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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

(continued from page 1)

It quickly became obvious that 36 holes were nowhere near enough to meet the demand. Chu decided that since the Nicklaus name had worked so well, he would bring in more famous golfers as designers. Vijay Singh, Jumbo Ozaki and Nick Faldo created new courses at the original site, which would eventually become known as the Shenzhen Complex, and the second Nicklaus layout was razed to make way for the Ernie Els course.

When the Els course was finished, in 2001, the only area in Asia with as many courses was Hong Kong, yet Mission Hills stayed almost completely off the international radar. Why? Membership demand quickly ate up all the capacity in the golf—starved region, and the hotel was mainly used by members and their guests. "Instead of karaoke or a wild—game feast, businessmen started to bring their American and European clients here to play golf," says Winky Wong, an assistant public relations manager at the resort. But while Mission Hills was always open to outside visitors, the fact that it needed no transient business and did not market to vacationers kept the huge development out of the public eye.

That was about to change, however. Chu had set his sights on making Mission Hills the largest golf resort in the world, and when ground was broken in September 2002 on phase three, the Dongguan Complex, a sleeping dragon awoke. By 2004, courses designed by superstars Greg Norman, Annika Sorenstam, David Duval and Jose Maria Olazabal and teaching guru David Leadbetter had opened, and more players were finally needed to fill the tee sheets at Mission Hills. To bridge the gap, management began to court the rising population of home owners in the area, as well as a growing number of tourists who had become intrigued by the prospect of playing the resort's 10 designer—name courses. The expanded complex had finally put Mission Hills on the world golf map. "The directive was to build them [the five Dongguan courses] all at the same time, on a piece of land that is pretty rugged," says Curley. "We moved 30 million cubic yards of earth in six months. It is unprecedented, and I seriously doubt anything like it will ever be done again. We had 2,000 people working 24 hours a day on it.… We got a lot of great golf out of a brutally difficult site very quickly."

As the number of courses has swelled, so has the number of people living near them. Just like a Naples, Florida, gated community, neighborhoods of luxury homes are springing up throughout Mission Hills with cheery names like Rosedale, Knightsbridge and Mayfair. These homes are popular with Hong Kong's thriving movie industry; action—movie stars are pouring into Mission Hills, where homes are $3 million to $7 million status symbols.

For vacationers, the resort has squarely targeted the English—speaking world, and already, the resort's myriad restaurants are filled with the chatter of Australian accents. Aussies and New Zealanders have started to flock here, followed by a sizable number of Brits and a smattering of adventurous American golfers. That number should increase early next year when a 40—room luxury boutique hotel and spa open at the Dongguan complex. The main hotel is fine, but strictly three—star, while the boutique lodging, attached to a huge lavish clubhouse that is also under construction, will be more in line with what golfers traveling halfway around the world might expect.

"We were always a very status—oriented membership club, but pressure from the outside guests has been mounting, and once we got to ten courses, we started getting all these calls from travelers and tour operators," says Ch'ng. "We really started going after that business last year and the response has been very good; we've been getting a lot of groups from Europe. For an American to come here, it is a mystique thing, and not many know how good the golf is. Comfort is very important to our American visitors, so we have focused on that. In that sense, Mission Hills is not reflective of the cultural China around us. Take a drive five minutes into town and you are in China. The food, the service, even the coffee here are all up to tourist standards, which is not always the case in the People's Republic."

The golf, of course, is the primary attraction at Mission Hills. Any of the 10 courses compare favorably with upscale American resort courses, and a few, especially the Faldo, Nicklaus and Olazabal designs, really stand out. While 10 rounds in one visit will turn almost any golfer's experience into a blur of bogies and birdies, Curley and his famous designer cohorts have managed to craft 10 distinctive experiences. Even the two sites are different. The Shenzhen Complex sits in a peaceful, relatively flat valley and the Dongguan is sandwiched between two mountains, with severe elevation changes, canyons and exposed rock. With courses ranging from parkland and Floridian to canyon and mountain, there's truly something for everyone—even the suicidal.

Greg Norman's course was the last course built at the resort, and he drew a line in the sand that said Mission Hills was no pushover. He went for the roughest, most challenging piece of land available at Dongguan and delivered a course made to thwart even the most skilled golfers. "The Norman course is extremely difficult, not just because it is so long, but because the fairways are so sloped that the landing areas become miniscule," says Ch'ng. "Mission Hills asked him for a high degree of challenge, and Norman certainly delivered. If you love punishment and think you deserve it, or are a masochist and want pain, then play it." Just as many golfers insist on playing the tips that are too hard for them so they can "get their money's worth," the difficulty of the Norman course has quickly made it the most demanded layout here.

"The beauty of this facility is that you always have a choice," adds Ch'ng. "If you can't walk a lot, or don't like penal hazards, we can put you on the Els or Vijay course, which are stadium—style. If you want picturesque beauty, I'll send you to the Faldo or Annika. If you want pain, I'll send you to Olazabal or Norman. If you want good golf with some strategic, risk—reward options, play the World Cup [Nicklaus] course. I don't know of many clubs with that kind of flexibility anywhere in the world. It's very rare, even in the States, that you can stay in one hotel and play even five courses without leaving the property." Wong puts it more simply: "We tell guests the resort is like a buffet: each course offers a different taste."

While not nearly as penal as the Norman, the Olazabal course packs in a whopping 155 sand traps, 24 of which are on the signature 15th hole—a dogleg par 5 around a lake. Its combination of challenge and beauty makes it the top choice for better players looking for a test. "The reason there are so many bunkers is because if you hit it in one, well, you're not happy, but at least you found it," says Curley. "On the Norman course, if you miss the fairway, the ball is lost. We wanted to give the course some bite without the lost ball syndrome."

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