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China's Big Break

The Mission Hills Hainan complex is part of a golf revolution on the island that could eventually lead to 100 courses there
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Saturday Night Live: How it Shapes Our Politics & Culture, September/October 2011

(continued from page 2)

If bigger is better, then biggest must be best. At least that’s the logic of Dr. David Chu and his children, a clan that is transforming the landscape of golf in China and, increasingly, on the global level as well.

For an impressive first act, the Chus built the world’s largest golf resort, Mission Hills, which they then parlayed into a luxury brand name that carries enormous clout with Asian consumers. But their encore is even more ambitious. The Chus are leading a charge to turn a tropical island in the South China Sea—an island few Americans have ever even heard of—into the world’s No. 1 hotbed of golf, on such a grand scale as to rival Scotland or Ireland as a vacation destination. You might just want to start applying for your Chinese visa, because their newest resort could make the 216-hole Mission Hills Shenzhen look quaint by comparison.

The original Mission Hills in Shenzhen, just outside Hong Kong, entered the Guinness World Records book as the planet’s largest golf resort after opening its 10th course, passing Pinehurst, North Carolina, the longtime record holder, by 36-holes. Mission Hills has since opened two more courses, bringing its tally to an even dozen, all in one massive resort complex, offering more golf than world- class destinations Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes and Kohler—combined! Its success inspired the Chus to create Mission Hills Hainan.

Often called China’s Hawaii, Hainan is a large island just off China’s south coast, the nation’s southernmost point. It is China’s smallest province, and also the newest, separating from Guangdong in 1988. The Hawaii comparison isn’t exact; Hainan is larger than any of the Hawaiian islands and apart from the newly opened golf courses, the tourism infrastructure is still in its early stages of development, even though millions of visitors come each year. Its largest city, Haikou, has a population more than twice the size of the 50th State. Like Hawaii in the1980s, Hainan is experiencing an economic boom and land rush, with buyers mostly from China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia and Russia buying up new beachfront luxury condos faster than they can be built. Stories of mainland Chinese walking into sales offices and buying half a dozen condos at a time, paid for with shopping bags full of cash, are not apocryphal, but routine.

One reason for the popularity is Hainan’s uniqueness in the region. Rather than “China’s Hawaii,” it might be fairer to call it “China’s Hawaii, Florida, Southern California and Caribbean.” China lacks warm weather beaches, and its major cities are bitterly cold in winter, like their Russian and Japanese counterparts, which is why Hainan is so appealing. It is a short, easy flight from almost anywhere in the Pacific Rim, with two major international airports and last year, while Hawaii received 6.5 million tourists, Hainan got 20 million. But the latest fuel for development was a decision by the Chinese government, effective December 31, 2009, to designate Hainan as a special economic zone for tourism development. In bureaucratic speak, that essentially waives roadblocks to development, like zoning and permits, and the result has been something of a Wild West gold rush. As part of this tourism initiative, the government proclaimed golf as Hainan’s official provincial sport.

“If you look at it in a vacuum, and imagine that 10 years ago somebody said ‘the next big golf boom will be on China’s Hainan Island,’ we’d have said they were crazy,” says Joe Passov, Golf Architecture and Course Ratings Editor for Golf Magazine. “China has this Texas way of thinking, bigger is better, but even by China standards the scope of what is going on in Hainan is mind-boggling. Building is fast and furious and on such a grand scale. There’s another big development on the island; Clearwater Bay is just a couple of hours away from Mission Hills, and Morgan Stanley Asia invested $20 billion.

They have one course, a second almost done and a third planned. There are also two Tom Weiskopf courses on Hainan, Bill Coore is building a course there, it’s unbelievable.” Other designers currently working on the island include Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Tom Doak, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. and Peter Thomson. “The market is totally dead in the U.S. right now,” says golf journalist Michael Patrick Shiels, author of The Works of Art, about prominent designer Arthur Hills. “Hills’ firm has no projects at home right now, not a single one, but they are busy in China. If you are a golf course designer and you are not working in China, you are not working.”

One of the first to realize and capitalize on China’s potential was Schmidt-Curley Design from Arizona, Mission Hills’ go-to builder for all of its 22 courses in Shenzhen and Hainan. The firm was the first to open an office on Hainan. Schmidt-Curley also designed the Clearwater Bay course here and has several others in various stages of development around Hainan. “There are at least 25 courses on the island right now,” says Brian Curley, but that is changing almost monthly. Last January, the Foreign Affairs Office of Hainan Province described a “100-course future for the island,” noting in a press release that given the current boom, this future could “soon become a reality.”

“China is the biggest thing happening right now in the world,” says Passov, “and I absolutely think it is for real. The government was not too fond of golf, but now that it is going to be in the Olympics, they have gotten behind it. The newly middle- and upper-class Chinese who now travel elsewhere will stay home and other folks in the region, from Australia and other Asian countries, who want the biggest and the best, will go there. The quality stands up well, and Mission Hills Hainan’s tournament course will stand with the best in Asia. For tourists, the level of hospitality has soared, there are good hotels getting it right. I could totally see combining a week of sightseeing in Northern China with a weeklong golf vacation in the South.” By the South, he means Hainan Island.

While China’s tourism initiative has certainly spurred growth, the current boom precedes it by a few years and can be traced to the Chus’ arrival. “We realized the potential for tourism in this province and planned the project years ago. The new government policy just came last year. With or without the new government policy, the impact of Mission Hills will continue to spur other development around us,” says Ken Chu, Dr. Chu’s son and Vice Chairman of Mission Hills Group. “Since we began working on this project, other people have been buying up land and prices have increased three to four times, just since we started. A property outside our gate was auctioned off for the highest price ever paid in China.”

Mission Hills Hainan held its grand opening last March, and the facilities are new and sparkling. There are now 10 courses open, the first luxury hotel (more planned) has 560-rooms, and the resort features a dozen restaurants, a luxury shopping arcade and an enormous, opulent clubhouse. Like Shenzhen’s, it is modeled on Florida’s TPC Sawgrass and packed with golf collectibles, including signed Master’s and Major flags going back decades, trophies and endless photos of the world’s great courses. Tiger Woods warrants his own wall of fame. The hotel has an indoor pool complex, foot reflexology center, billiards and mah-jongg rooms, and an elaborate kids club. An enormous pool complex with sandy “beach,” a lazy river pool and twin erupting volcanoes seems straight off the Las Vegas strip. A lavish and elaborate “spa village” next to the hotel features over 100 individual thermal mineral pools fed by the volcanic island’s underground hot springs and dozens of open air treatment villas. The spa alone is as big as many hotels and Mission Hills Hainan eclipses every U.S. golf resort in scale.

The official line is that the resort will have “only” 10 courses, but while the Chus are coy about their plans, the fact that everyone involved keeps calling it phase one suggests more to come. So do maps of the master plan, which show the entire current resort occupying less than half the allotted land. During my visit I heard this repeatedly referred to as Mission Hills Hainan North, and saw a map with an equally large Mission Hills Hainan South adjoining it. Brian Curley says, “We have room here in the North for 12, 13, maybe 14 courses. Then there is talk of Hainan South, another similar sized project, just conception.” Ken Chu says, “It’s tough to give an exact number. As the government’s initiative keeps growing the tourism infrastructure here, it keeps growing our potential.”

The Financial Times reported that the Chus have amassed more than 30 square miles of land, or about 20,000 acres, considerably larger than Manhattan. From my hotel window on a high floor, I could literally see golf holes under construction stretching to the far horizon. The Financial Times also reported that the resort has 22 courses planned, while the Foreign Affairs Office put the “rumored” total at 30. Given that before Mission Hills Shenzhen nobody had ever built more than eight in one place, and five was considered an enormous golf resort, any of these estimates are staggering and unprecedented. Mission Hills Hainan could be two to three times the size of its sibling, now the world’s largest.

Since any more courses are a long way off, the pressing question right now becomes, is Mission Hills Hainan worth visiting?
Like its predecessor, the facilities are first rate, and just weeks after opening the hotel, food and amenities were ready for prime time. One other attraction is value: the average room rate in high season is less than $200 per night. The finish and design is flush with wood and marble and fresh flowers, the rooms are state of the art with large walk-in showers and oversized soaking tubs, on par with any Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton, and the overall effect is more intimate and resort-like than the Shenzhen resort, which has a bit of a convention feel. While the original Mission Hills has the air of a massive golf club with hotels as amenities, Hainan is exactly the opposite. No discerning traveler would be disappointed in the food, service or lodging, and while the atmosphere is exotic enough to be interesting, menus are in English, more than enough staffers are multi-lingual to make the resort easy to navigate and, overall, it is very welcoming.

The rest of Hainan is a bit of a different story. Very little English-speaking tourism exists here, nearby Haikou is a relatively unattractive city and the visitor infrastructure, much of it new, is geared towards Asians and Russians—outside the resort you are far more likely to find menus in Cyrillic than English. There are beaches, but once you leave Mission Hills, you are highly unlikely to mistake Hainan for Hawaii. The most desirable tourist areas are on the south coast, near Sonya, three hours away.
So if you go, you go for the golf, which is very good. Instead of a theme based on designers, like the original Mission Hills, the concept at Hainan is one of thematic architectural styles, with one course evoking the Golden Age of American design, an homage to Seth Raynor, C.B. MacDonald and A.W. Tillinghast. Another is based on Melbourne’s famed Sandbelt courses.

Another recalls classic U.S. parkland designs, complete with Oakmont Church Pews bunker. There is even a Pete Dye homage, but all are originals, not hole-by-hole copies or “tribute” courses. The courses really succeed in capturing their respective aesthetics, and the Golden-Age version is a perfect example, with square greens borrowed from Raynor’s Yeamans Hall, the classically shaped bunkers emulating the work of horses and plows, and even the wicker flagpole baskets of Merion. The variety is endless and the design differences between the courses obvious, but so are their similarities, in the form of black lava rock—lots of black lava rock. No one here seems overly concerned with the inevitable issue of running out of architectural styles because the real theme, the thing that sets the golf here apart, is volcanic Hainan itself.

The entire site was a black lava field, which is impossible to hide, and the golf courses have been built at great effort and expense. As Ken Chu noted after just six courses were finished, “Every piece of grass you see here was brought in. Building on top of black lava is very expensive. Our total construction budget for Shenzhen was $600 million, and we have already exceeded that here. The total will probably be three or four times that.” That’s billions, with a “b,” of dollars’ worth of golf.

“It’s not Bandon Dunes or Sand Hills,” says Brian Curley. “The bad news is that all the rock makes it difficult to build and that’s why it’s never been developed. The good news is that it’s never been developed—or farmed. You just can’t touch farmland in China, it is off limits. But Haikou is just a few miles away, coming up on 3 million people, twice the size of San Francisco, a mini–Hong Kong in the making. You could never find a piece of land this size within 15 minutes of a major downtown anywhere else in the world. In other cities, this resort would be two hours away. No one else had the guts to build a resort like this on top of all this rock, but Mission Hills dreamed it, dared it and did it.”

This is not the first golf resort to build through black lava fields—Hawaii’s Hualalai comes to mind—but it is the most dramatic. “The lava influence is both memorable and distinctive,” says Passov. Stunning black lava is everywhere, starkly contrasting the gleaming white bunker sand, bright green grass and omnipresent blue skies. At times of day when the temperature changes quickly, the lava rocks release moisture, natural smoke machines that create an eerie effect as if the golf courses were on fire. While black lava alongside the fairway may take some of the authenticity out of the parkland or Melbourne designs, it is stunning nonetheless and makes the golf here special.

Blackstone is the marquee course and tournament venue, which will alternate with Mission Hills Shenzhen in hosting the Omega event. At 7,808 yards and par 73, it is a long, tough and stunning course routed through the lava, true eye candy—and for almost every visitor, unlike anything they have ever played. Fingers of trees and black stone jut into the fairways and stands of old lychee trees were preserved wherever they were found. There are even old stone ruins throughout the course, though no one knows who built them. Brian Curley loves walking, and went so far as to carve elaborate paths with steps and walls through the lava fields between tees and fairways and from greens to tees. Even if you like to walk, you probably have never given much thought to the walk itself. Blackstone will change that, and here the walking becomes as much a part of the experience as the Pacific Ocean is at Pebble Beach. This is so dramatic that it is arguably the best walking course ever built.

Another course unlike any visitors will have seen is stunning Lava Fields, which has some of its bunkers filled with imported black sand. Instead of contrast, this course has jaw dropping visual homogeneity of blackness and will be unique in the golf world. The Pete Dye–themed course, Stone Quarry, takes Dye’s occasional use of old railroad cars as bridges to a new level, with coal cars, tracks and abandoned mining equipment alongside 215 bunkers. Nothing here is done on a small scale, and these are courses worth seeing and playing.

On the downside, it is a long way to travel, but on the upside, when you get here you will find a lot of excellent golf. The quality easily rivals most major resorts, the quantity is unheard of and the landscape is one of a kind. Mission Hills Hainan makes sense for a weeklong stand-alone golf trip. Instead of trying to find fun in Haikou, the better strategy would be to explore whichever hub city you change planes in, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi or Singapore, and make this leg of the trip all about the resort.

With the amazing spa and variety of restaurants, even non-golfing spouses will not mind being sequestered here. Or, as Passov suggests, Hainan can be combined with a traditional trip to China’s fabled Great Wall, Forbidden City and other marquee sights. Another vacation strategy for die-hard golfers would be to visit both Mission Hills, because if you are going to see and play the world’s largest golf resort, it becomes pretty easy to jump on a plane in Shenzhen or Hong Kong for the less-than-two-hour flight to Hainan. Call this full 22-course experience the Mission Hills Grand Tour, and be the first on your block to complete it.

Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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