Course Closures In China

Posted on by Ben Bryant WGCA contributing writer

The Chinese government sent chills throughout the golf industry last week when it announced the closing of 111 golf courses throughout the country.  The purported reason for the closing was that the courses in question had been illegally using water and developing land without permits.  But the Chinese government has a long history of opposition and animus when it comes to golf, the roots of which stretch back to the founding of the Republic.

Chairman Mao was quick to ban golf in 1949 when he first gained power in China.  Golf was derided as the sport of “millionaires” and served as a symbol of western oppression.  Eventually, limitations were lifted in the 1980s.  Still, the sport’s popularity remained low.  Perhaps it was difficult for an individual sport to gain traction in a country with a communist philosophy and over a billion people.  At any rate, beginning in the 2000s, interest began to grow and golf experienced a boom.  The Chinese government once again moved to limit golf, outlawing the construction of new courses in 2004.

This ban was loosely enforced, however, and new golf courses began to spring up across China.  Hainan province – dubbed the “Hawaii of China” – was one of the focal points of these efforts.  Tourists from Russia, Japan, and others flocked to Hainan with the promise of world-class courses and low greens fees.  Moreover, in 2004 the Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzen province became the largest golf facility in the world with a total of twelve golf courses.

It is precisely the growing popularity of golf which makes the recent closures so strange.  Although the use of water and land are of great importance, there could be other motivations behind these closings.  Some small towns have begun to see cultural changes as farmland is razed over to make fairways and people engage in new livelihoods.  Some endangered species have come under threat by this rapid development, as well.  Most ominous is the looming housing bubble forming around real estate associated with golf courses.  It should also be noted that as recently as 2015 the Chinese government banned members of the ruling Communist party from joining country clubs and playing golf during business hours as part of an anti-corruption crackdown.  So, the closing of these 111 courses could be part a larger effort by the government to reinforce the idea that golf is still considered a sport-non-grata.

Despite the uncertainty these course closings create, there are still signs that the future of golf is still bright in China.  International tournaments, such as the one played at the aforementioned Mission Hills facility in Shenzen, continue to increase interest in the game.  Female Chinese players like Shanshan Feng are also driving curiosity, and it is only a matter of time before a Chinese man makes it into the ranks of the elite, too.  Most importantly, however, although only a small percentage of Chinese currently play golf (around 0.7 % or roughly a million people), it is estimated that over 20 million will take up the sport by 2020.  Despite these challenges, China continues to offer the greatest promise for the future of golf.

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