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All the Tees in China

Shaun Tolson

My tee shot on the third hole of the Mission Hills Golf Club’s newest course, a Pete Dye design that opened in September, has found the first cut of rough. Given that my drives on the first two holes of this 6,800-yard layout in Shenzhen, China, landed in the fescue beyond the cut, the shot is a notable improvement. I am left with an uphill approach to the green, about 150 yards out, and so my caddie, 22-year-old Cissy Liu, hands me a 7-iron.

"No," I tell her, "I’ll hit the five."

My request is met with befuddlement. Liu shakes her head and again offers the 7-iron. "I think you hit seven," she says, assuming that I had misunderstood her earlier attempt to communicate the remaining yardage.

After an apparently unsuccessful explanation that I do not hit my irons long, I nevertheless convince Liu to hand me the five.

Fine, I imagine her thinking, it will be his name, not mine, on the scorecard.

"Trust me," I tell her before swinging.

The ball sails high and on line with the pin, but it lands on the fairway a few yards short of the green.

"I told you," I say with a smile as I hand her the club.

We walk toward the green in silence until Liu shares with me her latest discovery. "You hit your irons short. I hit 5-iron 160 yards!" she declares with a laugh.

Liu, whose demeanor when she caddies combines Eastern deference with Western irreverence—the latter evidenced by her friendly heckling of my game—aspires to follow in the footsteps of Zhang Lian-Wei, China’s first golfer to attain international recognition and the first from the mainland to play in the Masters, in 2004. However, Liu’s understanding of the game is still evolving—as is the sport itself throughout China as a whole.

Two years ago, Ling Hongling, a professor from Lanzhou University in Gansu Province, announced that he had uncovered evidence proving that golf was played in China in AD 943—more than five centuries before King James II of Scotland banned "ye golf" in 1457, the earliest known date of the sport being played at its commonly accepted birthplace. The professor’s source was Dongxuan Records, a reference book written by Wei Tai during the Sung dynasty (960–1279). His primary evidence was "a vivid description of how a country magistrate in the Nantang dynasty taught his daughter to dig goals in the ground and drive a ball into them," Hongling wrote in a report titled "Verification of the Fact that Golf Originated from Chuiwan." The activity’s name derived from the Chinese words for "hitting," chui, and "ball," wan.

Of course, China is only the latest in a long line of countries that have claimed golf originated somewhere other than the British Isles. In his book 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play Before You Die (Sellers Publishing, 2005), author Jeff Barr points to a much more recent date for the beginning of China’s relationship with the sport. Barr writes that the history of golf in southern China dates "back to the late 1890s, when the game was introduced to Hong Kong by British troops." As for mainland China, he adds, "Several golf clubs existed before the Communist takeover in 1949, but were turned into rice paddies after the government dismissed the sport, calling it a ‘decadent Western pastime.’ "

The mainland’s first post–Cultural Revolution golf course—an Arnold Palmer design at Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in Guangdong—also came by way of Hong Kong. Henry Fok, a Hong Kong businessman, opened the course in 1984. Since then, China has embraced golf in all its decadence. The country is now home to more than 300 courses—from Pine Valley, outside Beijing, to Ancient Town, about 1,300 miles to the southwest in Lijiang—and the boldest predictions suggest that as many as 1,000 new layouts will sprout up across the nation in the next decade.

Such growth would seem improbable if not for the existence of Mission Hills. The 4,900-acre megaresort includes a 315-room hotel and eight restaurants, as well as 12 golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, and Nick Faldo, among others. In just 14 years since its first course opened, the club has surpassed Pinehurst in North Carolina as the world’s largest golf resort.

China also is the location of the world’s longest golf course—Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang—and several other layouts designed by prominent architects. In response to the increasing number and quality of courses in China, travel companies such as Remote Lands and PerryGolf (see "Green China") have begun offering golf-themed trips to the country. "We had viewed China in some detail earlier in the year [2007]," Gordon Dalgleish, president and cofounder of PerryGolf, tells me on a flight from Kunming to Shenzhen. "I had high expectations going in, and it’s totally surpassed my expectations."

The 45-year-old Scotsman, who took up the game at age 7, had some familiarity with Chinese golf. His introduction came in 1995, when, on a whim, he entered an amateur championship hosted by Chung Shan Hot Spring. "I was coming over to Hong Kong for a golf trade show," he recalls, "and at the last minute, I discovered that there was this Chinese amateur going on. I entered it, and lo and behold I managed to win it."

Dalgleish says that the quality of golf in China has improved dramatically since his earlier visit, and that the country’s courses today rival the world’s best. But at least one aspect of Chinese golf distinguishes the sport from its equivalents in the British Isles or on the California coast: Chinese caddies—all women, as is common in Asian countries—make golfing in the People’s Republic an exotic experience for Westerners. "A very rewarding part of the Chinese golf experience is the caddies," notes Dalgleish.

"It’s like trying to judge a beauty pageant," says Tenniel Chu, executive director of Mission Hills, of the selection process for the 3,000 caddies employed at the resort. The criteria for hiring a caddie, he explains, include age, language abilities, height, and level of education. Caddies at Mission Hills cannot be younger than 19 or older than 27; they must speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and basic English; and they must be at least 5-foot-2 and have attended high school.

For aspiring caddies at Mission Hills and most of the other leading golf resorts in China, being selected is only the beginning of a long initiation process. The three-month training course at Mission Hills educates the young women on golf strategies, terms, rules, and etiquette. Upon completing the course, caddies must pass a written and oral test before they can begin serving members and guests on the resort’s courses.

Yet for all the training, there still exists a knowledge gap between the Western golfer and Chinese caddie, as if some of the sport’s finer points remain en route across the Pacific. This fact becomes evident when, halfway through my round on a Nicklaus-designed course at the Spring City Golf and Lake Resort in Kunming, I decide to forgo a traditional pitch shot in favor of a bump-and-run. My request for a 7-iron for a 40-yard shot confuses my caddie, Barbara Li. It seems the 25-year-old Li, who has worked at the resort for four years, has never seen the shot performed, nor even heard of it.

The real challenges in the caddie-golfer relationship unfold on and around the greens. Caddies generally describe the severity of a break in terms of ball widths or club lengths, but in China the advice can be more cryptic than enlightening. While staring down a long putt at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, I see that the break will be significant, though not severe enough for my putt to bend two putter lengths, as my caddie advises. Only after conferring with her a second time do I discover that a putter length, by her definition, refers only to the exposed metal along the shaft of the club, not to its entire length.

Sharp breaks are the norm at Jade Dragon, which, in addition to being the world’s longest course, also is one of the world’s highest and most scenic. The 13 snowcapped peaks of the layout’s namesake and neighbor, the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain massif, rise to heights of more than 18,000 feet adjacent to the course, which plays more than 8,500 yards from the back tees and averages an elevation of 10,170 feet above sea level.

Though less dramatic, the vistas are equally memorable and more distinctly Chinese at other top courses throughout the country. At Ancient Town, you can watch local villagers fish off the banks of Wenbihai Lake while maintenance workers rake the rough around the greens with thatched brooms. In the valley below the Dye-designed course at Mission Hills, farmers till the soil and tend to the crops in the fields, as the squeals from livestock drift up the hillside.

On the fifth hole of Mission Hills’ Dye Course, a lengthy, uphill second shot to the green confronts me. With a 5-wood, I hit what could be called a power fade. Putting it bluntly, I have an awe-inspiring slice—one that has provoked giggles from my caddies during this trip through China. But their subsequent murmurs of astonishment, once they see my ball begin heading toward its intended target, are likely due more to my uncanny ability to accommodate my slice than to, as one caddie noted, the shot’s resemblance to "a banana."

My ball starts well left of the green but quickly arcs favorably over the bunker. "Good slice," says Liu, perhaps becoming the first person ever to pair those two words when describing a golf shot. "Great slice!" she corrects herself as my ball lands on the green and rolls toward the hole. "I think it’s in the hole!" she cries in jest, or so I assume. Reaching the green, we discover that my shot did not, in fact, find the bottom of the cup—a realization that surprises Liu much more than it does me. After my first putt rolls to within six feet of the hole, my second attempt drops for par, my first of the round, and elicits a high five from Liu.

A few hours later, we are standing on the ninth tee of the World Cup Course at Mission Hills, the oldest of the resort’s dozen layouts. Designed by Jack Nicklaus in 1994, the course hosted the inaugural World Cup of Golf in 1995 and the Mission Hills Tiger Woods China Challenge in 2001. After a humbling round on the Dye Course, I have rediscovered my game.

"You’re playing much better this course," Liu tells me. "You know why?"

I tell her that I do not, though I assume it is because Nicklaus’ courses tend to accommodate a fade—and that it would take considerable talent, or a complete lack thereof, to play any worse than I did earlier in the day.

"It is because this is my lucky course!" she says, beaming.

As I prepare to hit my drive, Liu offers me a deal: "You get bogey, I give you par," she says. "You get par, I give you birdie." After 26 holes of golf, she is providing me with a handicap.

My drive comes to a rest on the right edge of the fairway, but my second shot lands a bit short of the green. I am left with 14 yards to the pin, and so Liu, having learned my club preferences, hands me a 9-iron. I hit my chip, and it lands on the top of a ridge at the front of the green, bounces three times, rolls toward the hole, taps the pin, and drops for a birdie.

Watching Liu’s reaction to the shot, one would think I had just won the World Cup itself. She leaps into the air in a manner that would make Phil Mickelson proud and gives me a quick hug. As I retrieve the ball, she reminds me of the handicap she provided. "That’s an eagle," she says with a big smile. But a birdie is just fine by me.

GREEN CHINA
Golfing in the People’s Republic can be a unique and memorable experience. However, knowing where to go and how to get around once you arrive might be more challenging than sinking that long, treacherous putt for par. Two tour companies—one specializing in international golf excursions, the other in Asian travel—recently began offering customized trips that, like a good caddie on a challenging course, will help you navigate the twists and turns of a golf journey through China.

Perrygolf
Brothers Gordon and Colin Dalgleish started PerryGolf in 1984 as a service that offered bespoke golf vacations to the British Isles. Their vision for the company evolved as they included new destinations (they now visit 12 countries), especially China. "Golf trips in the British Isles—in Scotland specifically—it’s a fundamentally different buy," says Gordon. "It’s the guy who comes home and says, ‘Honey, I’m going to go with seven pals to Scotland next August.’ And she goes, ‘OK, go have a good time.’ The same guy comes home and says, ‘I’m going with seven pals to China,’ and she says, ‘Hold on a second; I’m going with you.’ "

Unlike its original trips to the British Isles, PerryGolf’s excursions to China and other destinations pair golf with unique cultural experiences. Gordon points to the city of Lijiang, with its high-quality golf courses and quaint Old Town section, as an ideal stop on a China journey. The company is capable of arranging a trip for as few as two people, and 10- to 12-day itineraries cost approximately $9,000 per person. The price includes guides and drivers but excludes airfare to and from China. For those who prefer to leave all decisions in the company’s hands, PerryGolf is offering a set-itinerary, escorted trip to China from October 12 through 24, 2008. 910.795.1048, www.perrygolf.com

Remote Lands
Founded in 2006 by longtime Hong Kong resident Catherine Heald and her partner, Jay Tindall, Remote Lands specializes in bespoke private-jet journeys throughout the continent that include exclusive cultural experiences. In addition to golf, the company’s China itineraries may include lunch with artist Ye Fang in his waterfront gardens in Suzhou, a visit to a remote monastery in the Yunnan Province, and a journey over the sand dunes of Dunhuang on camelback. Golf-related stops may include Mission Hills, Spring City, and the Beijing Golf Club, the latter of which offers views of the Great Wall.

The prices for noninclusive golf journeys, with local guides and drivers, begin at $1,500 per person per day; rates for an all-inclusive private-jet trip (excluding airfare to and from China) start at $100,000. Heald notes that Remote Lands does not require much advance notice to prepare a trip. "We had somebody call on a Monday, and they left on Thursday," says Heald. "We can act very, very quickly. We just work around the clock." 646.415.8092, www.remotelands.com

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