Global Edition

‘The Forbidden Game’: Golf and the Chinese Dream

3.05pm 21st October 2014 - Opinion

Word on the street is that Chinese authorities are finally planning to come clean, so to speak, on the issue of golf course construction in the world’s most populous country, writes Spencer Robinson

Forbidden Game, by Dan Washburn,  (Oneworld, 316 pages, $18.99)
Forbidden Game, by Dan Washburn,
(Oneworld, 316 pages, $18.99)

After years of inertia and confusion generated by the lack of Central Government guidance, at last golf course developers are due to be informed of what hoops they have to jump through in order to receive the necessary approval and permits to proceed with their projects.

According to the latest National Golf Foundation figures, the People’s Republic is now home to 465 golf establishments boasting a total of 700 courses and 10,245 holes. Additionally, 48 new courses are said to be ‘under construction’ with a further 66 courses listed as being ‘under planning’.

Of course, the bizarre anomaly is that the lion’s share have been built while a moratorium has been in place, banning the construction of golf courses. Such is the complexity of China.

Mindful of land and water issues, as well as the fact that the sport remains very much the preserve of the rich and well-to-do, Central Government is understandably sensitive on the topic.

Hence only the occasional and vague pronouncements as opposed to outlining detailed guidelines for those in the golf industry to follow.

As thing stand, however, it would seem that less than 10 per cent of China’s existing golf courses have been granted the ‘official’ permission required.

Put it another way – 90 per cent of China’s golf courses are illegal. Upto a dozen have been bulldozed during 2014, used as examples to others that the Government is determined to get tough.

It’s a precarious and unseemly state of affairs for many within the global golfing industry who have been placing their faith in China emerging as golf’s saviour at a time when the game continues to stagnate in the United States and other parts of the world.

Those who have followed golf’s development in China will know that the sport was reintroduced to the country in 1984 in the wake of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door’ policy.

Thirty years on, it would seem, on the surface, that all is well with what many ill-informed individuals, and those with vested interests, describe as China’s ‘burgeoning golf scene’.

After all, as well as the golf course construction boom, China now hosts a plethora of professional tournaments and also has its own PGA Tour and LPGA Tour.

Feng Shanshan became the country’s first Major champion when she won the 2012 LPGA Championship, while Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong have both triumphed on the men’s European Tour and played in the Masters at Augusta.

Based on the above, it’s hard to dispute that the rise of golf in China over the past three decades is a truly remarkable story. To a degree, it is explored by Dan Washburn in his recently published book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream (published by Oneworld Publications, 316 pages, $18.99).

It’s certainly an entertaining journey, well written and with three compelling story lines at its core with Washburn chronicling the ups and downs of a first-generation Chinese pro golfer, a lychee farmer and a builder of golf courses.

Revolving around first-hand accounts of the experiences of the diverse trio, the book charts their highs and lows as they bid to stay ahead of the ever-moving golfing curve in China, with varying degrees of success.

There’s drama, comedy, poignancy … and plenty of tall tales – ideal ingredients for a movie and testament to Washburn’s ability to spin a good yarn.

However, not all of those who are depicted in the book will be sending out Christmas cards to the author, far from thrilled at claiming they have had having their confidences betrayed.

Washburn ‘definitely took great liberty with many comments to generate inflammatory half-truths’ was among the less than complimentary verdicts. Others who were interviewed for the book felt the ‘illegal golf in China’ narrative was unnecessarily laboured and that, as a consequence, the end product is ‘dull’.

That said, Washburn’s book does highlight serious problems faced by golf in China that the country’s hierarchy would do well to address.

Sad then that neither does the publisher plan to have the book translated into Chinese … nor that the book is even on sale in the country.

National Golf Foundation

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