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Golf - All the rage in China

It's pre-dawn on a Saturday morning when Jason Tong lugs his bag of golf clubs onto a train.

Tong, like thousands of others in Hong Kong, has been swept up in the golf craze of recent years and he's heading up to southern China where the sport has spawned dozens of clubs and driving ranges.

Golf memberships go from HK$1 million (US$128,205) in tiny, land-scarce Hong Kong, where its four private golf clubs are almost exclusive playgrounds for the super rich. Its sole public course is, predictably, always packed.

For enthusiasts like Tong, who's not yet quite wealthy enough, it's a natural swing north to the mainland, where golf is also the rage but prices are lower.

Rapid economic development has helped line the pockets of many Chinese in southern coastal cities, particularly Shenzhen, which is one of a pioneer group of special economic zones kept outside the reach of China's lumbering bureaucracy since 1979.

Cash-rich and keen to hob-nob with the wealthy, a growing number of mainland Chinese now hold memberships at golf clubs.

Golf facilities, many with courses designed by big-name stars such as Jack Nicklaus, have mushroomed.

There are now more than 100 driving ranges, up from five in the early 1990s, in Guangdong province, which neighbours Hong Kong. Golf clubs have jumped to 57 from less than 10.

Compared to Hong Kong, a membership in an average mainland Chinese club costs around HK$200,000.

While guest golfers in Hong Kong cough up HK$2,000 to play an 18-hole round over the weekend, an entire weekend in a mainland club costs a flat HK$1,500, with meals thrown in.

"How else can you corner a client for four and a half hours, clinch a deal and not have to go home drunk?" said Tong, who travels frequently to Shenzhen to ink contracts on the green.

Helen Li, who plays regularly with her business contacts, said: "We not only fit in about three games of golf (over the weekend), we also go for supper later. When you share a hobby with a client, the relationship gets closer."

At the posh Mission Hills Golf Club -- which straddles the prosperous Shenzhen and Dongguan districts in Guangdong province -- about 60 percent of its 2,000-odd members are from Hong Kong. Twenty percent are foreigners residing in Guangdong, and more than 10 percent are mainland Chinese.

More than 1,000 golfers play Mission Hills on a regular day over the weekend, and over 500 on an average weekday, up from a daily few dozen when the club started in 1992, according to Mission Hills chairman David Chu.

China's golf industry was shaken up during the Asian economic crisis, with acquisitions, mergers and even closures of some smaller golf clubs on the mainland.

"There were several mergers and acquisitions, especially of golf courses which could not withstand the economic turmoil," said one industry source, who declined to be identified.

Stronger ones offered cheaper fees. Mission Hills, which charges US$150,000 for its priciest gold membership, launched an "Advantage membership" during the crisis which places certain restrictions on when members could play.

Golfing in China takes on the personality of the place -- traits rarely seen in golf clubs anywhere else in the world.

True to the Chinese workaholic nature, golfers can play almost around the clock at Mission Hills, which turns on special floodlights on one of its four golf courses from dusk to 2 a.m. The day's first daylight tee-off is at 6 a.m.

Cheap labour is readily available, and Chinese golf clubs command armies of workers -- caddies, security guards, gardeners, and the like. Employers, however, must also provide housing, food and clothing -- in keeping with China's communist welfare system.

At Mission Hills, about a dozen caddies in uniform tracksuits and wearing baseball caps stand at attention next to their golf carts, waiting for the next golfer to hop on.

Miss Li, 18, from an inland Chinese province and one of the golf club's 380 caddies, gets paid a mere 30 yuan (US$3.65) every time she completes a four-hour round of the game.

"How much we earn depends on how many golfers we get every day and tips. Some days we get nothing if there aren't enough golfers to go round," said Li, who earns up to 1,500 yuan each month, much of which she sends home to her parents.

"Work is tough, and working hours are long, but the environment here is better than slogging in some sweatshop."

Golf clubs in China also sell the rich lifestyle through residential properties on their grounds.

Luxury apartments at Mission Hills go from HK$650,000 -- a steal for some in Hong Kong where a new cubbyhole flat costs HK$3 million, but still out of the reach of most mainlanders.

For the envious but smart-thinking set on the mainland, some have gone about it another way to claim a part of the high life, without paying very much for it.

Peering over the walls of Mission Hills are bungalows and low-rise apartments that have sprung up in recent years.

"People in China are going crazy about golf. They build their homes right outside our walls just to boast they got a golf course view!" a Mission Hills employee said.

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