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Golf-and-resort holidays popular for the whole family

Golf has become one of the fastest developing sports in China. In the past three to five years, the number of courses and members has increased dramatically, but because of the game's relatively high costs and elitist image it still hasn't been popularized.

No official statistics are available and unofficial figures indicate that only the tiniest slice of Chinese play the game.

Terrance Wang, 57, recalls there were less than 40 members in the club when he first played in a long-gone golf club in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, in 1993. The retired attorney in Shanghai first picked up the sport in Hong Kong, as he felt golf was good for social networking with customers.

Many of his former Hong Kong customers now try new courses on the Chinese mainland. In 2005 or 2006, it seemed new courses were opened every week or so, and part of the fun for golfers is to explore new courses.

Unofficial statistics from some major Chinese mainland clubs indicate there are around 350,000 players every week, from rookies to professionals. That's a fragment at best, and China is a big country.

"Golf was first introduced here as a luxury and it's still a luxury today, while it's a public sport in many countries like Canada, America and the United Kingdom," says Eagle Chen, editor of a Chinese golf Website.

China's first golf course was built in the 1920s in Shanghai for expat bosses of American and European companies. Later, a very few very rich Chinese businessmen were admitted.

After the revolution and founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, golf disappeared completely. It wasn't for the masses.

In 1984, some Hong Kong businessmen built Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. Zhongshan is the birth place of Dr Sun Yat-sen, forerunner of the anti-feudalism revolution in China and forerunner of the Chinese democratic movement.

Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club was built exclusively for the club's investors and their business partners.

From the very beginning, it was promoted as a symbol of high social status and fine lifestyle.

Property developers love adding the word "golf" to the names of their residential estates, making them sound more expensive, though many didn't have any course, or even indoor putting range. "Golf" just meant luxury.

At the same time, people heard about frighteningly high membership fees for exclusive clubs. One of the heart-stoppers was the reported 1.68 million yuan (US$245,855) at the Shanghai She Shan International Golf Club.

"Costs are lower, better in big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen, but most Chinese people still have a lot of misunderstanding about the sport," says editor Chen. "It's got this reputation for being expensive, over-luxurious, difficult to learn and not open to everyone."

Chen still remembers how he hesitated for a year before taking up golf in 2003. The initial cost was around 60,000 yuan, including 20,000 for tuition, 30,000 yuan for the cheapest set of clubs and 10,000 for a membership card, only useful in two golf courses.

At the time, Chen's monthly salary was a little over 6,000 yuan, much higher than the average on the Chinese mainland.

Many friends who also joined with him dropped out as they found it too costly. Startup and education costs are high on entering any new sport, says Chen, to say nothing of the cost of golf courses, facilities and staff.

"It's much cheaper today since all those costs were assigned to the first group of investors and members," says Chen.

Many more golf clubs have opened for beginners and non-members in the past three years, he says. Golfing trips for couples and families are cheaper and more appealing as most Chinese players are beginners and are looking for wider holiday options.

"The increase is not fast or large, but many golf clubs are seeing more white-collars who make around 8,000 yuan a month and we have a lot of young white-collars in our online forum," says Chen.

Shanghai Daily, aided by some veteran golfers, has identified a few appealing, affordable golf courses around China. Each has its own charm and scenery.

Weekend trip

"The weather is perfect, in the teens and low 20s, with flowers blooming everywhere," says Peter Khong, general manager of Four Points by Sheraton in Shanghai. You can see the butterflies, hear the buzzing and see the animals.

Khong's favorite courses are Tianma in Qingpu District and Silport in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province. It takes less than two hours to get to either from downtown Shanghai.

Silport is a Scottish links course facing Dingshan Lake. American designer Bobby Martin planned the course to take full advantage of the natural scenery and the water towns.

Famous Zhouzhuang Watertown is only 20 minutes away, on your way back to Shanghai.

Silport also has a course in Qingdao, Shandong Province, designed by the club's owner, a Taiwanese businessman. It's also a links course.

"It's simple but mature, with all the facilities required but not overly luxurious," says retired Shanghai lawyer Terrance Wang. "You can see all those animals moving around in spring - that's quite rare in other places."

Family trip

Wang used to love those challenging courses hidden deep in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region or on top of a mountain in Yunnan Province. These days, however, he wants to include his family (they don't play golf), so he looks for more resort-type places.

"It's nice if we can go to a place with something for each of us to enjoy and then we can have family dinner together in a nice house," says Wang.

Many new clubs cater to people like Wang and his family. They are often near hot springs, offer spas, tennis courts, child care centers and libraries.

Wang spends most family vacations at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province. Built in 1994, the huge "village" is considered one of the world's top golfing communities.

It has 12 world-class golf courses totaling 216 holes. Each has a big name player behind it, such as Jack Nicklaus, Vijay Singh, Nick Faldo, and Jumbo Ozaki.

Nicklaus (23-time PGA champion) designed the World Cup course as venue for the 41st World Cup of Golf in 1995, the first one held in China.

Wang's favorite, though, is the relatively new Norman Course, designed by Australian Greg Norman, who won nearly 90 international tournaments.

"It is recognized as the most difficult course in Asia, combining all kinds of difficulties like mountain ridges, narrow fairways, long grasses and long track of 7,214 yards," says Wang.

It satisfies his spirit of adventure while his wife and daughter enjoy Thai massage, tennis and scenery.

Wang also recommends Pine Valley Golf Club in Beijing, where the Western sport and Chinese feng shui are combined in the once desert-like area.

He considers it the best-renovated club he has seen, and he has been to many in every province.

For younger couples, editor Chen suggests Hainan Province. Chen says a four-day golf package from Shanghai to Hainan costs only around 5,000 yuan per person, much less than expected.

Tips and etiquette

Ask about a dress code and special regulations if it's your first visit to a club. Most clubs don't allow jeans to be worn on the course.

It's better to learn from a coach, not just technique, but also manners.

Don't try a difficult course until your coach says you're ready. A course can be dangerous if you don't have a comprehensive understanding of different clubs and the ball.

Don't hit or practice toward anyone: It's dangerous and disrespectful.

Stop play when someone passes nearby. Do not go ahead of whoever is playing.

Be quiet. Don't make noise or talk loudly.

Don't run on the greens - they can be damaged.

Make your judgment for the next ball well before you take a swing. It's a long game and it's best to prepare to save time.

Keep up with the group in front of you; you don't have to wait for those behind you. They'll catch up.

Be patient. Make only polite suggestions if other players are too slow.

Don't move beyond the group ahead. If you must do so, be sure there is space in front of them and ask for permission politely at the appropriate time.

No license is needed to drive a golf cart, but some clubs require a short training to avoid damaging the green or running into other golfers.

All players are obliged to mend the marks left by the ball and club. Don't rely on a caddy.

Smoking is prohibited on the course. It's courteous to turn off cell phones.

Tipping depends on the club - some clubs forbid caddies to accept tips. Although tipping is not common in China, it is a tradition everywhere to tip the boy who carries your golf clubs. It is not required in most clubs, but it's customary. For a nine-hole course, 100 yuan (US$15) is acceptable, for 18 holes, 200 yuan, but check on the level.


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