A new star is rising, far to the east. Where the Ming Dynasty once prevailed is now the land of Ping, Nike, Titleist, TaylorMade and Callaway. Welcome to China’s new revolution, and its epicentre is on the stunning tropical island of Hainan…
Golf arrived in China just 30 years ago, when golf legend Arnold Palmer designed the Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club course, in Guangdong province, in 1984. Since then, China has undergone an unprecedented boom in golf-course building and there are now almost 700 courses across the country.
In the vanguard of China’s golf revolution is the Mission Hills Group. Just 10 years after China’s first tentative steps onto the global golf stage, the group’s visionary founder, Hong Kong-born industrialist Dr David Chu, built a course designed by 18-time Major winner Jack Nicklaus on barren wasteland near the Hong Kong border.
It was quickly followed by four more, then expanded to 10 and finally 12, making Mission Hills Shenzhen and Dongguan the world’s largest golf complex, with all 12 signature courses designed by some of golf’s most illustrious names. The Rose-Poulter match play course is the latest addition to an illustrious roll call, which also includes designs by Pete Dye, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Annika Sorenstam and José Maria Olazábal.
Although golf course construction in China has slowed dramatically since a 2004 government moratorium aimed at stopping land being illegally developed and villagers being displaced, new courses continue to open.
CHINA’S HAWAII. The tropical island of Hainan, China’s southernmost province and often called China’s Hawaii is now the focal point for its burgeoning golf tourism industry. And, once again, Mission Hills is at the forefront.
Of Hainan’s 50-plus golf courses, 10 of them (almost one-fifth) are at Mission Hills Haikou, which spans a vast volcanic lava landscape in the north, near the island’s capital, Haikou. All were designed by leading golf architect company, Schmidt-Curley Design. They opened in 2010, with a 500-room hotel as part of a sprawling spa and volcanic spring resort, recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest spa resort.
Having previously played at the original mainland Mission Hills Golf Club, I visited its younger sibling earlier this year and was immediately struck by the sheer scale of it. Unlike its sister complex, Mission Hills Haikou is geared more towards leisure visitors and perfectly underlines the ‘golf and more’ philosophy of the group, now headed by brothers Dr Ken Chu and Tenniel Chu after the untimely death of their father in 2011.
MOVIE STUDIOS. During my stay at Mission Hills, I was given a tour of the Feng Xiagag Movie-Themed Town district. China’s answer to Universal Studios, it features six movie studios and three themed streets as well as dining, shopping and entertainment facilities.
This autumn saw the opening of Lan Kwai Fong in Mission Hills – a town centre-style leisure area, offering high-end Ritz-Carlton, Renaissance and Hard Rock hotels, plus shopping, ice skating rinks, bowling alleys, simulation racing and IMAX cinemas. Eventually, both attractions will have nine international brand hotels.
Sadly, there was no time to indulge in the spa, which my room overlooked. With architecture based on the circular, UNESCO-listed Hakka earth buildings, found in China’s Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces, it offers almost 170 hot and cold springs, 61 spa treatment suites, 29 spa villas, a café, nail spa and hair salon.
MONSTER COURSE. I did play golf on two of Mission Hills Haikou’s courses, though. All 10 courses incorporate the region’s natural lava rocks in their design, with quirky additions to some. The terrace of its three-storey clubhouse gives a grandstand view of star course, Blackstone.
Touted as Asia’s premier tournament venue, it also stages the annual Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am, welcoming film stars such as Hugh Grant, Catherine Zeta Jones and Christian Slater, swimmer Michael Phelps, snooker star Stephen Hendry and footballer Ronaldo. In 2013, it hosted a head-to-head challenge between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
This is a monster course at over 7,800 yards from the pro tees and covering 350 acres. Copious black lava rocks line virtually every fairway along with large lakes and wetland areas adding to the challenge. Low handicappers will love the risk and reward opportunities, particularly on the closing holes, while the fairways are wide enough to make the course playable for lesser mortals like me. My advice is to play off a sensible tee and not take on more than you are capable of, otherwise it will quickly ruin your round.
The lava rocks vividly contrast Blackstone’s fairways, greens and lush jungle vegetation that include magnificent lychee trees, preserved during the course’s construction.
LAVA FIELDS AND RAILWAY TRACKS. Course number seven, Stone Quarry, is a fun layout that won’t please purists but does suit shorter hitters, measuring only just over 6,000 yards from the back tees. You can’t relax too much, though, as it still demands accurate shots.
A tribute to legendary designer Pete Dye, a mentor to the Schmidt-Curley Design team, it incorporates many features he is noted for; railway sleepers edging bunkers, abrupt mounds, moguls, long waste bunkers and tricky, and often small, greens in addition to lava rocks on most holes.
Stone Quarry also runs railway tracks across several lava rock areas, has abandoned mining equipment on some holes, a bridge made from a railway boxcar and a coal car dangling precariously off the edge of a partially-collapsed trestle bridge alongside two greens. Volcano-shaped grass mounds set in bunkers even have miniature bunkers at the top to simulate calderas.
Of the other courses, Lava Field features wild bunkering and rolling waves of tall grasses on fairways surrounded by lava rocks. The Vintage is a nod to classic courses with tree-lined fairways, deep pot bunkers, blind shots and large greens with wicker basket pins, along with quirky elements including geometric shapes. Sandbelt Trails emulates courses in Australia’s Sandbelt, with large, high-flashed bunkers, while Shadow Dunes mimics Hainan Island’s beaches with its towering dunes.
HOLIDAY AREA. Just 15 minutes from downtown Haikou is the 27-hole, Colin Montgomerie-designed Meishi Mayflower International Golf Club course. Dominated by a huge clubhouse and hotel that looks like a Chinese copy of the White House, the course has a traditional feel and tall trees line most fairways. Opposite a public beach, some holes offer sea views and nine holes are also equipped for night golf.
Hainan’s main holiday area is along its southern coast, centred on the beach resort of Sanya, which is renowned for its air quality and enjoys about 300 sunny days per year. Luxury hotels line crescent-shaped bays with beautiful sandy beaches close to Sanya, while over a dozen golf courses are dotted around the bays.
Head south from Haikou by road and you first reach the wild and picturesque Shenzhou Peninsula, 90 minutes east of Sanya. Here, the rugged coastal dunes and natural, craggy boulders are used to fashion a masterpiece called The Dunes, which comprises two stunning 18-hole courses; the West and the East.
I knew of it and was eagerly anticipating playing there. The Dunes not only met my expectations but also far exceeded them. I played the East Course, which is simply magical, the highlight being the holes skirting the beach that give sweeping views of the South China Sea. With some greens cupped by giant dunes, it feels as though you are actually playing on the beach at times.
I was in a tournament and hospitality tents on several holes provided food from the adjacent Sheraton Shenzhou Peninsula and Four Points by Sheraton hotels. Both the service and the food were first class, matching the quality of the course.
LUXORY RESORTS. The sandy bays just east of Sanya are liberally sprinkled with luxury hotels. Raffles Hainan opened in September 2013, in Clearwater Bay. Together with a large spa, it incorporates over 1,000 pieces of art curated by Hong Kong’s Willow Gallery.
Hotels along the 20km curve of Haitang Bay include China’s first Kempinski beach resort, which features a Wood Art Museum housed in a century-old mansion; Qing Dynasty pagodas; dragon boat rides on a 1.2km sea waterway; and a miniature 18-hole course with bunkers.
Crescent-shaped Yalong Bay is one of Sanya’s main holiday spots and offers several luxury resorts, as well as two of its top golf courses. The Ritz-Carlton, Sanya, has one of the region’s largest spas and activities include a sea turtle conservation programme, biking through mangrove trees and Segway rides along its white sandy beach. Meanwhile, guests staying at the Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa can literally walk across the road to the Yalong Bay Golf Club. A links-style inland course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr, Yalong Bay is shaped like a dragon’s claw. Golfers are tested here by 98 bunkers and a winding river, which is crossed by traditional Chinese bridges.
SANYA. Close by is the 27-hole Sun Valley Sanya Golf Resort. Its fairways lie at the foot of forested hills, making for a visual spectacle with its large lake, tropical plants and views of Li minority villages from four holes. However, the course’s real claim to fame is the signature 9th hole of its B course; the only par-6 in China, it measures a gargantuan 828 yards from the gold tees. Not only that, it is a double-dogleg requiring a drive over a water-filled ravine to a bunker-strewn fairway that climbs uphill past several bunkers to a well-guarded green, 10 metres above the tee. I shot 13 on it and thought I had played it well!
Sanya has plenty more excellent golfing options. The coastal Hainan Clearwater Bay Golf Club is another Schmidt-Curley design, as is Dragon Valley Golf Course, a par-75, nine-hole mountain course. Mystic Springs Golf Club has two 18-hole courses by Nelson & Haworth alongside the Nantian Hot Springs. Hongtang Bay International Golf Club is also by Robert Trent Jones Jr.
I particularly like the unsung Sanya Forest Valley Golf Club, a challenging layout draped across forested mountain slopes with elevation drops of up to 50 metres. Here, as everywhere I played across Hainan, the smiling caddies – both male and female – helped enhance the enjoyment of playing.
COCONUT ISLAND. Besides the glorious palm tree-fringed beaches (Hainan Island is sometimes called Coconut Island for its many coconut trees), Sanya also offers many other attractions. They include the Nanshan Buddhism Cultural Tourism Zone, with its towering 108m Guanyin Buddha statue on a man-made island; Nanshan Temple complex and scenic Taoist site Dongtian Park; as well as the romantic beauty spot Tianya Haijiao, which is China’s southernmost point.
You will see many Chinese tourists on Hainan but few Chinese golfers. Yet. Mission Hills Group is actively helping to develop junior golf in China and nurture Asia’s future champions, under group vice chairman Tenniel Chu. He estimates that 900,000 Chinese tourists travelling overseas are golfers and predicts that number would grow strongly in coming years.
At the 2013 Masters, 14-year-old Guan Tianlang stunned the golfing world by becoming the youngest-ever player to make the cut at a Major tournament, after Chinese compatriots Zhang Lian-wei and Liang Wen-chong had failed in 2004 and 2006.
Europe and America beware; the dragon has been stirred from its slumber.
Good to know
There are no direct flights to Hainan Island from the UK, but you can fly to capital Haikou or beach resort Sanya via gateways including Hong Kong, Singapore, Guangzhou and Shanghai. High-speed Bullet trains also go to Hainan from Beijing and Shanghai.
Bullet trains take 80 minutes from Haikou to Sanya, but tour buses are how most golfers and golf groups are transported around the island. Haikou to Shenzhou Peninsula by road takes two hours, and another 90 minutes from there to Sanya.
GOLF RESORTS & COURSES
Mission Hills Haikou
Meishi Mayflower International Golf Club, Haikou
The Dunes, Shenzhou Peninsula
Yalong Bay Golf Club, Sanya
Sun Valley Sanya Golf Resort, Sanya
Sheraton Shenzhou Peninsula
The Ritz-Carlton, Sanya
Sanya Marriott Resort & Spa
Kempinski Hotel Haitang Bay Sanya
Raffles Hainan, Sanya
Hainan Tourism Development Commission: http://en.visithainan.gov.cn/en/
Sanya Municipal Government: http://english.sanya.gov.cn