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China the largest growth market for equipment

China gobbles up one tenth of the world's titanium to feed red-hot industrial growth and one overlooked swing factor in the long term may be the country's love affair with golf.

Vendors from Callaway to Nike are counting on rip-roaring growth to drive a new generation of status-conscious Chinese devotees of golf, once the preserve of the rich.

That means brighter sales for producers of the metal from Rio Tinto to Sumitomo Titanium, given that one golf club head needs about 100 grams (3.5 oz) of titanium.

Demand for titanium sheets and bars is expected to jump 15 percent to about 8,000 tonnes in 2004, analysts say.

Going forward, the sky's the limit. The golf club manufacturing sector already uses up a tenth of the country's annual titanium demand. But golfers now make up less than 0.1 percent of China's population.

Years of economic growth is swelling the ranks of the middle class. The sport is gaining popularity so rapidly that Beijing fears it is displacing valuable farmland.

"China definitely has the potential of being the fastest growing market, given the low proportion of its population currently playing golf," said David Blennerhassett, head of research at Sinopac Securities Asia in Hong Kong.

China and India are expected to be the next drivers of a global golf club market now worth $4 billion a year -- and that could grow 25 percent annually for both countries over the next five years, according to U.S. market research firm E-Composites Inc.

Global titanium prices have been rising, buoyed partly by Chinese demand amid a lack of global supply. Ferro-titanium prices are now quoted at $9.75/10.25 a kg, up from around $4.35 at the beginning of the year.

"When we started making clubs in China a decade ago, we were one of the very few. Nowadays, everyone wants to make golf clubs here," said Su Bin, a manager at Taishan Golf Manufacturing Co Ltd, an array of glistening club heads displayed on his table.

His company cranks out 40,000 to 50,000 titanium golf club heads a year for Japanese firms such as Mizuno Corp.

China now makes 30 million clubs each year, mostly exported to the United States and Japan. The country began making golf clubs on a large scale only in the mid-1990s.

The United States, the biggest golf market, buys 50 million to 60 million clubs each year, while Japan, Asia's largest, has an annual demand of 12 million, analysts say.

But times are changing. China has become the world's factory producing everything from pencils to microchips.

It now supplies 25-30 percent of the world's golf club demand. That could mushroom to 70 percent in the next three years as more U.S. firms outsource their golf equipment-making operations, whilst keeping one eye on the domestic potential, analysts say.

The country makes less than 5,000 tonnes of titanium a year and must import the remaining 40 percent of its needs.

"We're becoming a key manufacturing base for golf equipment partly because many overseas companies are attracted to our low production costs," said Wang Xiangdong, secretary general of China Titanium Association.

Now Callaway and Nike, plus rivals Honma Golf Co Ltd and Fortune -- which owns the "Titleist" brand, are increasingly eyeing the domestic market.

China has only a million people swinging away at golf courses, analysts estimate.

That could balloon.

A nervous Beijing has suspended approvals on all new golf courses in the capital, the official Xinhua news agency has reported. The capital alone has 19 golf courses, with another 10 under construction, occupying 3,708 hectares of land.

"The game is now popular in Beijing, Shanghai and the coastal cities. We're excited about the growing market," Su said.

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