Far-out golf in the Far East

Golf in the People’s Republic of China was banned during Chairman Mao’s regime. He deemed the sport decadent and elitist. Today, the Guinness World Records affirms that Mission Hills in Shenzhen, China, is the world’s largest golf club. Imagine ten 18-hole championship tracks in a region that was farmland and rice paddies a little over a decade ago.

Trying to emulate the commercial success of Hong Kong, Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta has been designated a “special economic zone.” This has meant a frenzy of foreign investment and the rise of tourism.

With consumerism replacing communism, the building crane has become China’s national bird. And as tourism grows, so to does the number of golf courses. China now ranks fifth in the world and second in Asia in number of golf courses (a major accomplishment, considering the first course opened in 1984). Today, about 1,000 new courses are already under construction.

Mission possible
Founded in 1994 and located about a half-hour drive from Hong Kong, Mission Hills, apart from being the world’s largest golf destination, is also an exclusive gated resiential community housing a five-star resort and a country club with a large tennis centre.

After getting our chopsticks under control over a Peking-duck lunch, our foursome decided to give our golf sticks a whirl on the Vijay Singh course. This rolling track incorporates a distinctive use of long sandy waste bunkers, first encountered on number four where an enormous beach lines the right side of a narrow fairway. The 553-yard signature number ten offers an opportunity to flirt with water from tee to severely sloped green, which meanders around two menacing ponds. Mercifully, we didn’t start out on the Greg Norman – designed course, purportedly the toughest in Asia.

You could spend 10 days at Mission Hills tackling a different course every morning. Jack Nicklaus led the way with the World Cup course in 1994. In the decade following, nine other top international golfers were commissioned to create the golf emporium. The variety is astounding – a bit like trying to work your way through a Chinese banquet – with tempting courses designed by famed golfers Jumbo Ozaki, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, David Leadbetter, Annika Sorenstam, David Duval, Jose Maria Olazabal and Greg Norman.

Dongguan it
Apart from its world-class courses and facilities, a golf getaway in China is an enticing opportunity to discover the idiosyncrasies of the culture and cuisine. Leaving Mission Hills, we headed north to Dongguan, known as the world’s number 1 factory hub for furniture, garments and computers. We passed billboards flaunting sexy designer labels, lush gardens and American-style modernistic skyscrapers.

We stayed at the five-star Cinese Hotel, its lavish lobby paved with miles of polished marble. Passing a glass aquarium wall in which dinner still swam, we were escorted into an elegant small dining room with a large state-of-the-art entertainment system.
I consider myself an adventurous eater but this trip expanded my culinary repertoire. In one sitting, pig’s intestines, whole roasted pigeons (heads, beaks and all) and steamed lotus flowers whirled by on the efficient Lazy Susan.

After dinner, I ventured up the spiral staircase to the Volvo Nightclub for a nightcap. Inside, instead of a swank nightclub, I spied a large hallway and a series of closed doors. The hostess offered me a menu for reflexology foot massages. At about $10 Cdn for an hour, what did I have to lose? I was led into a room with four reclining chairs all facing a wall with a big TV screen. A woman appeared with a wooden bucket of tepid tea infused with herbs in which I soaked my feet. As I watched CNN, her talented fingers probed every inch of my feet and calves. Reflexology has been practised in China since the fourth century BC. The theory is that every organ in the body is connected to a specific reflex point on the foot. Precise manipulation of these points can stimulate vital functions, improve circulation and soothe nerves. Who knows, maybe it can lower your handicap? Reflexology, like golf, was frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution; now it’s alive and well and back in favour.

Our guide insinuated that Dongguan was probably the richest city in China. Certainly, the Hillview Golf Club lived up to its posh reputation. Facilities include pools, whirlpools, restaurants, spa, and cigar and billiard rooms. Beyond the pink marble palace, 36 manicured fairways, designed by Jim Engh, awaited. Golf Digest named the North Dakota native Engh architect of the year in 2003.

We tackled the 7,019-yard Master Course with water features prominently on at least half of the fairways. The second hole is a memorable par-three 177-yard carry over a boulder-lined pond up to a tricky green. California-style mansions surrounding the course are part of the real estate development should you want to invest in a pied-à-terre here.

Lotus Land
Next came Guangzhou, a major automobile-manufacturing centre and, with a population of 11 million, the largest city in south China. Two-time U.S. Masters champion Bernard Langer designed the Lotus Hill Course where we teed off in the morning. A serene Lotus Pagoda built on a distant hill towers over the course where Langer’s artistic design takes full advantage of the undulating terrain, rock outcroppings and freshwater lakes.

Hong Kong Bargains
The most scenic way to travel from Panyu District, where Lotus Hills is located, to Hong Kong is via turbo jet boat. The trip takes about two hours and leaves you at the Kowloon pier.

Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China with the British handover in 1997. Fret not. It’s lost none of its cosmopolitan glitz – in this vibrant city there’s a hustle and buzz here like nowhere else on the planet.

I hopped the Star Ferry over to Central Hong Kong. The 10-minute crossing, which cost about 50 cents, is a magnificent ride, especially at night when the futuristic skyline is illuminated. My destination was Stanley Market – my favourite Hong Kong haunt for cashmere, silk and designer knock-offs. Buyer beware: haggling for a “Rolex” may seem like fun at the time, but your $20 bargain might stop ticking before you arrive home.

Owned by the prestigious Jockey Club, Kau Sai Chau is the only public golf facility in Hong Kong. Set on an eponymous island, tee times on the Gary Player-designed north and south courses must be booked up to a week ahead of time. A boat ferries golfers from the fishing village of Sai Kung over to the island course, but for a bird’s eye view, take the 10-minute chopper from the West Kowloon heliport.

We played the south course, which is one of the longest 5,906-yard par sixty-niners I’ve ever tackled. You’ll want a camera on number five – from the elevated tee, you launch your ball toward the China Sea. Carts are allowed on this roller coaster. On the more challenging championship north course, you’ll need a low handicap and strong legs. King cobras (snakes, not abandoned clubs) and pythons are good reasons not to go ball hunting in the rough. With a whopping demand of 125,000 rounds a year, Kau Sai Chau expects to open its third public course by 2007.

By the time the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch is lit, the Chinese tourism tycoons are hoping to attract 200,000 North American golfers annually. Chairman Mao is probably spinning in his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square.

Silk Holidays runs customized golf tours.
1-888-800-7455; www.silkholidays.com

Cathay Pacific flies from Toronto and Vancouver to Hong Kong.
1-800-268-6868; www.cathay.ca

Chinese National Tourist Office
1-866-599-6636; www.tourismchina-ca.com

Hong Kong Tourism Board
1-800-563-4582; www.discoverhongkong.com/Canada