Seven days. 180 holes. 105 degrees. One man takes on Mission Hills, the world's largest golf complex, and nearly overdoses on "green opium."
(Fortune Magazine) -- On my first dat at Mission Hills in southern China, on one of the resort's ten courses, I knock my ball into a sand trap, where it rolls next to the parched carcass of a wayward frog. In a glance, I grasp the circumstances of the creature's demise. He must have tumbled into the bunker in the cool of morning, when dewy fairways glistened with promise. I picture him struggling to scale the sandy slope as the midday sun climbs above the trees -- and bakes him to crisp. It is an ill omen. By day's end I have run afoul of at least a dozen bunkers, lost as many balls to other hazards, and watched my skin turn an alarming shade of pink. Little frog, I feel your pain!
And so begins my quest for glory in one of the most arduous contests in golf: the Mission Hills Golf-a-thon. To grasp the concept of the Golf-a-thon, think Pebble Beach meets Heartbreak Hill. Imagine Iron Man with five-irons. I have come to Mission Hills, an oasis of green nestled amid the industrial sprawl of China's southern Guangdong province, not just to compete but to understand the growing allure of golf, that most quintessentially bourgeois pastime, in the world's largest communist nation. My mission: to hack my way around the world's biggest golf resort, all 180 holes of it, in a single week. In August. At the peak of typhoon season.
Mission Hills may not be golf's most famous destination. But what it lacks in cachet, it makes up for in ambition. Founded in 1992 by Hong Kong paper tycoon David Chu, the resort boasts ten courses, each designed by big-name players like Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and David Duval. Tourists disappointed to learn that the Great Wall isn't really visible from space might consider rerouting their China trip to include a visit to Mission Hills, which is. The resort sprawls over 3,076 acres,
the equivalent of five Central Parks. Its 180 holes traverse more than 62,000 yards. The resort employs 2,500 caddies, a small army of instructors, and on a good day books 3,000 rounds of golf. In 2004, Guinness World Records certified Mission Hills as the largest golf resort in the world, surpassing North Carolina's Pinehurst, which offers a mere eight courses.
It's not just that Mission Hills is big. The golf is world class. The Nicklaus course, which opened in 1994, was the first in China to win U.S. PGA accreditation and served as the venue for the 41st World Cup the following year. The other courses -- from the 155-bunker wonder designed for famed sand player Spaniard Josť Maria Olazabal to the brutally booby-trapped Norman course -- offer a range of challenges. Chu has also created two night courses, playable until 2 A.M., by installing floodlights on selected holes. And if that weren't enough, he has broken ground on two more courses.
That a single club could get this big this fast is, as Bill Murray would surely put it, a Cinderella story -- but one that could happen only in China. The country didn't get its first modern 18-hole course until 1984, nearly a decade after the death of Chairman Mao. Today there are more than 400 courses at 320 resorts, with hundreds more in development. The China Golf Association estimates the number of mainland golfers at more than 500,000, and a rash of new golf magazines attests to growing interest in the sport. In 2004, Zhang Lianwei, a former javelin thrower, became the first mainland golfer to play in the Masters. This year BMW, Volvo, and HSBC will each sponsor tournaments in China. Indeed, the 2006 European Tour includes no fewer than six tournaments in China, more than in England and Scotland combined.
Chu launched Mission Hills in 1992, the year Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping affirmed China's commitment to opening its economy to the outside world. As investors rushed across the border, Chu foresaw that China would soon have its own business elite whose members would want a place to wheel and deal and flaunt their wealth. His first breakthrough was persuading Communist cadres in Shenzhen to lease him a swath of scrubland. The next came when Mission Hills won the right to host the World Cup, prompting local leaders to build a four-lane highway connecting Chu's resort to the Hong Kong border. The road brought new factories, which in turn meant more golfers. In 2002, with work on a fifth Shenzhen course nearing completion, Chu doubled his bet, securing a second parcel from the adjoining municipality of Dongguan.
Brian Curley, a Scottsdale course designer whose firm sketched the master plan and oversaw construction, marvels at the Pharaonic proportions of the task: 2,000 workers, 250 excavators, and 700 dump trucks toiling in two ten-hour shifts, seven days a week. "It was not uncommon to find a mountain gone overnight," Curley recalls. When all ten courses were finished in 2004, Chu launched the Golf-a-thon.
The first Golf-a-thon was a small affair, drawing only 300 contestants. But word is getting around, and more than 1,500 will slug it out this year, with the 100 best scorers squaring off for a championship round in September. To qualify, contenders must complete nine of the ten courses between May 1 and Aug. 31, the steamiest four months of the year. To those hardy enough to play all their qualifying rounds in less than a week, Mission Hills bestows an Iron Man certificate that earns recipients, in addition to bragging rights, a big discount on a massage. My determination to join this proud order is inspired by the knowledge that the 2005 Golf-a-thon champion, Canadian schoolteacher Michael Baker, played nine courses in 72 hours. How hard could it be?
A little hubris is a dangerous thing.
Head up, grasshopper
sunday night, before my quest begins, I visit the Mission Hills branch of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy to get a few tips. Head instructor Linford Jacquelin, a tanned Australian, needs only a few moments for his diagnosis. "You swing like Ben Hogan," he says. That turns out not to be a compliment. What he means is: "Golf has moved on since your grandfather played it, mate." He gets me to straighten my shoulders, stand taller, and take a shorter, higher backswing. Within minutes I'm hitting a nine-iron with almost robotic accuracy. But he rebuffs my request for help with my driver. "Get this right, and we'll see." I feel like young Caine in a Kung Fu flashback: "No, Grasshopper, you are not ready."
The next morning, on the Vijay Singh course, I hit my irons longer and straighter than I've ever hit them before. But whence this new curse upon my driver? Since high school, I've had a knack for belting 250-yard tee shots that finish in a lovely leftward fade. But this new wisdom from Master Linford has left me with a vicious, screaming slice. Fortunately my caddie, Lillian Wang, has eyes sharp enough to track my errant shots--and no qualms about searching for them in thickets filled, according to signs posted around the fairways, with snakes. At Mission Hills, as at most other Chinese courses, nearly all caddies are women, typically in their early 20s, from poor farms and villages in China's hinterland. It's a coveted job: Tips and salary can amount to $300 or $400 a week, more than twice the wage of a factory worker. Within three holes Lillian has figured out exactly how far I can hit every club in the bag, and I'm learning to parse the caddie argot: Haoqiu! ("Good shot!"), "Nice on!" ("You've reached the green!"), and the recurrent cry of Kanqiu-ah! ("Fore!").
By the end of the Singh course, I'm weary. Eighteen down, only 162 to go! As I trudge back to the clubhouse, assistant operations manager Paul Fung flags me down with news both bad and good. The bad news is that the Faldo course will be closed all week for maintenance; to play 180 holes, I'll have to pick another course and play it twice. The good news is that he has tracked down Michael Baker, last year's Golf-a-thon champ, and can sneak us both out onto the Norman course right away.
Baker, lanky and affable, teaches economics at the Hong Kong International School, where he is also athletic director. He smacks his first tee shot farther than I can see. When I ask about his Golf-a-thon victory, he shrugs. "It all just seemed to click," he explains. He managed three rounds each day by playing through without stopping for lunch. It occurs to me there's another reason Baker gets around the course so fast: He takes about half as many strokes as I do.
The Norman course lives up to its reputation. The rough is so thick that if your ball strays even a few inches from the fairway, it's as good as lost. Not that finding it would matter; nothing in the bag is going to help you hit out of this grass until Callaway starts making machetes. On the shuttle bus back to the clubhouse, Baker recalls that when he played the Norman course for last year's Golf-a-thon, he parred the first eight holes, then bogeyed the next six. "Consistency," he muses, "is the secret of good golf." I don't know about that. I'm playing consistently -- badly.
Tuesday morning dawns hot and humid. The course designed for Japanese champ "Jumbo" Ozaki is an aesthetic delight. But surviving it demands the detachment of a Zen master. For my lack of same, I am punished on the 6th hole. The green lies only 90 yards from the tee, but at the bottom of a deep canyon on a walled island at the edge of a lake. My approach shot soars safely over the water, plops a few yards behind the pin, and bounces to a tiny fringe at the back of the green. Keen for a birdie, I tap the ball with the tiniest bit of strength. It rolls slo-o-owly past the hole, then picks up speed as it crosses a break beyond the pin, rolls off the green, and disappears over a ledge. Sploosh! Is it possible to commit seppuku with a Ping putter?
That afternoon I'm joined by Tenniel Chu, the executive director of Mission Hills and the younger of David Chu's two sons. For all its size, Mission Hills remains a family business. Chu's eldest son, Ken, serves as vice chairman. Daughter Carol oversees marketing. But Tenniel, who has trained at the feet of guru David Leadbetter and worked at Sawgrass Golf Resort in Florida, is the family's only serious golfer. I can tell Tenniel is doing his best to give me "face." He suggests we play the Leadbetter course, supposedly one of the resort's most forgiving. Graciously, he neglects to keep his own score. I manage to par a few, and for the first five or six holes we play almost evenly. But then the cursed slice returns. Kanqiu-ah!
Many Mission Hills courses are ringed with fields of brilliant yellow flowers that grow thicker than kudzu. Tenniel tells me they're radillia, a species native to south China. On Leadbetter, I lose three balls to the little suckers in two holes, which prompts photographer Greg Girard to ask if I'm familiar with what Van Gogh said about yellow. Pray tell? "He called it the color of pain and insanity."
After dinner I rush back to the driving range in search of enlightenment from Master Linford. He has only a few minutes between clients. He hands me the nine-iron and studies my swing. "It's your head," he declares. As I contemplate the profundity of this insight, he takes out a driver. But instead of giving it to me, he holds the club an inch from my forehead and orders me not to bump it when I swing. Within a few minutes, I am hitting the ball perfectly every time.
Wenesday brings a march through Olazabal's sand traps with Hong Kong toymaker Howard Chiu, whose Guangdong factories make, among other things, the board game Operation. He tells me that since he joined Mission Hills ten years ago, the club has become his second home.
For now, golf remains an indulgence available only to China's super-rich. The masses must make do with only a handful of municipal courses, while membership fees at private clubs often exceed $100,000 -- about ten times the income of a well-heeled middle-class family. Because golf's elitist image clashes with President Hu Jintao's effort to show he cares for ordinary people, the sport is effectively taboo.
Though my energy is starting to fade, there's no denying the narcotic effect of what many Chinese call "green opium." Later that afternoon I set out for the Annika Sorenstam course, where I soldier on in rain and almost total darkness until the ninth hole, where the marshals order me to jump ahead to the last six lighted holes. It feels as if I'm golfing through a night game at Yankee Stadium.
Swingin' in the rain
I awake Thursday to the sound of rain -- great sheets of it cascading off the rooftops of the hotel. Typhoon Prapiroon is here. The operations managers close all courses. I'm grateful for the break. My cleats are soaked. I've developed golf-ball-sized blisters on each heel and aches in muscles I didn't know I had. I'm also having difficulty making a fist with my left hand.
But I am loath to lose an entire day to the elements. So at 3 P.M., when the storm seems to subside, I dash off to the World Cup course. But as I slosh from hole to hole, the winds return. The drizzle gives way to heavy rain. The cups fill with water. By the time I reach the 12th hole, gusts tear at the trees and puff my raingear until I look like the Michelin Man. My chip shot lands on the green with a splash. I three-putt against the current. A marshal, head bowed into the tempest, demands that we turn back. It's just as well. To go any farther, I'd need an ark.
By Saturday afternoon I am exhausted but unbowed. My rhythm is coming back -- I can feel it. As an alternate to the closed Faldo course, I return to the Norman course to salvage a little dignity. And mysteriously, it happens. On the back nine everything seems to come together. As I advance through the canyons, I begin to hit the most amazing shots. Hole after hole, stroke after stroke, not just off the fairway, but also the tee. The caddies, astonished, shout, "Haoqiu!"
On Sunday, with the sun again blazing, I return to complete the holes left over from the Sorenstam and World Cup courses. I play well, but it's nothing like the magic of the previous night. When the scores are tallied, I've barely cracked the middle third of the rankings. It's safe to say I won't be playing in that final Golf-a-thon round in September. But next year? I may be back. After all, once you've sampled green opium, it's hard to kick the habit.
MISSION HILLS: A WEEK IN THE LIFE
Think there's no such thing as too much golf? Witness our duffer's journey through 180 grueling holes, and get the lowdown on China's best new courses.
Designed by Singh, who won the U.S. Masters in 2000, the course meanders through a valley and is generally quite flat. But the par-5s are killers, especially No. 3, which is 605 yards with a 150-yard sand trap aptly called the "beach bunker," and No. 10, with a green perched on a rock wall.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 112 YARDAGE: 7,006 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 2, a tricky par-4 approached over water
Norman has designed what many consider to be the toughest course in Asia. The fairways are narrow canyons, many holes have vertical drops from the tee over densely vegetated chasms, and the rough is made up of virtually impenetrable grass. There are many snakes, but for most players, no birdies.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 138 YARDAGE: 7,228 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 4, a wicked par-3 precipitously perched over a deep valley
More than any of the other nine courses, Ozaki's demands the concentration of a Zen master. The greens, which are tiny, are nestled amid the deceptive tranquility of sand and water, helping you attain detachment from earthly concerns--like your ball and scorecard.
CLAY'S SCORE: 120 YARDAGE: 7,024 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 13, which runs through a bunker-filled canyon
This is the first course designed by golf teacher David Leadbetter, and he says his goal was to force players to "use every club in their bag." Precise approach shots are a must, as the greens are large and full of mysterious angles, though the sand traps on this course aren't too frightening.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 114 YARDAGE: 7,117 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 16, which has a waterfall behind the green
JOSE MARIA OLAZABAL
To remind you that he's one of the world's best sand players (and you're not), Olazabal has carved no fewer than 155 intricately designed bunkers into this course--26 of them on No. 15 alone. This course is also the longest at Mission Hills. Forget the golf cart. Rent a camel!
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 119 YARDAGE: 7,356 SIGNATURE HOLE: The 15th hole, boasting 26 bunkers and an island green
Don't be fooled by the fact that this is Mission Hills' shortest course. Playing it well requires near-surgical precision (not coincidentally something Sorenstam specializes in). With holes draped over a cluster of steep hills, the tees on this course have some of the most beautiful vistas at Mission Hills.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 106 YARDAGE: 6,603 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 11, a 406-yard par-4. Way downhill, bunkers galore.
Designed by Jack Nicklaus and completed in 1994, this course was the first in China to be accredited by the USPGA Tour. In 1995 it served as the venue for the 41st World Cup, the first international tournament held in the Middle Kingdom. Difficult on an average day, it's murder during a typhoon.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 112 YARDAGE: 7,232 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 16, a long par-5 requiring two over-water shots
With flat bunkers and broad fairways, this is supposed to be one of Mission Hills' most forgiving courses. The first nine holes are laid out on the uphill slant of a valley, while the back nine head downhill toward the clubhouse. A stream runs through several holes--a water hazard just the way nature intended.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 107 YARDAGE: 7,000 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 10, an uphill dogleg right with a multitiered green
Designed to evoke the flavor of South Africa, Els's homeland, this course combines dense thickets of trees with wide, manicured fairways. Cut the left corner trying to hurry home on No. 18, and you'll wind up in a waterfall. You may also spend more time than you'd like searching for lost balls in the jungle.
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 105 YARDAGE: 7,049 SIGNATURE HOLE: The tee on the 4th hole, with a panoramic view of the resort
The tenth course, designed by Nick Faldo, was closed all week for maintenance during my trip, so I chose to pay a second visit to the Norman course. Thankfully, on my second pass through the canyons and grasslands of this beastly course, my game clicked. I was amazed. So was my caddie. %
PAR 72 CLAY'S SCORE: 101 YARDAGE: 7,228 SIGNATURE HOLE: No. 4, though Norman's shortest hole, wins on drama.
BOOKING YOUR CHINA GOLF TREK
GETTING THERE: Mission Hills is about 30 minutes from Shenzhen's Baoan International Airport, but many overseas visitors find it easier to cross over from Hong Kong. For about $100, the resort will send a car to collect you at Hong Kong International Airport or a downtown hotel.
WHEN TO GO: The courses are open year-round. Weather is best March through May and September through December.
WHERE TO STAY: Rates at Mission Hills range from $165 to $460 per night. If money's no object, try the Imperial Suite for $1,388.
PLAYING TIME: Greens fees for hotel guests run $140 per round on weekdays, $210 on weekends. Caddies and carts cost an additional $42 and are required.
FOR NON-GOLFERS: The Shenzhen clubhouse offers Western, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants as well as a bar and multiple pools. There's also a first-rate spa, 51 tennis courts, and a truly mammoth playground for kids.
TO RESERVE E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.missionhillsgroup.com.
WHO'S YOUR CADDIE?
Tu Xuerong, my caddie on the Norman course, is the daughter of a tofu maker. She left her village in rural Guangdong province six years ago to go to Shenzhen. Now 25, she's one of Mission Hills' elite "Gold Caddies."
How do you know so much about golf?
I didn't know anything about golf when I started. To be honest, I couldn't believe anyone would actually pay money to do this.
So is this a good job?
It's hard work. You're exposed to the elements all day. It's ruined my complexion. But it's better than working in a factory.
How much do caddies earn?
With tips, I make about 3,000 yuan (about $360) a month. I'd make more if I were cuter. In the caddie world, beauty matters a lot.
Anything you don't like about caddying at Mission Hills?
Snakes! The forest courses on the Dongguan side are crawling with them!
Who are your best clients?
Rich mainlanders. They're the big tippers.
TIPPING AND CHIPPING IN CHINA
In a country where the preferred term for capitalism is "socialism with Chinese characteristics," it should come as no surprise that the capitalist pastime of choice might have a few cultural peculiarities too. From betting to losing, here's a primer for visitors.
Be prepared to make a little -- well, okay, maybe not so little -- wager on the round.
Expect that your partners' approach to score-keeping might not be exactly Sarbanes-Oxley compliant.
Mobile phones are a given on courses in China. The propensity of a phone to jangle in the middle of your backswing rises in inverse proportion to your capacity to ignore it.
Don't forget to tip your caddie. Anything less than 100 yuan (about $12) for an 18-hole round is bad form. They're worth every fen.
Don't outplay your boss.