Dan Washburn, the founding editor of Shanghaiist, has been winning high praise for his new book “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream”. It’s been described as “strikingly original” by The Wall Street Journal, “gripping” by The Economist, and “rigorously reported” by Publishers Weekly.
Golf has been, for the past decade, on a meteoric rise in China, with hundreds of new courses opened – this in spite of the fact that the building of new courses has been forbidden. Below is an excerpt from the book.
It’s been 10 years since the Chinese government made building new golf courses illegal. And, over the course of those 10 years, no country has built more golf courses than China. The reason local officials are willing to skirt Beijing’s ban is simple: money. When land-hungry developments like golf resorts come to town, local governments profit mightily — because, in China, local governments own the land. And the flow of money doesn’t stop once the land deal is settled, either. To keep projects moving, and the “Beijing golf police” at bay, palms repeatedly need to be greased. It can add up.
Of course, there are times when problems don’t get worked out, regardless of how much money gets thrown at them. A prime example was a monster project funded by a billionaire real estate tycoon, one of the richest men in China. He had dreams as big as his bank account, and set his sights on a prime piece of land, a spot so beautiful that it could have been part of a national park. It had everything – steep cliff faces, stunning mountain views from almost every angle and, at the center of it all, a large meandering lake that would bring water into play on nearly every hole. He hired one of the world’s most celebrated golf course architects to draw up a signature design. And he was busy buying up decaying resorts all over the area. He hoped this would be the first of as many as six golf courses he’d build there. Big numbers like this were becoming common in China – everyone was chasing after Mission Hills, the 12-course mega-complex in Guangdong province that Guinness World Records anointed the largest golf facility in the world.
But to the experienced eye of the American project manager overseeing construction, problems lurked at the site from the start. Right where the course’s first three holes would be, there was a well-established village, whose residents also claimed some ownership of various other sections of the course. When the project manager first arrived, he noticed several villagers had begun to build new, taller homes – a sure sign they were trying to score larger relocation settlements. He could tell these villagers were well informed, and canny. They weren’t going down without a fight.
Then there was the rest of the course, hugging the lake, which happened to be connected upstream to a large reservoir. At the moment, the land was dry. The water was about five yards lower than what was considered “safe” for the course from a flooding perspective. But the project manager had taken a look at the historical records and found that about a dozen years earlier the lake had risen to around ten yards above the “safe” level. The tycoon assured the project manager and his crew that he had an arrangement with the local authorities: should the water start to flood the course, they’d open up the dam at the far end of the lake and draw the water down to a manageable level. The project manager was skeptical. While the project manager began to question whether the job would ever reach the finish line, the owner continued to dream the way only a billionaire can. His first course may be in jeopardy, but that wouldn’t stop him from thinking about courses No. 2, No. 3 and beyond. He had representatives from every celebrity designer out to visit the site, from Greg Norman to Tiger Woods. “Give him credit,” the project manager said of the tycoon, “he’s got an imagination. He can sit there and think.” Sometimes, though, imagination coupled with a seemingly endless budget can drive a person a little crazy. “Can we put a waterfall here?” was one of the owner’s favorite questions. Waterfalls, unfortunately, couldn’t hide a course from the golf police.
The course ended up being one of the most drawn-out construction projects of the project manager’s career, spanning nearly five years. The delays were partly due to the weather. Brutal winters froze the ground and covered the course with snow, completely shutting down construction for several months each year. But the biggest issue was the land disputes that bedeviled the project from day one.
It was a story the project manager had heard several times before. The owner says he paid the government for the land. The villagers say they didn’t get paid, or that they weren’t paid enough. “I know the owner is just out millions [for the land],” the project manager said. “Say he pays a million out, and he gives it to his two or three people who deal with the government. How much do they take? And they go and pay the government. How much does the government take? By the time it gets down to these villagers, I mean, you know, two-thirds, three-quarters of it’s gone. And those guys don’t get shit.”
Not far from the existing village, the owner built what the project manager described as “a whole city” with “US townhouses.” The villagers refused to move to them.
“I don’t blame them,” the project manager said. “Better or not better, it’s not their home. Some of these little villages, they’re fourth or fifth generation.”
While the bickering between the local government and the villagers raged on, the project manager’s team built “temporary” versions of holes No. 1, 2 and 3 in a valley far enough from the village to be considered untouchable. But the rest of the project was a constant game of stop-and-start. They waited for the tycoon to say which parts of the land were approved for construction. They would get word that the spats had been settled and it was time to go ahead. Then the project manager’s crew would find protesters waiting for them at the job site.
“They would block the roads,” the project manager said. “As soon as you went out there and had equipment running, they would all come up.” The confrontations didn’t become physical, but they were effective nonetheless. the project manager said he instructed his guys “to just do what they say, you know. Never told them to challenge them or anything.”
Construction “came to a complete halt” after villagers took their case to the central government in Beijing. That move put the project, once hidden away in the mountains, in the spotlight – China Central Television even came out to report a story. The unwanted attention couldn’t have come at a worse time. Beijing had just launched what looked like another serious crackdown on golf development, and the tycoon’s dream course was an easy target for the capital’s “golf police.” The owner scrambled to get more approvals and permits to clear the way, but as the project manager pointed out, “none of them were for golf, obviously.” There were no official permits for golf courses.
Soon, the project manager’s crew noticed helicopters flying overhead with some regularity. “The owner’s people told us to fill in all the bunkers and plant grass over them,” he said. “They told us to put dirt over all the cart paths. They said they didn’t want it to look like a golf course. I thought it was the stupidest thing – there’s no way you’re going to disguise this so it’s not a golf course.”
Although the village itself never moved, the land disputes and the scrutiny from the authorities eventually died down enough to where the project manager’s team could finish the course. The result was beautiful. Many who saw it thought it might be one of the best in China – and it had better have been. The owner had spent $40 million on the project, more than four times what was considered expensive in China.
But then it started to rain. And the water began to rise, well beyond the “safe” level. The government didn’t do a thing, and the entire golf course was submerged in four yards of water.
“It’s ruined,” the project manager said. “Simply the opening of a gate would save him forty million dollars. And he obviously doesn’t have the pull to make that happen. The government’s in a bind. If the local government opens the gate and lets the water down to save an illegal golf course, there’d be some definite ramifications there.”
The tycoon refused to give up, however. He hired the same designer to route another nine holes on the side of a mountain, six yards above the high-water mark. He thought another $30 million would be enough to make it happen.
While the project manager began to question whether the job would ever reach the finish line, the owner continued to dream the way only a billionaire can. His first course may be in jeopardy, but that wouldn’t stop him from thinking about courses No. 2, No. 3 and beyond. He had representatives from every celebrity designer out to visit the site, from Greg Norman to Tiger Woods. “Give him credit,” the project manager said of the tycoon, “he’s got an imagination. He can sit there and think.” Sometimes, though, imagination coupled with a seemingly endless budget can drive a person a little crazy. “Can we put a waterfall here?” was one of the owner’s favorite questions. Waterfalls, unfortunately, couldn’t hide a course from the golf police.