• Andrew Collins

A Discussion: From corruption to the people, Golf’s evolution in China

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

Golf hasn’t had an smooth journey in China, and in March this year, the government enforced another crackdown on the sport shutting down around 70 courses, canceling the development of any new courses and even probing officials who were known to play golf. We invited five golf experts in China from different backgrounds to give their views on golf’s evolution in China.

What happened with the crackdown?

Vincent Chan, a Digital Media Manager at Mailman: The crackdown was an unavoidable situation. Golf hasn’t grown this quickly anywhere else in the world, plus with the government’s growing focus on anti-corruption, the sport was an easy target.

Colin Huang, a Golf Agent in Shanghai: The crackdown process is more like a renovation with a promising and healthier outcome. We needed to revise old protocols of building golf courses legally, rectify improper instructions and managements.

Mickey Zhu, Chief Editor at Sina Sports Golf Channel: The crackdown on the sport has definitely not improved its reputation. If there’s a spring for golf, I think winter is just beginning now.

How popular is the sport now?

Franklin Li, Editor at Golf Magazine: The popularity of golf is improving now. This is because of increased media exposure and knowledge of the sport as well as better rankings of Chinese golfers. However, I wouldn’t yet say that it’s one of the most popular sports in China, not yet on the same level as basketball, football, tennis and badminton.

Colin Huang: I wouldn’t say a top 5 sport, but probably around top 10 or so. After all, it’s a developing sport in China with far rather lower public recognition than other sports. It’s still below the likes of badminton, table tennis, swimming, volleyball, snooker and racing.

Vincent Chan: Although the sport is growing in popularity, it still can’t compete with the bigger sports, such as football, basketball, badminton and tennis. It probably sits around the same level of popularity as baseball.

Who is now playing the sport?

Sam Allen, private golf tutor in Shanghai: Rich parents in China see golf as the #1 sport for their kids because it’s something their kids can get into that normal kids can’t. They like the esteem attached to it and as a result, more rich kids are taking up the sport.

Mickey Zhu: Golf absolutely is an upper class game. Even more and more Chinese youngsters are playing golf in NCAA or AJGA. It will still be a rich man’s sport for at least 5-10 more years.

Colin Huang: There are more common people playing golf thanks to golf academies and driving ranges that provide cheap access to the sport so that more young people attempt can learn or at least get an idea of what the sport is.

What are the challenges for the sport?

Sam Allen: In order to have a competitive level in any sport you need large numbers of people competing with grassroots infrastructure. China has neither of these due to the high cost limiting youth participation. Secondly, the low standard of teaching and the lack of competition means they aren’t used to playing under the conditions you need to compete later in life.

Vincent Chan: We need to break down the image that it is just a rich man’s sport and take back control of the sport. But I can’t see this mentality changing anytime soon. The main challenge though is making the sport available to more people in more places at a price that they can afford to compete.  

Mickey Zhu: President Xi doesn’t need the sport, and local government treat it as an easy victim under the anti-corruption campaign.

What does the future hold for the sport?

Vincent Chan: I think it will take a similar path that snooker and tennis took over the past decade or so: find a star player to popularize the sport, government policy to become more flexible and social capital to boom the industry.

Colin Huang: We will most likely see Wu Ashun and Li Haotong represent China at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and their success could be a massive factor. Yao Ming, Li Na, Ding Junhui, these are the local heroes that played the largest role in growing a sport in China.

Sam Allen: If someone can figure out a way to get normal income households into golf and competing then it would explode. I also expect more businesses to open up the industry and in turn, this will increase the awareness of golf in China.

Mickey Zhu: If we see a growth in popularity amongst the middle-class, then golf may become a public sport in 20 years. Or if we see policies relax around real estate development and government officials turning a blind eye, golf will boom in 2 or 3 years.

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