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The growing popularity of golf in China

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5th January 2017

The People’s Republic of China is on the verge of a ping dynasty.

The Sybarites has the low-down on how and why the Chinese are going golf crazy.

China may be famous for blockbuster sights such as the Summer Palace, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and Terracotta warriors but it’s fast becoming known for its interest in golf too.

Chairman Mao might have banned golf for its bourgeois decadence back in the day, but fast forward to 2017  and it’s all change. Golf is no longer considered a crime in China and consequently the country has seen its golfing enthusiasts swell from around 50,000 only a few years ago, to more than three million today.

The rise of the sport in China can partly be attributed to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to reinstate golf for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games - a sporting event that China is famously keen on.After the Sydney 2000 Olympics, China’s sporting big wigs launched  Project 119 – a campaign focused on training athletes in individual sports (such as kayaking and canoeing),  in which the Chinese have traditionally underperformed.

However, while golf’s Olympic inclusion has helped raise the profile of the game that Mark Twain once hailed as “a good walk spoilt” in China, there are other factors in play.

Golf’s surge in popularity in China can also be attributed to the growth of disposable income: by 2015,  over half of China’s population will have an annual income of over $7,300 meaning they can now afford to get to grips with golf which was previously considered to be an expensive sport.

The game - often described as ‘green opium’ - got a further boost in China during the 2008 recession. While America and Europe plunged into economic doom and gloom, the Middle Kingdom managed to remain immune to the global financial turmoil. This resulted in golf architects and PGA tours alike flocking to the country to take advantage of China’s ability to shrug off the financial crisis.  
Case in point? Take Tim Finchem – golf’s departed PGA Tour commissioner (he stepped down 1 Jan 2017) – and his decision to relocate the Omega World Cup event to Mission Hills Shenzhen at the height of the global financial crisis. Since then, the A-list likes of Catherine Zeta Jones, Hugh Grant, and Matthew McConaughey have all played and stayed at Dr. David Chu’s mammoth Mission Hills Haikou – a golf club that’s one and half times the size of Manhattan.

Mission Hills Haikou
Mission Hills Haikou

However, the real reason that a great number of Chinese people are partaking in the sport isn’t due to Hollywood royalty. Rather it is down to the phenomenal success of Chinese golfers like Li Chao, Shanshan Feng, Christopher Tsui, Li Chao, Zhang Lianwei (the first Chinese player to compete at the Masters), Guan Tianlang (who, at just 14 years of age, became the youngest player ever to make the cut at a men's major championship) and Liang Wen-Chong  - who famously declared: “Let the world know that there is professional golf in China” - who are doing for golf, what Yao Ming did for basketball.

All told, the future of golf in China looks positive. Or as Golf Inc magazine puts it: “China is the focal point of the sport’s future growth.”

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