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Popularity of golf rises in China

The first thing one notices about golf in China -- after marveling at the game's sudden popularity -- is how many players seem to have decent swings.

At the driving range, of which there are at least two dozen in the capital, one sees some truly awful, clumsy golf strokes. But it seems more common to discover players such as Li Jiao Mei, 36, and her 11-year-old daughter, Shao Yi Wen, who were hitting the ball with good form.

An outsider familiar with the frustrations of America's many terrible golfers might wonder whether the Chinese have discovered a golfing secret -- Confucian philosophy, perhaps? -- but the answer is simple. Li is new to the game. She took her first lesson the day before, so she had no history of bad golf to overcome.

She also had no bad advice from her husband to ignore; he started playing golf only last month with their daughter.

Pu Yi, China's last emperor, learned golf in the 1920s from his English tutor, but after that it was downhill for the sport in China through generations of poverty and anti-bourgeois communism.

Until now.

Golf is the latest fashion in Beijing, spurred by the broadening interests of the new middle class and boosted by the SARS epidemic. For two months people avoided crowded indoor areas, making golf's fresh-air appeal more tempting.

Driving ranges are filled with new golfers such as Li Xiao Bang, 41, a travel industry manager who needed a diversion when business dried up due to SARS. He comes to the range every day and has persuaded several of his friends to try golf.

Li said he won't be able to play as often when business returns to normal, but the owner of the driving range has no worries about the future of golf.

"They become addicted immediately to the game -- we call it `green opium,'" said Ye Hong, who owns the 3-year-old Beautiful Pine driving range with her husband. Ye learned about the game in golf-crazed Japan, where she has business interests, and she brought golf back to a neighborhood near an expressway on the fast-developing eastern fringes of Beijing.

When the driving range opened, there were few other buildings in sight. Now there are a dozen condominium complexes beyond the range, all inhabited by potential golfers.

"We predicted increases in our business, but we didn't expect what would happen," said Ye, as about 40 golfers took late afternoon swings.

The clientele has gone from 80 percent foreigners to 80 percent Chinese, she said. In addition to walk-up golfers who pay $3.75 to hit a bucket of 50 balls, she has signed up 2,000 members who pay up to $1,000 a year for unlimited access.

During peak periods, especially on weekends, all 60 or so tee boxes at Beautiful Pine are in use. To add capacity, Ye said she plans to build a second level.

At one of the tee boxes on a recent day, Li Jian, 42, and the owner of a trading company, was getting his fifth lesson from Ling Yi, a professional on the fledgling Chinese women's pro golf tour, who charges $50 an hour to teach, far more than the $12 an hour less accomplished teachers get in Beijing. Lately, Ling said, her schedule has been full.

Ling, whose best finish as a pro has been fifth place, likely was one of China's first teaching professionals. She was about to graduate from Beijing Sports University as a tennis major in 1994 when she finished first in a golf seminar taught by a visiting Japanese pro. The school sent her to Japan for two years to train.

At that time there were three golf courses in Beijing, plus one nine-hole course. Today, there are 30 or 40 courses, charging $40 to $100 in greens fees. Overall, China has about 180 courses, many in the south where the game took off first.

Two Chinese women players are training in Florida, hoping to beat the odds and join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour, while the China Golf Association is looking for another big boost if golf is added as a sport for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

T.K. Pen, a Taiwanese-American investor who owns the Orient golf courses in Beijing and Xiamen, estimated there are 100,000 golfers in China. The number should double in five years, he said.

"Compared to Japan and Taiwan, the growth has been similar," he said. The major challenge for the industry has been finding land for new courses, because suburban farmers have the political clout to resist selling if they don't like the deal.

"That was one of the reasons why our Beijing course was built on a trash dump site," he said.

Wang Ping, 40, an executive with an American Internet company, plays once a week for business and once a week for fun.

"We used to go to karaoke, or get a massage, when we needed to talk about business, but we got tired of that," said Wang, finishing up an early round at the well-maintained Orient course with his wife and a friend before rushing off to a 10 a.m. meeting.

"Everywhere is green, and the air is fresh," he said.


 

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