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  • Writer's pictureRichard Mandell

The State of the Game in China

It has been over a month since my return from Beijing and my battle with the Chinese CDC over me going over the fence early at the Quarantine Quality Inn. The time has given me some reflection on my first visit to China in search of new horizons in the name of golf architecture. Apparently I am not alone. Everywhere I turn, I hear of another architect going to China seeking work. At the rate things are going in the United States there may very likely be less than 100 new golf courses open for 2009. This trend will not improve for a good number of years, despite what everyone may want to think. Desire alone won't improve the golf business in the United States so many of us are forced to expand our "sales territory" beyond our borders.

I am fortunate to have two secured two new projects here in the Carolinas in the last month. Both are renovations, which is where most of our bread will be buttered for the foreseeable future. For me personally, that is where I have found the most success in the past few years anyway and our approach to economy is now the trend rather than the exception it was in recent memory.

Nonetheless like many others, I too have been seeking work in China. For the past eighteen months I have developed a working relationship with a golf company based out of Beijing as they are my agents seeking work on my behalf. The sales cycle is a slow one there just as it is here. Let's face it: we're not selling televisions. With so much money at risk, decisions should not be made lightly.

The golf business in China is growing by leaps and bounds in some eyes, yet in others the government has put the clamp down on all golf development in the People's Republic. Somewhere in between lies the simple truth: All golf course projects that are happening (and there are many on the drawing table) are happening on government-owned land that has been given to private developers. Whereas this may seem odd at first thought, it is not dissimilar from actions in the States. Many government agencies (as well as private developers) have created deals where the land is given free and clear (or for a nominal price) to someone to develop a golf course while that agency (or someone else) develops the land around said golf project (whether residential or commercial). It is simply known as economic development.

The primary reason given as to why China is suddenly the next golf hotbed is that the nation is developing a burgeoning middle class and the locals are now developing free time to pursue objectives beyond the promotion of the mother land. Yet in contrast to this are the types of golf courses currently being developed in China. The golf courses we visited were all what we would consider being the very top end of the scale here in America. Conditioning was as good as eighty percent of the private courses over here and hospitality ranked an A+.

The difference in achieving this high standard is what makes me think that golf in China is a little more economically feasible: A plethora of manual labor. In the United States the name of the game is all about doing the most with the least number of employees, maximizing efficiency. But because the one commodity China overflows with is people, it doesn't matter how many people accomplish the job, only that the job is accomplished with the utmost quality and performance.

That mantra is clear at the courses we visited. Personal attention was overflowing from the moment our car pulled up to a very fancy clubhouse entrance through every step of our journey: To the first tee, through lunch, upon putting out on the final green, to our timely exit. Young ladies caddied for us, yet carts handled our golf bags. As in America, the caddy did all the jobs required of them: clubbing us with the right distances, reading putts, replacing divots and replacing ball marks. But with all due respect, I quickly realized that in a nation where golf is literally in its infancy, I shouldn't rely too keenly on my caddy to provide me the crucial statistics to get the ball in the hole. Regardless, they did their job with an eagerness and attitude rarely seen in America and with more knowledge of the game over time, their ability to provide the intangibles will surface.

On the first tee, it is expected of the golfers to warm up with a brisk round of light calisthenics led by one of the caddies. Typical back stretching and other light exercises loosen the body up. In addition, we engage in what I can only describe as some light "hand to hand combat" movements (at least that is what they appeared to me). From there, we flipped a tee to see who had honors and we were off. From here on out on the golf course, there was very little difference between a round of golf in Beijing and a round of golf in Baltimore.

At the turn, it is expected to stop for lunch. For me it is an exercise in restraint and a reminder that others in the world see golf as something beyond a competition with your inner self and the landscape. Instead it is a social event and an opportunity to bond with your fellow golfer. Of course, the regular foursome at home is testament to that as well.

I was surprised at the level of design and construction of the golf courses we visited. Most glaring was that many of the golf holes had some semblance of strategic merit, more so than many golf courses here in the United States. Yet despite this dedication to the roots of the game, it is apparent that the golfing establishment is lining up to expand the game through the very same channels which saw such sustained growth over the last decade in the States.

The primary objective with many of the courses we saw and the projects we discussed with prospective developers centered on high-end memberships and the ability to sell real estate. The only plus to this situation is that the China golf market is in its very infancy and there is room to grow the game within these objectives. At some point in the next few decades, though, the pendulum will swing away from growth and stare right down the line of growth for real estate's sake and nothing else. Hopefully our expertise and our lessons learned here in America will help stem the tide at that point and steer the ship to sustained growth of the game and expansion for the right reason: The love of the game.

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