Q&A: Architect Brian Curley talks about the myths of building golf courses in China, the Olazabal course at Mission Hills and more

November 3, 2012

Go East, young man!

It’s the rallying cry of American golf architects eager to seize on the game’s growth in China.

Then they arrive, and find that Brian Curley beat them there by years.

With his partner, Lee Schmidt, of Schmidt-Curley Design, Curley, 52, got a head start overseas in 1997, when he cut the ribbon on his first two courses at Mission Hills, the 12-course mega-complex in southern China.

He and Schmidt have barely had a breather since.

Over the past 15 years, Curley and Schmidt have stamped their names on 40-plus courses in China, including 10 layouts on a second Mission Hills development on Hainan Island. They’ve got a half-dozen other courses on the mainland in the works.

Along the way, they’ve become the busiest architects in the fastest growing golf market in the world, riding a wave that has continued despite an official moratorium on new course construction, laid down by the Chinese government but not strictly enforced.

This week, as the WGC-HSBC Championship draws a star-spangled field to the Olazabal Course at Mission Hills (though the Spanish golfer gets the billing, Schmidt-Curley did the bulk of the design work), Golf.com caught up with Curley to ask about golf in China, past and present, and to get his response to those who say that China’s golf boom is destined to go bust.

You’re a native Californian who worked with Pete Dye on a number of big-name projects in the United States. What took you to China in the first place?
I went to China for the first time in 1996. Mission Hills had just held the World Cup the year before, and the resort had opened just in time for the event. It was in its embryonic stages. I was working for the Landmark development company at the time, but I didn’t have any projects in China. While I was there, I connected with Burch Riber, who ran the World Cup. He said, "We’ve just had this tournament, and we want to add more golf." That was my introduction. It was my first trip to China, and golf was obviously in its early stages. For the World Cup, a lot of the spectators were students that they bused in at the last minute just to fill the place up. At the same time, you could see that the upside potential was so massive. The opportunity was clearly there.

China has more than 1.3 billion people. How many of them could break 100 back then?
You look back 10 or so years, and the level of play was not particularly high. Mission Hills opened with two courses. The Nicklaus World Cup course, and a second Nicklaus course that they called the Valley Course. The Valley Course was the easier of the two. But in China, there’s a concept, they call it "face." It’s the idea that if you play easy courses, you’re not a man. So at Mission Hills at the outset, everyone wanted to play the World Cup course, even though the Valley Course was what they really needed.

How much has the quality of play in China improved?
It has definitely improved. But one of the many things I love about golf in China is that it’s like the PGA Tour in the '70s, when you could tell from a distance who was coming up the fairway. Everybody has a homemade swing.

The first thing most people notice about Mission Hills is the sheer size of it. To the Western observer, the scale seems particularly Chinese. Is that a fair take?
I always refer to the "factor of 10" in China. When you think something is big enough, in China it is 10 times bigger. I once was taken to a famous seafood restaurant in Tianjin. We drove up and I said, "Oh, it’s in a shopping mall." And they said, "No, the whole thing is a restaurant." It was about 200,000 square feet, like two Walmarts, and full! Everything is big here and there is an endless line of people to fill the space.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of courses in China reportedly jumped from 170 to 600, and most courses in China are tied to real estate. In the U.S., we had a golf-real estate bubble and it burst. Isn’t China destined for the same thing?
As long as the economy is decent and as long as there is no government interference, I see no reason for a bust. Some areas will overbuild, but, in general, the sport has legs for a long time. The advantage they have here is that the costs of operations are significantly lower, so a course can last even if rounds are low. Another difference between China and the U.S. is that most courses here are built to grab land, not necessarily to accommodate immediate play. So say you get an operator with deep pockets, they’re happy to open a course and have no one play it for a while but their friends.

Here’s another thing we hear a lot about China: rampant development with no regard for environmental concerns. Is that the case when it comes to golf?
Not the case at all. We are doing courses that require more environmental work than is required in the U.S. We have one course where all the turf areas are on top of a plastic liner and all water is collected prior to getting to the large lake we are on. The water is then pumped back to the irrigation lake. Some places are relaxed but not nearly to the extent that some people think. Regardless, all architects "do the right thing," even if they are not told to do so.

What about the growing interest in classic architecture, as represented by places like Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links? Has that caught on in China?
That’s something I’ve been battling for years. One of the realities is that the majority of Chinese have not played much golf outside of China. And they have the idea that their courses should look like Augusta, with flowers and impeccable manicuring. In the past, if you showed them a picture of a place like Sand Hills or Bandon Dunes, they’d look at you and say, "If I build something like that, people will think I don’t have money to maintain the course." But they’re getting more savvy. More magazines here are covering places like Bandon, so there’s a growing awareness. It’s still tough a tough sell, but it’s not for a lack of trying.

Any examples of really great golf architecture in China?
Plenty. One of our new courses, Blackstone, is what I consider the best course in the country and the best tournament venue in Asia. We imported millions of yards of sand and built a sand dunes course on the site. It’s pretty spectacular. And we’re working on a project on a sandy site in Mongolia that is going to be like Sand Hills. Bill Coore also did a job on Hainan Island overlooking the ocean, and that’s probably the poster child in China for the throwback style you asked about. But one thing you need to remember about those kind of courses, places like Bandon and Sand Hills and Cabot Links, is that they are distinctive properties that allow you to pull that kind of thing off fairly easily. The majority of properties we deal with, we’re working with what we’ve got. In China, chances are, if it’s a good piece of sandy property near a population base, it isn’t just sitting there vacant waiting for a golf course. It’s got something growing on it. What you’re left with to build a course on is on the side of a hill, or along a river, or some other plot of land where you have to recreate the environment you’re talking about.

What about the Olazabal Course, where this week’s big event is being held. It’s got Ollie’s name on it, but how involved in the project was he really?
Compared to a lot of guys, he was very involved. He came here twice I think during the construction. To his credit, of the signature names we’ve worked with, he’s one of the few guys that actually took the set of plans and red-lined them. He had comments, questions. He was involved. A lot of guys, they’re content to hit a ceremonial tee shot when a place opens.

A guy like Olazabal doesn’t need the money from course design. But that’s not true for a lot of golf architects these days. If it weren’t for China, would you still have work?
We’ve got some smaller projects going on in the States. And some things firing up in Mexico and Thailand. But obviously we’re very happy we got in on China when we did. When I first started working here, people would say, "Why are you working in China? No one ever gets to see what you’ve done." And I’d think, "Are you kidding? This is where it’s all going to be."