China's importance to the global brotherhood of golf course architects cannot be understated. The country, which effectively outlawed the game for decades following the Second World War, has since become the centre of the course design universe. Every notable architect, with the exception of the US-centric Tom Fazio, has a presence on the mainland. The reason is perfectly simple: Asia, with China leading the way, is the one place where developers actually want to build new courses; development in the golf saturated States and large swathes of northern Europe has pretty much ground to a halt.
This is not exactly news. Since the opening of China's first modern-day course – the Arnold Palmer-designed layout at Chung Shan Hot Spring in neighbouring Guangdong – in 1984, approximately 600 courses have come online. While commentators had once previously questioned golf's popularity among the country's one billion-plus populous, the last few years have seen an undoubted surge in player numbers. Official statistics where the game is concerned are famously hard to come by in China – depending on which reports you read there are anywhere between 300,000 and three million "regular golfers" – but try booking a last-minute weekend game at an upscale course across the border and you'll likely be disappointed. Ten years ago you could have pitched up without phoning in advance and literally stroll onto the first tee at your leisure. Much has changed, which has been reflected in the price one pays. Even taking into account the continued strength of the renminbi, green fee rates have soared on the back of increased demand, making China one of the most expensive places in the world to play. You don't get much change out of RMB2,000 for 18 holes and the obligatory cart and caddie combo (plus tip!) these days.
Although it would be rash to suggest that the mainland golf market has reached maturity, the way courses are built and maintained has certainly improved in recent times. With its diverse landscapes and topography, China is not short of wonderful golf sites. Unfortunately, back in the early to mid 1990s, at the time of the mainland's initial golf boom, the skills required to build world-class courses were generally lacking. It was often said that China had some of the most spectacular golfing terrain in the world, but that it was wasted by the construction of mostly humdrum layouts which were usually found in lacklustre condition. More often than not, this was down to inexperienced architects, poor build quality, short-sighted owners or a combination of all three.
The last few years, however, have been good for Chinese golf – at least from a golf course point of view. While the eminently likeable Liang Wen-chong remains the country's only professional ranked inside the world's top 200, a number of new layouts have emerged that have gone straight to the summit of the standings as China's best. Intelligently designed, expertly shaped and – most crucially of all – great fun to play, these courses, the oldest of which opened barely two years ago, have the potential to leave a lasting impression on the world's golfing map.
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