidt-Curley mentor Pete Dye.
“It’s like taking a time machine to different eras of design,” Chu said.
Each course was constructed with enough quirkiness to give the layouts character and individuality. The Blackstone Course will receive worldwide exposure when it hosts the Omega World Cup in November.
Designed to be China’s premier tournament venue, Blackstone can be stretched to a rugged 7,808 yards. Nowhere is the deft touch of Schmidt-Curley more evident. Blackstone’s irregular lines, ragged bunkers and transitional sand areas make for a stout test for elite players.
Higher-handicappers might prefer The Preserve, which has fewer forced carries and doesn’t require driver off every tee, yet still demands some level of precision. I was struck by the graciousness of the design, which offers a variety of routes to the putting
surfaces. However, once you are there, you’re on your own on these large, undulating greens.
The Vintage is very much the throwback that its name implies, with tree-lined fairways, square-edged greens and the occasional blind shot. Stone Quarry is pure Dye, complete with twisting fairways, railroad-tie sleepers, long, sandy waste bunkers and railroad-car bridges. There’s a fun par-3 course with two pins – one accessible, one tucked near peril – on each green, and floodlights illuminate nine holes of Sandbelt Trails so night owls can play until 2 a.m.
“It’s a Disneyland of golf,” Schmidt said. “It’s almost sensory overload.”
The sheer volume and overall excellence of the courses left the most lasting impression. Construction still is active at Mission Hills Hainan. Eleven cranes dotted the skyline behind the par-3 11th hole of the Blackstone Course, where the skeletons of condos were taking shape. So what’s next? Chu envisions expanding to more than 300 restaurants and shops that combine the best of the East and West.
“A Las Vegas, without the gambling,” he said.
Maybe even with a dash of Wall Street. Chu wants real-time stock prices on golf carts. Now there’s something American golfers probably can live without.