Olympics makes China major player

SHANGHAI, China -- Earlier this week at a news conference for the WGC-HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, world No. 1 Tiger Woods said he believed the International Olympic Committee's decision in October to include golf in the 2016 and 2020 Games could turn China into a "powerhouse" in the sport -- if the Chinese government, after decades of indifference, decides to put its weight behind the game.

"China has done the same thing in pretty much every other sport, except for golf," said Woods of the Olympics-crazed nation. "It will be interesting to see what happens if they make a push toward that, and if they do, then there's no question they will become a powerhouse in golf, with the populous and with the amount of golf courses that are being constructed, the game, obviously, we know is exploding over here. So it's just a matter of time."

Jack Nicklaus, who has designed or is in the process of designing some 35 courses in China, has been even bolder with his predictions.

"With the numbers in China and the way they approach their sport," Nicklaus told Britain's Daily Express in October, "I would not be surprised to see five of the world's top 10 are Chinese in the next 20 years. They plan to build 1,400 public courses in the next five years now [that] it has become an Olympic sport, so they will go after it and learn. For me that is fantastic because it grows the game on a worldwide basis."

On Saturday, China Golf Association vice president Wang Liwei told ESPN.com that it may be too soon to make such grand projections since it's still unclear how or when the central government will alter some of its golf-related policies. Wang said the most immediate changes will be seen in, and most government money will flow to, the development of potential Olympic golfers.

"I think there will be huge changes, but right now it is impossible to say what they will be or when they will happen," Wang said. "It needs time. The golf-related laws, regulations and policies will not just come out immediately after golf gets to the Olympics. It must have a development period. It needs investigation, understanding and establishing. But for sure, with golf in the Olympics, the government will definitely put funds into the development of junior players."

Thanks to its Olympic status, golf will now be included in the hotly contested Chinese National Games, which every four years pits provinces and municipalities against one another. Golf was a demonstration event in the 2009 National Games, held in October in Shandong Province. Wang said he envisions state-funded provincial team training centers throughout the country, from which China will grow its future golf Olympians, similar to the way the country's athletic system works in other sports.

By the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the CGA hopes China will have both a male and female Olympian in golf. By 2020, he said, anything is possible.

"It's 2009 now, and according to the growth and development of athletes, 10 years will definitely be enough time for talents to arrive," Wang said. "By then we will have the goal of not only participating but also possibly winning a gold medal. We will definitely not give up."

The push to get golf into the Olympics was borne partially out of a desire to spread the game throughout the world. But there was also an ulterior motive: To save an industry in decline.

Many believe China, the world's fastest growing economy, could prove to be golf's magic elixir -- if only the sport could get the government's official blessing. Olympic golf was thought to be the key. The Chinese take their Olympic sports quite seriously, as anyone who glanced at a television in August 2008 knows.

But golf's critics in China contend the expansion of such a high-consumption activity runs counter to several of President Hu Jintao's primary concerns: among them the environment, the plight of farmers, and the widening gap between rich and poor. China is a nation of 600 million farmers, little arable land and 1.4 billion mouths to feed. Some wonder whether promoting a land-hungry game currently only enjoyed by a couple of million very wealthy citizens should be one of the country's priorities.

For the short term, at least, it's clear the Chinese government will focus more on garnering Olympic gold in golf than grassroots growth of the game at the recreational level. And for those who have worked in the Chinese golf industry, this comes as no surprise.

Arthur Yeo, the former general manager of Spring City Golf Club in Kunming, Yunnan, says he expects the government to adopt a "wait and see" approach when it comes to golf. Public perception of the sport will not change overnight, he said.

"It is still an elitist sport, and for over 25 years it has been discouraged," said Yeo, a Singapore native who retired from his post last year. "Right now, the government doesn't know how to respond because they still have to worry about the general public. Their power base is the general public."

Since the Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949, golf was branded a bourgeois pursuit. And while the sport has gained in popularity since modern China's first golf course opened in 1984, most in China still consider it the "rich man's game," and with good reason.

It's prohibitively expensive to play golf in China -- one recent study put the average green fee here at $161 -- and while the country is home to 600 or so courses, only a small handful could be considered "public" in terms of pricing.

And what of Nicklaus' prediction of 1,400 public courses in five years? One Chinese golf industry insider didn't mince words.

"That's bull s---," he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "Do you think the Chinese government is going to use public money to build public courses? I understand how they work here. I have been in China long enough. The government will throw in money for the golf programs for the juniors. We know China: They won't build public courses. It's all hype."

Wang said the growth of public, or at least cheaper, courses is one of the CGA's aims, but didn't offer specific plans. He said he couldn't predict how many public courses might exist in China in five years. "Because I am not in charge of the land policy and when those laws and regulations will change, I don't know," he said. "Asking me to estimate the number is impossible."

For several years now, the construction of new golf courses in China has technically been banned. Technically.

The number of golf courses has still managed to triple over the past five years -- you just don't mention the word "golf" in your plans. And nearly everyone in the golf course construction business has something in the works in China. It's one of the only places in the world where people are building. (At news conferences earlier this week, you could ask Phil Mickelson any question at all, and he'd begin with a discussion of his two China design projects.)

Very few golf courses turn a profit from golf alone, however, and with land prices soaring, the only way developers can recoup and build upon their investment is through the sale of luxury homes attached to the golf course. This keeps green fees high, and golf maintains its elitist reputation.

"Every golf course is based on real estate and property development -- it is not mainly for the game of golf," said Aylwin Tai, who was manager of China's first golf course -- Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in Guangdong Province -- when it opened 25 years ago. "Now, everybody will try to knock on the door. Everybody wants to build a golf course. But they will do it with more guts. If I am a government official, I will say, 'Ah, this is an Olympic sport now. We have to give a green light, instead of doing it under the table.' They need to start regulating this, because you have too many projects rushing in."

Yeo says the course construction boom represents a "big danger."

"Currently even with the existing number of golf courses being planned, there is insufficient qualified people managing from all levels of operation," Yeo said. "And this will be very dangerous to the development of golf in China because you don't get good quality projects. It will damage the industry as a whole."

There will be growing pains, to be sure. And the true impact Olympic golf will have on Chinese golf will best be measured not in months or years, but in decades. But some effects were felt immediately. Just ask China's top golfer, Liang Wenchong.

"For the first time I start to really have the feeling of being an athlete," Liang told Xinhua, the state-run news service in October. "'Noble game,' 'old man's sport' -- for all these years golf has always been described like this in society. Now, golf gets to the Olympics and it has significant meaning to the development of golf in China. I believe the level of golf in our country will improve a lot, and I hope more and more public courses will appear and learning golf will be a very common hobby, just like playing basketball or soccer."

Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer. Visit him online at http://danwashburn.com.