"The China Syndrome" - Golf World - Sept. 13, 2010 - By Dan Washburn


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A visit to a construction site along golf's next frontier reveals a country where course building is both banned and booming -- and where hope competes with fear every day


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"The China Syndrome" - Golf World - Sept. 13, 2010 - By Dan Washburn

  1. 1. Profile TMixed MessagesOn any given day a course project inChina can be filled with activity—orsuspended because of governmentedict or malfunctioning machines.26 September 13, 2010 GolfWorld.com
  2. 2. The chinaSYndromeA visit to a construction site Along golf’s next frontier revealsa Land where course building is both banned and booming—and where hope competes with fear every dayTBy Dan Washburn, Photographs by Ryan PyleThe man wearing a tank top and surfing shorts would normally have been busy shap-ing a golf hole, but on this day, with a bag of clubs slung over one shoulder, he spentthe afternoon playing some of his recent creations. This wasn’t an off day—he just hadnothing else to do. “Dozer is down again,” he says with a shrug. Nearly three years into his first course in China, this veteran American shaper(those are the guys who mold the earth and turn the architect’s drawings into reality)has come to expect delays, the same snags that bedevil projects throughout the fast-developing country. A broken bulldozer is just the start. Progress has been stalled byeverything from typhoons to temples. And lingering land disputes continue to renderfive holes off-limits to the construction team.
  3. 3. “We were originally going to be here a year,” the shaper list this morning, and I had 87 golf courses on there. Thirty- says. “That was a while ago.” seven of those are what I would call hot and new leads.” There are, however, worse places to kill time than Hainan, Perhaps most telling about that quote is what didn’t ap- China’s tropical island paradise in the South China Sea. And pear alongside it—a name. This happens often when cov- increasingly for professionals in the struggling world of golf ering golf development in China. Few people speak on the course construction, if you aren’t working in Hainan or some- record, especially about a project not yet completed. There where else in China, you probably aren’t working. is an uneasy sense that everything could come to a screech- Fewer than 50 new courses opened in the United States ing halt at any moment. The Chinese have a saying about last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. Com- unwanted attention: “Man should fear fame like pigs fear pare that to China, where an estimated 250 courses are getting fat.” No one wants his course to become the fat pig. currently under construction and about 600 more are in This holds true even in Hainan, where a Beijing-backed various planning stages. Simply put, China—where golf was push to create, by 2020, an international tourism island on banned until 1984—is propping up the entire golf course in- par with Hawaii or Bali has given certain golf projects the dustry, and being able to maneuver through the country’s official go-ahead, according to regulations issued late last minefield of challenges is fast becoming the key to profes- year. Roughly the size of Maryland, Hainan is currently sional survival. Of course, figuring out China is never easy. home to a couple dozen courses, and anywhere between 100 This may be the only country in the midst of a golf boom. But and 300 are anticipated. But even Mission Hills Group, the it’s also a place where new courses remain technically illegal. Hong Kong-based golf developers who rarely shy away from Transition Zone When courses are constructed in China, the land is not the only thing being transformed. For affected villagers (right) a new course sometimes means an end to an old way of life. It’s easy to roll your eyes at China’s latest course mora- attention, felt reason to keep tight-lipped about their long torium, crafted in 2004 to halt growth the government rumored mega-project in northern Hainan (when completed, labeled as “excessive” and “blind”—the number of courses it is expected to include more than 20 courses covering an has tripled to more than 500 since the supposed ban was put area roughly one-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan). in place. But, much to the surprise of those who expected Prior to the grand opening of the initial three courses at golf’s newfound Olympic status to lead to an immediate gov- Mission Hills Hainan in March, the company refused to pub- ernment green light for the sport in medal-crazy China, the licly acknowledge it even had plans on the island. past year has seen courses come under renewed scrutiny. This brings us back to that shaper who was waiting for his Beijing, in an effort to get a handle on an industry it let spi- bulldozer to get fixed. For the past three years he has been ral out of control, has sent “golf police” to examine courses working on a course occupying a fantastic property, com- and construction sites. Some projects have been put on hold plete with beaches and boulder outcroppings, on the Hainan indefinitely, others shut down entirely. And the state-run coast. Those involved with the project say it’s “the best site” media has seen an uptick in stories about “illegal” courses. they’ve ever seen, that it’s “a once in a lifetime” opportunity, Where this all is headed no one knows, but even during that the finished product may well be China’s top course. this recent crackdown, the amount of new course activity Still, they talked to Golf World on the condition of anonymity. in China remains dizzying. “I’m there every month, and the They can’t be named. The course can’t be named. (Indeed, number of leads and new projects is just astronomical,” says because of the sensitivity, accompanying photos do not de- one course-construction executive. “I counted my prospect pict the course.) There is too much at stake.28 September 13, 2010 GolfWorld.com
  4. 4. The cloak and dagger routine, while perhaps necessary, schedules for this one. In China, unless you have the Beijing is unfortunate because it creates a false impression of im- Olympics or the World Expo coming up, a schedule doesn’t propriety. Environmentalists would likely applaud efforts mean [anything].” this course is making to clean up nearby waterways, heavily Disagreements usually come down to money. In China land polluted by human waste and scores of tiny fish farms, and is owned by the government, not the villagers, who in this restore ecological diversity to the land—the sandy soil was case have called the coastline home for centuries. Develop- rendered lifeless after many years of water-intensive water- ers deal directly with local officials, who then are responsible melon farming. The obstacles and issues faced by this project for compensating displaced residents, who are well aware the are no different than those encountered by most forms of real land’s actual value dwarfs the amount that gets filtered down to them. Recent Chinese media reports sug- “In china, unless you have the beijing gest between 20 to 50 percent of annual rev- enues enjoyed by local governments comeolympics or the world expo coming up, from the sale of land use rights. a schedule doesn’t mean anything.” Residents of one village say they were paid a one-time sum of about $9,000 per estate development throughout China. But that doesn’t make person. In addition, each family was given a new home—con- them any less problematic. crete two-story townhouses in a relocation community on the Just ask the course’s project manager, who had never heard outskirts of a town 15 minutes away from the shore by car. of Hainan before arriving in 2007 eager to work on his first Hainan is a poor province—according to official govern- China course. “I thought I was going to hit the ground run- ment statistics from 2009, the average rural worker earns ning,” the American says, laughing at his naiveté. Instead he only $696 a year—and some villagers were happy to take the found himself sitting in an office trying to finalize contract de- deal. Although their new gridded community is a bit soul- tails with potential subcontractors. The Chinese are famous less compared to the lush and leafy shore, it does represent for their haggling, and the process dragged on for nearly five a clear move toward modernity. It has reliable electricity, months. That was nothing compared to the 18 months he had plumbing, a sewage system and better schools. to wait for a proper piece of equipment for his head shaper. “We moved because the majority moved,” says one elderly He finally tracked down the right kind of bulldozer in Hong man who converted the first floor of his home in the reloca- Kong, but for the first two months it was broken more than tion neighborhood into a convenience store. “Life in the village it ran. Breakdowns, still not uncommon, require a repairman was not easy. It was unclean. Fishing was hard work, and the to travel from a dealer more than two hours away to fix the money was unpredictable. It’s a more comfortable life here, machine with “bubble gum and bailing wire” until the proper but I miss the freedom of the village. I miss the ocean.” parts arrive from Japan. Those who have made the move remain skeptical about While specialized equipment is hard to get in China, labor- the future: What happens when the money runs out? They ers are not. A small army of more than 300 mostly female will still largely be a community of uneducated fishermen workers—around 10 times the workforce for a similar project and farmers and, after the development is completed, they in the United States—earns around $6 a day to help build will have nowhere to fish or farm. The course and new hotels this course, performing by hand many tasks a machine would are expected to create thousands of jobs, and they have held typically take care of elsewhere. Most of the workers have recruitment seminars in town, interviewing prospective never even seen golf on television, however, and that discon- caddies, cleaners, landscapers and security guards. Still, lo- nect can lead to delays. cals, for whatever reason, express doubt the jobs would go But most frustrating to the project manager are the com- to them. “They won’t hire dirty villagers like us,” one says. plications that exist far beyond his control. China is home to Some villagers chose to express displeasure with their the world’s fastest growing major economy, and it is develop- displacement by refusing to leave. For two years a small but ing at breakneck speed. The country is also home to nearly vocal contingent has lived in makeshift homes atop the rub- 1.4 billion people, more than half of whom reside in rural ar- ble of their former village. They were unsatisfied with their eas. Along the road to progress, people are certain to get in compensation packages and assert that they weren’t given a the way. Thousands of villagers had to be relocated to make voice, that they were forcibly removed from their homes, that room for the course and the development that surrounds it. their complaints to the government went ignored. This is nothing out of the ordinary for China, which not “Money cannot solve the problem now,” says a villager, who long ago moved about 1.5 million people during construction claimed they were holding out for either the right to stay or of the world’s largest dam. But it is never an easy or comfort- a stake in the development. “If we move out, the place will able process. Disputes are inevitable and time-consuming. never be ours again. Our ancestors left us this piece of land. “I stopped trying to have a schedule on everything a long It can’t just be taken like this.” time ago,” says the project manager, who hopes the course Most know development is inevitable on Hainan. It’s the will finally be completed late this year. “I have done so many way they’ve been treated during the transformation that the 30 September 13, 2010 GolfWorld.com
  5. 5. villagers—whose anger is aimed largely signers cited a proposed Hawaii courseat local government officials—resent. of his that has been in legal limbo for“I leave the Chinese politics to the Chi- two decades and expressed doubt thatnese,” the project manager says. “I stick the Hainan project would have everto what I know: building a golf course. been approved had American-styleWhen they say I can go work a hole, I regulations existed in China.work a hole.” “Throughout the country you are see- But even when he gets the go-ahead, ing what happened [in the U.S.] duringobstacles remain. For two years, the our Industrial Revolution,” he said. “Youmiddle of the 11th fairway featured a see progress and a lot happening in asmall temple. It belonged to an elderly very short amount of time. When thatcouple, and they eventually moved in, happens, I think there is a give and take.”afraid it would be removed before they In many places, a shoreline develop-were properly compensated. The team ment would have to jump through aworked around the structure, and every complex and time-consuming series ofday the project manager would smile and regulatory hoops, from city to county towave at his new neighbors as he drove state to federal, in an effort to receivepast. It wasn’t long before the couple in- proper approvals. There would alsovited him into the temple for dinner. be hurdles to negotiate from coastal The construction site also was home to commissions, community groups andhundreds of graves, some centuries old. environmental organizations. But inMounds of earth occasionally marked by Hainan? “There are no official environ-a modest engraved stone, they require mental challenges here at all,” says thecareful relocation. Villagers receive com- developer’s rep, noting that while ratherpensation for each grave that gets re- strict land planning laws exist in China,moved, and negotiations over the payout they often are haphazardly enforced.for a single tomb can hold up work on an “It’s up to the owner if you want to beentire hole for six months. The project responsible or not.”manager has a limited Chinese vocabu- At this Hainan course the developerslary, but he knows the word for “grave.” were determined to do things right. They He also knows the word for “fake.” Be- brought in an environmentally mindedcause money is involved, and villagers see firm to do the master planning, andan opportunity to cash in on their land, their initial surveys confirmed what thephony graves frequently appear on the project manager observed upon arrival:construction site overnight. Entire villag- “There was no ecosystem here. Every-es, too, have popped up since work began thing was raped and pillaged.”on the project, full of opportunistic squat- The designers and the constructionters seeking their own displacement team set out to change that. They setpackages. Some cunning villagers hope large areas aside for landscaping andto double-dip. They receive compensa- planted only species native to the is-tion to leave their village one day, and the land. They created wetlands and rein-next day establish residency in another troduced mangrove forests. In the pastvillage that has yet to be relocated. year they’ve seen birdlife begin to return. “Often, as is the case in China, you just Seashore paspalum grass was chosenhave to take a deep breath and relax,” because of its ability to tolerate saltwa-says a Western representative for the de- ter and gray water. Fairway runoff wasveloper. “Things will happen, but in good designed to flow back into the course’stime. You can’t force things. The country irrigation ponds and, once the hotels andis simply run differently.” residences are completed, treated efflu- Those differences, however, make ent will be used for irrigation.some aspects of building a course much “It’s all going to be worth it,” the shapereasier in China. For example, this proj- says. “Actually, I’ve really learned to likeect would likely still be tied up in red it here. I think we are going to look backtape if it existed on the coast of, say, at this in five years and say, ‘God, too badCalifornia. One of the course’s chief de- it didn’t go on another year or two.’ ” GW