At Sheshan, the golf course is no escape from the complexities of modern China

October 27, 2012

SHANGHAI -- It took one swing for me to realize my round at Sheshan Golf Club was going to be a unique experience. I hit a pretty good drive and the two caddies in my group -- Stella and Midi, their long hair tucked under hilarious wide-brimmed hard hats -- broke into rapturous applause. I didn't know whether to laugh or offer a goofy tip of the cap, so I did both.

Stella was my caddie and she was as lovely as a lotus flower, a sweet, demure presence with an utterly charming giggle. On tee boxes she would point out my target by saying, "At the bunker, please," or "That tall tree would be nice." It was phrased so gently I felt like I couldn't let her down. She was omnipresent. One minute Stella would be talking me into the correct club in the fairway, and by the time I arrived at the green she would already have fixed the pitch mark, marked my ball, cleaned it, and obsessively lined up the aiming-line on my Titleist, which I never bother to do. Then she would disappear and be back a few seconds later to present, say, a chilled apple she had just peeled.

"Our caddies are too good -- the members have become very spoiled," said my amiable host Gavin Eckford, an expat Canadian who is the club's director of golf. "When they play somewhere else, they don't know how to fix ball marks, they can't pull the right clubs."

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Stella and I did have some interesting culture clashes. On the fourth hole, a lovely par 3 that hugs a canal, I caught my tee shot a little heavy and wound up 10 yards short of the green. The flag was only a few paces onto the putting surface, on the downslope of tricky little knoll. When I asked Stella for my putter she was utterly baffled.

"All the Chinese ever hit around the greens is the 60 degree wedge," Gavin explained. "They wouldn't ever putt it from there because they don't know that option exists."

The typical member at the club is a fortysomething businessman who recently took up the game and never watches golf or looks at a golf magazine. Sheshan opened in 2004 and is already widely considered to be the best course in China, and membership is a coveted status symbol among the country's new class of robber-barons. The downstroke at Sheshan is 2.5 million yuan, roughly $400,000. There are 800 members and a long waiting list to get in.

The exhibitionist streak of China's nouveau riche is evident on the back nine, which plays around a man-made island with 20 "villas," each of which is large enough to be a clubhouse. They are reputed to sell for as much as $40 million. But having a mini-Taj Mahal isn't enough for one of the owners. The shallow inlet around the island is only a few hundred yards long but this dude has a 45-foot sailboat parked there. It had to be brought in with a crane. As if that weren't enough, he added a ski boat and jet ski. None of these have ever left the dock -- they can't. They are merely ridiculous displays of conspicuous consumption.

For similar reasons most Sheshan members play Honma golf clubs, because they are the most expensive brand on the market. But the players have zero interest in the custom-fitting that would actually help their games.

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Sheshan's members may have come to golf for the wrong reasons but their newly discovered passion for the game is commendable. Unlike many of America's most exclusive clubs, which are woefully underused, Sheshan gets a ton of play; on the Friday I visited every single tee time was booked. Reservations can be made by phone six days in advance and all of the weekend spots are usually snapped up within the first half hour.

This ardor has been transferred to the next generation. Sheshan has a robust junior program, with 60 kids. The reigning women's club champion is, in fact, an 11-year-old girl. That she took the title with a round of 72 is all the more impressive because Sheshan is a visually intimidating golf course, right from the jump. The spectacular par-5 second hole bends left around a hazard, to a treacherous peninsula green. Many of the small, rolling greens are elevated, meaning from the fairway they look like the tiniest of targets. But Sheshan is more playable than it appears. The fairways are pretty wide and the smooth putting surfaces are receptive and roll at reasonable speeds. The integrity of Sheshan's design -- by Neil Haworth, a Brit -- is evident in the roll call of winners at the HSBC Champions played there: Y.E. Yang (2006), Phil Mickelson ('07, '09), Sergio Garcia ('08), Francesco Molinari ('10), Martin Kaymer ('11).

"I think it is the best course in Asia," says Kaymer. "The holes are very unique and interesting -- each one is its own adventure. And anything can happen on those last three holes."

In what may or may not be a nod to Merion, Sheshan's 16th and 17th play around an old rock quarry, though this one is more scenic, filled halfway with water and framed by verdant plantings. The 16th is a drivable par 4 with a wicked green, the 17th a par 3 that demands a bold carry across the quarry. The rousing finishing hole is a shortish par 5 with water in play the whole way, ending with another do-or-die peninsula green.

Sheshan is beloved not just for its conditioning and shot values. It is also the Shadow Creek of China -- some 50,000 trees were brought in and 1.5 million cubic tons of earth were moved to create a transporting oasis in the middle of a hectic city.

Many courses in China are framed by smokestacks and power lines, including Lake Malaren, site of this week's BMW Masters. But at Sheshan, "You don't feel like you're in China," says Kaymer. "It's like taking a walk in the forest. Very peaceful place."

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And yet the harsh realities of a developing nation can intrude even on Sheshan's meticulously crafted artificial reality. Stella and Midi were taken aback that I wanted to know about their lives away from the course. With some prodding, each said they are married with a child. They live with their families in Shanghai, but about 100 of the 130 caddies are housed in an on-site dormitory. The club provides free room and board, as well as their sporty on-course outfits. The women can make 100-200 yuan ($16-32) per loop, in a country where the average monthly salary for migrant workers is about 2,000 yuan ($320). Midi had previously worked in a factory and she clearly loved caddying. She reveled in getting to be outdoors, surrounded by nature while "meeting interesting people."

It was great fun chatting with the caddies, who added such a light-hearted presence to the round. But on the 17th hole it came out that many of the women who live in the caddie dorm are from faraway provinces and they get home to see their child and husband only once or twice a year. (In China, grandparents do much of the child-rearing.) As a homesick dad, half a world a way from my own kids, thinking about that left me reeling.

After the round we arrived at the grand, Tuscan-style clubhouse, where dozens of caddies were waiting cheerfully to be summoned. I couldn't help feeling a little guilty about how much I had enjoyed having Stella fuss over me, knowing that these other women would do the same for their loops.

As a golf course and a breeding ground for the next generation of Chinese golfers, Sheshan is an unqualified success. But the club also offers a little window into China's soul. As I discovered, some of what you see isn't as pretty as it appears.