Foreign Correspondence: Golf Exploding In China? That's A Fair Way To Put It

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Tenniel Chu, 34, is executive director of Mission Hills China, which owns and operates 15 golf courses at two resorts in southern China. Chu was born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto. Since 2001, he has been with Mission Hills China, his family's business, based near Hong Kong in Shenzhen, China.

Q. We know basketball has exploded as a sport in the People's Republic. But golf?

A. Let me put the golfing scene here in perspective. This year is the 26th anniversary of golf development in China, and Mission Hills has been in the forefront. China is still in its infancy for growth of the game: There are about 4 million golfers here, and about 400 clubs. There's about a 50 percent annual growth rate, and the prediction now is that probably by 2020, China will surpass the United States and have the world's largest golf population.

The major American, European and other professional tours all have offices here to promote their businesses here.

Who golfs? It started with the elites, but more and more upper and middle-class people play. Learning to golf is a top priority.

Now that golf is back as an Olympic support, government interest and support has risen tremendously. We're hoping to win medals at the 2016 games.

Q. Do the courses look like those in North America?

A. Mission Hills has employed 12 signature designers. We first built five courses designed by five designers — each from a different continent. So far, we're the only resort in the world to do this. The first designer we chose was Jack Nicklaus.

To celebrate our 10th anniversary, we completed our 10th course. For our 12th year, we completed two more. One was designed by Pete Dye, the other by Zhang Lian-wei, China's national golf hero. He was the first golfer from the People's Republic of China to play in the Masters.

We recently expanded our development to the island of Hainan, the hottest spot in China for tourism. Hainan is called "the Hawaii of the East."

Q. Is golfing there reflective of Chinese culture?

A. The emphasis in the Chinese experience is on service and hospitality. Ours is the first golf club in Asia to have 1-to-1 caddy service. This is compulsory. Our Shenzhen resort has nearly 10,000 employees; nearly 3,000 are caddies.

Q. Do golfers play differently?

A. There's the social factor — networking, mingling. Golf helps them position themselves in their businesses. Right now in China, there are two golf channels on TV. They're on 24-7 and show past tournaments, teaching programs and so on.

Q. What does a round at your courses cost?

A. On average, $150-$200.

Q. Busiest days of the week on your links?

A. On a weekday, there are about 2,000 rounds on average. On a peak day, 3,500 rounds — that's capacity. Our courses are open 20 hours a day, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Q. Golfing at 2 a.m.?

A. Yes, we have 36 holes lit with floodlights. The last tee time is midnight; you can play until 2 a.m.

You'd be amazed at the nighttime activity. People here work all day, just like in the U.S., and the only time they can play is at night. It's a treat for people on a tight schedule. Instead of going to a driving range, they'll say, "Why not play a round?" They might have dinner with friends and say, "Hey, let's go play 18 holes."

Q. What do Chinese golfers say instead of "fore"?

A. They say "fore." It's the international phrase.