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BUILD IT AND THEY WILL COME

Henry Fok & Armold Palmer

When Henry met Arnie, vision and resource joined with expertise and talent to lay the foundation for golf in mainland China.

Henry Fok, one of the richest men in the world, singled out Arnold 'Arnie' Palmer, one of the game's greatest exponents, to design the first golf course in post-Revolutionary China. The product of their union was Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club, near Chungshan City in Guangdong Province, which officially opened 21 years ago.

In the intervening two decades there has been a remarkable boom in golf course construction, with current estimates putting the number of clubs in China at 250. One of them, Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, is the biggest in the world with 10 different 18-hole courses now open for play.

China has put the brake on development, as it looks into projects that pushed ahead without proper permission, but signs are that the ban will be temporary.

Palmer, famed as much for his entrepreneurial spirit and business acumen as his legendary expertise on the golf course, which won him an 'Army' of fans, is acutely aware of his unique position in China's golfing history.

He acknowledges, too, the huge part played by Hong Kong tycoon Fok and the hundreds of Chinese labourers who used rakes, shovels and their bare hands to fashion a championship golf course out of a featureless tract of land.

"We (Palmer Course Design) were contacted by the Henry Fok organisation in Japan," recalled Palmer. "Mr Fok had seen our work in Japan and asked me if I would consider designing him a championship course in mainland China. I said: 'Yes, we would be delighted to'.

"The land was one half flat and one half severe mountain slope. All of the features of the course were designed. It was not what you would call a great or natural golf course site and it was a pretty tough build because it involved so much hand labour. We are very proud of how it all came together to create what now looks like a very natural site."

Palmer had two meetings with Fok to discuss the history-making project and visited the site twice during the construction period.

"The fact that it was part of history was one of the reasons I agreed to design the course. As it has turned out, we really did lay the cornerstone for golf in mainland China and we are all very proud of that," said Palmer, with obvious pride.

"I met Mr Fok on two occasions. We had a lunch and a dinner together. He was a great host and a true visionary for the game in Asia. Mr Fok's construction of Chung Shan golf course was a very high financial risk endeavour, but its success has always made it the tycoons' club in South China."

 

Palmer is still in awe of the workers who built the course without the benefit of heavy equipment or knowledge about the game.

"The course turned out much better than I expected. It was built by hand. They had no equipment (bulldozers, trucks, tractors or loaders). Imagine for a moment that this project was built by men and women using shovels and rakes, working at a task they had never done before," commented Palmer.

"I played the course and was very satisfied with the hole strategy and the putting surfaces. The golf course has a very nice rhythm."

Chung Shan is among 200 courses worldwide on which Palmer has put his stamp and, 21 years on from building the first course in China, he is waiting for the right opportunity to re-enter the market.

"We are currently looking at two new sites in China, in Beijing and Shanghai. We are being patient because the Central Government has a ban on new projects at the moment, while they come to terms with a number of golf courses that did not have proper permitting. We also have an existing project on Hainan Island that is designed and waiting on funding for construction," revealed Palmer.

"China has tremendous potential as a golfing market. We are hoping for the type of growth in the industry that avoids booms and busts, while encouraging high standards in construction and maintenance.

"One of the best policies China has undertaken is to require that a comprehensive masterplan be prepared for a site prior to granting approval of a golf course permit or land-use conversion."

 
Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club

Chung Shan, the first brick in golf's 'Great Wall' of China, celebrates its 21st anniversary this month.

To mark the 20th anniversay in 2004, Peter Tang, who coached the first generation of golfers in China, and Chung Shan native Liang Wen-chong, currently starring on the Japan Tour, featured in a tournament matching local players against professionals from China and Hong Kong.

Luminaries from the golf industry in China and elsewhere, plus VIPs and celebrities, competed in the following day's Pro-Am tournament and attended a celebration dinner.

Needless to say, there was much talk about the rise of the game in China and how a pastime deemed to be a 'prime example of Western decadence' has become one of the country's fastest growing sports. And it all started when Henry met Arnie.

John Crean  
November 2004  


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