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'Green opium' hooks wealthy duffers

Under Mao, golf was banned as bourgeois and elitist. Now, MICHAEL GRANGE finds, the new upper class is proving those charges right -- and loving it

Globe and Mail Update

CHANGPING, CHINA — A tall, black, wrought-iron fence keeps the hoi polloi at bay at the Pine Valley Golf Resort and Country Club, a 400-hectare playground an hour's drive north of Beijing in the shadow of the Western Mountains.

If the fence isn't discouragement enough, there is the statue perched on a four-metre-high, white concrete wall at the front gate, featuring a Roman-styled chariot with four life-sized stallions in full snort, the centurion's raised whips captured forever curling in midair.

Inside the gate lies China's most exclusive golf address, where members and their guests have their run of not only the Jack Nicklaus-designed course (his son's design company is adding 27 holes), but a scale copy of the White House, the "executive wing" of an on-site six-star hotel.

"It's like a centrepiece," says the club's general manager, Bob Guthrie. "Everybody has to have something that they're known for, that is immediately recognizable, and that's ours."

It's a place where the caddies -- young girls from the countryside housed in dormitories -- are outfitted in Burberry plaid uniforms, and there are enough spa beds between the hotel and the 9,000-square-metre clubhouse for nearly all of the 100 or so members to be massaged, polished and exfoliated simultaneously.

There's a pet hotel and a helicopter pad, and, in the White House's backyard, what appears to be a copy of the Lincoln Memorial, with a stand of Doric columns overlooking an amphitheatre and a 300-metre reflecting pool.

The use of two of democracy's more potent symbols shouldn't be mistaken for a latent egalitarian spirit. Pine Valley members -- such as Wang Jun, chairman of China International Trust and Investment Corp., son of 1980s Communist vice-president Wang Zhen and son-in-law of Deng Xiaoping, the late paramount leader -- have paid the equivalent of $125,000 to get in the door, with corporate memberships going for $315,000.

And they like it that way.

"Golf in China is for the country-club class, the elite," says Mr. Guthrie, a Vietnam War veteran from the Detroit area who spent a decade running golf clubs in Thailand before opening Pine Valley on behalf of its owner, a Thai-based conglomerate, last year. "They're the ones that can afford to take up the sport."

While few clubs in China can rival Pine Valley's over-the-top luxury, it is merely the pinnacle of an exploding industry that is the exclusive preserve of the country's rapidly emerging class of superrich.

When the People's Republic was founded 55 years ago, golf was outlawed, considered too bourgeois by the Communist Party leadership. It has come on strong in the New China, where bourgeois is in.

The first Communist-era club -- Guangdong's Zhongshan Hot Spring Golf Club -- opened in 1984, primarily to cater to Western businessmen. More than 200 have been built since then.

"In the first 10 years, we got 10 new courses," says Cui Zhi Qiang, secretary-general of the China Golf Association. "In the last 10, we've got 190."

As many as four times that number are expected to be built in the next 10 years.

"They call it 'the green opium' -- it's an addiction," says Ling Yi, a golf pro at the Easy Golf Academy, an elegant brick-and-glass practice range on the outskirts of Beijing. "And for businessmen, the fairways and the greens are like a meeting table."

Chinese golf has put itself on the map. In June, the Guinness Book of World Records recognized Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, a sprawling resort with 10 courses, as the largest single golf facility in the world.

And Jade Dragon Snow Mountain Golf Course in Lijang, at 7,726 metres in length and 3,100 metres above sea level, claims to be both the longest course in the world and the highest in Asia.

It's estimated that as many as 1.5 million Chinese have tried golf, and perhaps 200,000 play regularly. The country's top male professional, Zhang Lianwei, competed in the vaunted Masters tournament in April, and is listed among Forbes magazine's Top 100 Chinese celebrities.

There's no sign, however, that golf will soon be a sport for the masses. Quite the opposite, in fact: These days, golf in China is popular because of its elitist connotations, not in spite of them.

A day at the golf course has become the preferred way to entertain clients, impress the boss and further business relationships, not to mention take a spin in the BMW.

"There are a couple of reasons golf is exploding here," says Russell Probert, a Welsh businessman who 10 years ago started the Beijing Golfers' Club and has watched the sport be transformed from a mostly expat activity to one that is just as popular or more among local Chinese. "But one is that it's seen as kind of a fast track, a way to get to the top. Where else do you get to spend four hours with the boss or business partner?"

Golf is so hot and the demand for access to courses -- all of which are private or semi-private -- so intense that memberships have become commodities to be bought and sold like condos, with the value of some reportedly increasing by 30 per cent or more over the past five years, and no ceiling in sight.

"I have six memberships in Beijing alone," real-estate developer Nan Long said one sunny September afternoon after a round with three friends and business associates at Beijing Hong Hua International Golf Club. "I like to play, but they're also good investments."

There have been some growing pains. Last winter, the government announced that it would accept no applications for new courses and planned to investigate many of the existing ones because of unauthorized land grabs by local officials eager for economic development.

The rapid growth of golf is also a concern in a country where arable land and water are at a premium.

Less ominously, because virtually all of China's golfers have taken up the sport recently, and without a broad base of old hands to guide them, the game's subtle etiquette and integrity have been early casualties.

Scorekeeping has been known to get creative, particularly among beginners, Mr. Probert says. And if caddies weren't mandatory at almost all the clubs, it's unlikely a ball mark or divot would ever be repaired.

All this will diminish as Chinese golfers' experience increases, but no one expects the constant presence of cellphones -- a no-no at most high-end North American courses -- to change any time soon.

However, there are aspects of the Chinese golf experience that ring true for almost any busy professional smitten with the game. In a go-go economy, money isn't always the biggest barrier to getting out on the greens.

"I used to play more a couple of years ago," says Li Song, a Beijing businessmen who was out with his wife at one of the city's growing number of driving ranges one sunny Sunday morning. "I would play about once a week, mostly with friends and business partners.

"But lately I only practise. I'm too busy with work -- I have no time to play."

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