"China Golf: A Brave New World"

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HAINAN ISLAND, China -- In China, the phrase to blossom means growth or doing well in business, “Cheng Zhang,” in the native tongue. But these days it’s been superseded with the more commonly heard expression of, “Fore!”

That’s because the world’s most populous nation, 1.3 billion strong, has become golf’s newest, fast growing and most promising frontier.

This massive, communist-ruled nation, a place many of today’s baby boomers grew up calling Red China, has now fully embraced this once shunned capitalist leisure time tool in new and ever-growing numbers.

“Everybody plays golf now. Businessmen play it, university students play it, we had 50 kids here for our first junior tournament,” said Hainan Golf Association Secretary and Vice-Chairman Michael Wang, 41, a former university professor and Ph.D., who only took up the game five years ago himself.

“Party officials don’t play golf, it is forbidden for them, but not for anybody else.”

Since the first mainland Chinese course opened in 1985, (Hong Kong Golf Club was the first Asian course in 1895) American designers led by Jack Nicklaus, who opened a Hong Kong office in 2003, have arrived in full force and the results have been impressive.

So far, Nicklaus has nine courses open for play in China, ranging from the capital of Beijing to the East China province of Guangdong, with another six under construction.

Nicklaus signed on four new courses in Beijing alone last year, including Pine Valley Golf and Country Club II, destined to be the most prestigious and private course in the country.

Combine seemingly unlimited land, cheap labor plus great oceanside views and you have some excellent, value-priced layouts, far more advanced that most Western golfers could imagine.

A case in point on this scenic island is the BFA (Boao Forum Asia) golf course located in Sanya, the most southern part of China, less than 100 miles east of Vietnam and Laos.

The sprawling par 72 course, designed by Simon Hobday and opened in 2003, could well be set in Palm Springs with wide fairways, numerous palms, dozens of massive white sand bunkers and a distant mountain range.

But on a sunny mid-March afternoon, the course, which is affiliated with a nearby luxury Sofitel hotel, is largely empty of golfers despite its double-figure green fees and helpful female caddies, at rates that would seem positively thrifty to U.S. resort golfers.

In fact, the island which has a population of 500,000 with an equal number of crazed drivers and overly brave pedestrians, now has 15 courses open for play and four more expected to be ready by the end of the year with currently just 500 native golfers according to Wang.

For now, the courses are mainly filled by Koreans and Japanese, two countries with plenty of golfers and not nearly enough land for courses. But the Chinese goal is much grander and further east.

Americans are seen as the great golfing goldmine for the emerging China market.

U.S. tourism to China is still in its infant stages, but an innovative California company, Carlson Wagonlet-Dream Quest Travel, began the first golf-only Dream Quest China tours this summer, offering a wide variety of top public courses and luxury hotels.

By the time the 2008 Summer Olympics arrive in the capital city of Beijing, the goal is to bring 200,000 American golfers and millions more tourists here annually according to Chinese tourism officials.

Ah, the Olympics. Mentioned endlessly by the Chinese as the reason for the seemingly non-stop orgy of resort building and golf course planning.

For the first time in its thousand-year history, China will welcome the world, if only for a three-week span in the summer of 2008, and they’re doing everything in their power to be ready for the Olympic guests and their golf clubs.

Nicklaus already has several outstanding courses all over the mainland including the largest golf course complex in Asia, Mission Hills, an expansive facility an hour north of Hong Kong. The Nicklaus course, his first Chinese effort opened in 1994, is part of a bevy of layouts mostly designed by IMG clients including Nick Faldo, Sergo Garcia, Annika Sorenstam with the first layout from David Leadbetter and an Ernie Els course that Nicklaus is also assisting.

While the courses are located in mainland China, special trains and temporary visas are available for day trips from Hong Kong. While warming up for your Mission Hills golf adventure, a visit to the most unique City Driving Range in downtown Hong Kong is certainly in order.

This huge, four-story structure with 45 spaces on every level offers everything you could expect from the best practice facility – just supersized. On a warm Friday night, you’re offered a 7:14 p.m. tee time, yes tee time (and don’t be late) with the balls looking like hundreds of fireflies arching into the night sky under the floodlights.

Just a 45-minute jetfoil ride from Hong Kong is the small island of Macau. Styled as a Chinese Las Vegas, the only place in China where casinos are allowed, it also shares some resemblance to its Southern Nevada soulmate with top golf courses.

Among the best is Macau Golf Club located on the ninth floor, yes the ninth floor, of the Westin Macau and includes several holes situated on the shores of the South China Sea. The views are naturally spectacular, but the best is the par 3, 17th hole which measures 239 yards from a back tee with an elevation drop of 70 feet from tee to green and the sea clearly visible in the distance.

On Hainan Island, the most impressive and certainly the most scenic course is one totally renovated by Wang four years ago for $1.2 million U.S. dollars. The Oceanside Golf Club features four holes directly by the South China Sea and an instantly make-ready driving range laid down by club employees with green Astroturf mats on the beach for golfers to drill practice shots into the ocean.

The Meshia Mayflower golf course in Haikou City was designed by Colin Montgomery and features a two-story white clubhouse which looks like it could have come straight from the set of Battleship Galatica. The words, large, massive or huge probably don’t do it enough justice, plus the combination clubhouse/hotel/spa/restaurant features lights on its back nine holes to allow play late into the Chinese night.

The Yalong Bay Golf Club, a Robert Trent Jones design opened in 2001 and located in the resort district of Sanya, offers lights on all 18 holes for day and night play.

The Boao Golf and Country Club, less than a mile from the BFA layout, appears to have been hacked directly from the surrounding jungle which still surrounds the par 72 course. The young, female caddies, common all over Asia, but especially eager and willing to help in China, don’t look a day over 16, but claim to be in their early 20s. They all wear their distinctive wide brim pith helmets decorated with photos of kittens, violins or other female favorites.

Of course, after nine holes, there is plenty of time for some native cooking, aka noodles of nine different varieties including the honestly named, “Noodles in Desirous Sauce.”

About the time you hear the Paraguayan musical trio slip easily from Willie Nelson to Santana, you sit back, watch the palms sway in the breeze, look at the huge resort with its multiple swimming pools, water slides and kids play areas and have a hard time convincing yourself you’re actually in China.

The Sheraton Sanya Resort could easily be transplanted in one massive piece from Hawaii, Fiji or the Caribbean, but this is golf’s next frontier emerging at a speed almost faster than the out-of-control drivers which populate this island.

Welcome to golf’s future. Cheng Zhang and Fore!