Cigar Aficionado

Mission Accomplished

With 10 designer-name golf courses, China's Mission Hills has become the world's largest golf resort

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.

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."

At the opposite end of the scale from Norman and Olazabal are the Duval and Sorenstam designs, the least punishing routings. But neither are pushovers, and Sorenstam's features ample bunkering that can be tough to avoid. "The bunkers are in all the right places, and it is obvious that she put a lot of thought into every shot," Ch'ng says about Sorenstam, the only player—designer here making a debut.

The 10 famous designers are the resort's trademark, and all but the Nicklaus layout are named after the stars. Even in the pro shops these themes are stressed: nowhere else will you find more bear and shark head covers, and in a nod to a visit by Woods, tigers as well. (In 2001, Woods squared off here against three top Asian pros in the Tiger Woods China Challenge.) While the Norman layout is number one with guests, the World Cup course started it all and has the most history, with the resort's biggest tournament to date.

"We are very proud of the golf course, because it was just our second course in China," says Nicklaus. "We wanted the course to be extremely playable for the Chinese and the locals [club members] because golf was relatively new to the country. It is very gratifying now to see that the course is still very player—friendly and preferred among the members, but at the same time is among the favorites for the touring pros. I think we did our job."

If for some reason you end up at Mission Hills for just one round, the World Cup course is the obvious choice, but the Faldo is the most popular with members, many of whom feel that the Norman course is too hard. "I hate to say it because the term is overused, but Faldo really is the best kept secret here," Ch'ng says about the course, which offers plenty of jungle and mountain views. Brian Curley agrees: "I've seen all the top courses in China and I believe it is the best in the entire country."

Adds Curley, "Mission Hills is a phenomenon on so many levels: it's not just that it is big. It is in China, and it is where all golf in China begins, with international tournaments, with Tiger Woods; everything here springs from it. People assume that because it is in China, the golf will [just] be OK, but it is really good, and the quality of golf surprises people. You could put the Faldo course anywhere in the world and it will easily hold its own. The scale of the operation, the number of caddies—it is all mind—boggling. And the cultural aspect, the caddies, where you are, it makes it different from any normal round of golf."

Despite cultural differences (where else can you find a Japanese garden, a table tennis facility and a foot reflexology center in one locale?), guests will find that Mission Hills is practically like any other big—time golf resort, only bigger—it can accommodate up to 2,000 golfers per day. Caddies are required; 2,500 are on hand (all women dressed in Mission Hills uniforms), almost 200 of whom speak English. All the westernized golf course touches are here, including an elaborate practice range, 150—yard stakes, rangers, halfway houses and brand new carts. And the resort's hotels and clubhouses could have been transplanted whole from Palm Springs or Scottsdale.

Navigating Mission Hills is simple. The Shenzhen Complex is mostly self—contained, with a spa, restaurants and nearly all of the golf courses within walking distance of the hotel. (The Dongguan Complex will offer the same complete—resort convenience once the boutique hotel opens.) The user—friendly setup extends to the golf itself, easily allowing you to play a week's worth, even at 36 holes a day.

To make the golf even more accessible, Chu has completely lighted 18 holes at each complex for night play, and the technology works surprisingly well. At Shenzhen, the back nines of the Ozaki and Els courses have been combined for a contiguous 18, and at Dongguan, nine selected holes from each of the Sorenstam and Duval courses are used.

Mission Hills's myriad attractions have finally begun to earn it formal recognition. The International Association of Golf Tour Operators just named it Golf Resort of the Year—Rest of the World—2006. The bottom line is that there is not one inferior course here, and the conditioning and golf operations are up to U.S. resort standards. At the same time, the lodging, dining and non—golf activities are very good and getting better, and the spas are the modern luxury versions upscale travelers have grown used to.

Now that he has big—time courses and big—time names, Chu wants to develop a big—time tournament that will make Mission Hills a household name. If anyone in China can deliver this dream, it is Chu, the man whose vision helped turn his country into one of the world's top golf destinations.

Larry Olmsted is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.