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Mission Accomplished

With 10 designer-name golf courses, China's Mission Hills has become the world's largest golf resort
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Camilo Villegas, July/August 2006

Just beyond the Hong Kong border, even before you enter mainland China, two billboards span the MeiGuan Highway proclaiming a nearby golf resort as the "World's Number 1!" The expressway leads to the booming industrial metropolis of Shenzhen, a city of six million people that has become the factory site of choice for thousands of outsourcing American companies.

An army of earth—moving equipment and piles of debris are visible for as far as the eye can see. As the road continues, more golf billboards appear, beckoning you to the rural, mountainous Mission Hills resort and its burgeoning population of luxury home owners, a testament to how the world's most populous country is changing. Virtually unheard of outside of China until just a few years ago, Mission Hills is widely considered the next big thing in golf. The operative word, of course, is big. The $400 million resort boasts 10 diverse, upscale 18—hole courses split into two sections a couple of miles apart and linked by a shuttle bus network.

Nearly 15 years in the making, the 23,000—acre property—twice the size of Manhattan—entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 as the world's largest golf facility, surpassing North Carolina's Pinehurst. Mission Hills is driving a Chinese golf boom that has seen the nation's number of courses go from zero to 260 in just over two decades.

With new buildings at every turn, parking lots of shiny BMWs and Mercedes—Benzes, and cranes and bulldozers constantly at work, Mission Hills is a microcosm of modern China, perhaps the only way in which the words "resort" and "micro" can be used in the same sentence. Its courses were designed by some of the world's most famous players—but the golf is far from the only immense undertaking here. The resort community is practically a city itself, with its own power and water treatment plants and road network.

Nothing is too ambitious at this mega-complex, which reflects the streets-are-paved-with-gold capitalist fervor that is sweeping through China like a wildfire. In addition to the golf (which includes a pitch-and-putt course and a branch of David Leadbetter's acclaimed golf academy), Mission Hills boasts 51 tennis courts, three spas and an outdoor children's playground that is so big it resembles the midway at a state fair.

In 1979, David Chu, a native of Hong Kong, became one of the very first entrepreneurs to invest in mainland China, starting a corrugated packaging company that eventually became the nation's largest. An avid sportsman (he serves today as an officer of the Chinese soccer, tennis, cycling and volleyball associations, and was instrumental in the success of Beijing's 2008 Olympics bid), Chu presciently recognized the limitless possibilities for golf in China as the economy expanded, which led him to found the Mission Hills Group in 1992. At the time, Mission Hills was no slam dunk—less than a decade earlier, not a single golf course existed in China—but that did not deter Chu, a lifelong golf addict.

Inside the Shenzhen clubhouse, which offers a fitness center, a spa and gourmet restaurants.
"It was definitely a build—it—and—they—will—come project," recalls Brian Curley, one half of Schmidt—Curley Design, a Scottsdale, Arizona—based golf course design and construction company that did the master plan, initial routings and the construction for the last nine courses at Mission Hills. "Chu really stuck his neck out: he went over the border and stuck a stake in the ground and made it all happen."

Chris Cochran, senior design associate for Jack Nicklaus, who developed the first two courses at Mission Hills, agrees. "What still makes an impression on me is just the amazing vision of David Chu to develop this world—class facility," he says. "When I went there [in the mid—1990s], it was up to a two—hour drive from the train station to the site, and sometimes a harrowing one, through rice paddies and people's backyards. When I went there a year later for the World Cup, it was a 20—minute drive. I was amazed."

Chu's goal was not only to create the biggest golf resort on earth, but also one of the best. With that aspiration in mind, he decided not to rush into things, electing to build in sensible, business—like waves. He started with the 36 holes designed by Nicklaus. But long before a shovelful of dirt had been moved, Chu had done his research, visiting such iconic courses as Pebble Beach, Muirfield and TPC Sawgrass, among others. "He said to me, 'I had the vision of building the largest golf resort in the world, but I visited all these great courses around the globe, and I want to be one of them. Can we do that?' And my answer was yes," recalls Christopher Ch'ng, Mission Hills's vice president of golf operations and the former secretary general of the Malaysian Golf Association, who learned his trade in North Palm Beach, Florida, working for Nicklaus's design firm.

The resort, which opened in 1994, was an overnight success, in part because of pent—up golf demand in the region, and in part because Chu had the foresight to host a prominent tournament early on: the 41st World Cup, in 1995. A 215—room hotel was built to handle the fans, media and competitors that flocked here for the first international tournament ever played in China, which was the first uncensored television event broadcast from the People's Republic. The World Cup attracted the attention of China's golf—playing public, and soon there were some 6,000 members in the semiprivate club in spite of initiation fees that topped $100,000; more than a few of these people were newly minted Chinese millionaires and entrepreneurs.

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