China’s Shanqin Bay is a uniquely sophisticated design in a country better known for gaudy excess

May 16, 2014

China came relatively late to golf, but it has made up for lost time.

Communist in name, the world’s most populist nation boasts a surging consumer class with a boundless appetite for our capitalist pastime.

Officially, at least, the Chinese government frowns upon the game and has declared a moratorium on new golf course construction. But the clamp-down calls to mind the country’s former one-child-per-family policy: it bears little relation to what has happened on the ground.

With 400-plus courses and counting, China’s golf market is the fastest-growing on the planet. The quantity of choices is unquestionable. The quality, however, is another matter. So, anyway, say the architecture nerds.

As self-proclaimed purists are fond of pointing out, golf design in China has leaned toward the lavish, with an emphasis on outsize private and resort projects, anchored by extravagant real estate.

While many of the courses that snake through these developments are first-rate examples of their genre, they embody an aesthetic (think waterfalls and long forced carries) that has largely fallen out of fashion elsewhere.

For a sense of China’s standing among aficionados, consider this: until recently, not a single Chinese track had cracked GOLF Magazine’s list of Top 100 Courses in the World.

That changed in 2013, when Shanqin Bay made its ground-breaking debut at number 78 in the rankings.

The course sits on the southeast coast of Hainan Island, a tropical locale often likened to Hawaii and an epicenter of the Chinese golfing boom.

A one-hour flight from Hong Kong, Hainan is home to several dozen courses, 10 of which stand at Mission Hills Haikou, a mega-development whose Blackstone Course has hosted a spate of splashy events, including the 2013 exhibition match between Tiger Woods and Rory McIroy.

Mission Hills is top-shelf resort golf. It is also golf at a staggering scale, with a vast fleet of carts, an army of hard-hat wearing caddies and a sprawling infrastructure that feels like a city unto itself.

Shanqin Bay is the inverse image, a club of sophisticated understatement in a landscape better known for gaudy excess.

Perched on bluffs overlooking the South China Sea, the intensely private course was designed by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, leading figures in golf’s swelling throwback design movement. But it owes its origins to a businessman named Wang Jun, head of the Chinese conglomerate CITIC and a scion of one China’s ruling families. The son of Wang Zhen, a revolutionary elder and one of only two men said to have been allowed to carry a loaded weapon in the presence of Chairman Mao Zedong, Wang Jun came of age in entrenched Communist circles. But he also acquired a taste for traditional golf design.

In 2004, inspired by trips to such Golden Age icons as Pine Valley and Augusta National, Wang Jun set out to bring a world-class course to China. On a helicopter tour of Hainan Island, he spied a promising spot: a swatch of coastal land, flanked by the sea on three sides and blanketed by pineapple trees.

As he noted later, “I then knew I had found something very special.”

Not that the property was a slam-dunk. On his first site visit, Bill Coore expressed doubts about its viability; noting its steep changes elevation, he questioned whether it was fit for a course at all.

But with some careful planning, turned out it was. Not surprisingly, given its lush, seaside surroundings and the fact that it was dreamed up by the same designers, Shanqin Bay reveals a kinship with the Plantation Course at Kapalua. It also bears the hallmarks of other heralded Crenshaw-Coore layouts, including Sand Hills in Nebraska and Lost Farm in Tasmania. The routing is quirky, bringing the wind into ever-shifting play, and the rhythm of the layout is unorthodox and charming, moving seamlessly from big, bang-the-drum par-fives to drivable par-fours to short, postcard-worthy par-threes like the eighth, its buckled green set hard against a white sand beach.

China has never seen a track like this before.

In contrast to most courses in the country, with their constant calls for an aerial assault, Shanqin Bay invites the ground game, with challenges that grow as you draw closer to the greens. Fairways, while forgiving, favor strategic placement. Though it doesn’t hurt to bomb it, precision is more helpful. Hit a wildly errant shot, and it runs the risk of vanishing in tangled vegetation. But, refreshingly, the most persistent question at Shanqin Bay isn’t whether you will find your ball.

What you’re not apt to encounter is another golfer. With only 20-some-odd members, and initiation fees that reportedly run as high as $1 million, Shanqin Bay is a meant to be a hush-hush retreat. During my three days there, I glimpsed one other group, and they were in the far-flung distance, dots on the horizon, moving leisurely against the stunning backdrop of a bright blue sea.

At the time, I was standing on the tee box of the second hole, a dramatic par-five that sweeps down, then up, before plunging on a long, steady run toward the coastline. The water view was stirring but there was so much else to look at. One of the rare man-made features at Shanqin Bay is a stone wall that was erected by the military in the 1960s, during a time of Chinese conflict with Vietnam. The wall cuts a serpentine path through the course, cropping up here and there in artful fashion, most notably, perhaps, as a dramatic frame along the 18th fairway.

It also borders the back tee on number two. As I stood in its shadow, soaking up my surroundings, my caddie pointed to a faint image scratched into the stone: etched there long ago by a Chinese soldier, it was a faithful portrait of Chairman Mao.

If Mao were alive today, I wonder how he’d feel to see his face gazing over the green reach of a golf course. But so it goes in today’s China.

At least it’s a layout that rivals the best of the capitalist West.

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