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China’s Golf Obsession

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The future of golf has shifted to a most unlikely place: China, where statistically 0 percent of the population plays, where up until the mid-1980s the sport was banned by the communists for being too bourgeois, and where the construction of new courses is still technically illegal. It has been said about China, however, that while nothing is allowed there, everything is possible. So even during its supposed moratorium on golf course construction, China has managed to emerge as the only country in the world in the midst of a "golf boom": Hundreds, some say thousands, of courses are expected to open in the next several years.

The epicenter of this growth is China's tropical island province of Hainan, not long ago a lawless place with an economy built largely on smuggling, prostitution, and unchecked property speculation. Beijing is now determined to transform Hainan into a tourist paradise, with golf expected to play a major role (so much so that many joke Hainan is now a "special golf development zone" where mainland restrictions don't apply). While between 100 and 300 courses are expected to be built here, the most mysterious project -- and by far the most audacious -- is the latest offering from Hong Kong's Mission Hills Group, already owners of a 12-course resort in southern China's Guangdong province. Its Hainan club, when completed, will be the world's largest, with some 22 courses covering an area nearly 1.5 times the size of Manhattan. But the highly secretive Mission Hills development, a behemoth undertaking that displaced thousands of villagers, is also the most controversial, so controversial that it required a code name: Project 791.

With the central government guaranteeing a "top international tourism destination" by 2020, Hainan's destiny appears predetermined. No one disputes the poor province's many infrastructure needs, but the prospect of another decade of furious growth has some on the island concerned for its already fragile ecology and centuries-old ways of rural life.

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Xiao Zhijin, the first -- and, until recently, only -- professional golfer based in Hainan works on his game at a driving range in Haikou, the provincial capital. Xiao, 39, grew up on a farm and didn't know golf existed until his mid-20s, when the hotel he was working at bought an electric indoor golf simulator that he'd play when business was slow. Five years later, he was a professional golfer on China's fledgling golf tour.

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Two men supervise the clear-cutting of jungle on the property of Hainan's massive 50-square-mile Mission Hills golf course development. The project occupies land in a region long known as the "lung of Haikou" for its green landscape and fresh air. A Haikou-based environmental NGO was moving forward with plans to turn part of the land into a forest park when the local government suddenly pulled the plug on the two-year-old project in favor of golf.

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Cleared land awaits development at the Mission Hills project. Thousands of villagers gave up land to make room for the world's largest collection of golf courses. Many were happy to do so. All of the Mission Hills property is inland, and much of it was classified as huangdi, or wasteland, due to its untillable terrain -- part of the land lies just east of a 67-square-mile national geological park built around an extinct volcano crater, and lava rock is everywhere. To get around this issue when it came to growing turf, the golf course developers simply dug out a nearby mountain to extract sufficient red earth for topsoil.

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A group of laborers plays mahjong in a shop next to the construction site of the workers' dormitories on the Mission Hills golf course development. Thousands of migrant workers were brought in to build the world's largest collection of golf courses. Once completed, Mission Hills Hainan is expected to employ some 10,000 people.

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A rare glimpse into the highly secretive Mission Hills golf project. The structures in the distance -- the complex's first clubhouse and luxury hotel -- form the dramatic backdrop to the 18th green on what is known as the "tournament course." It has been widely speculated that this will eventually become the new site of either the HSBC Champions -- the World Golf Championships' tournament dubbed "Asia's Major" that has been held in Shanghai since 2005 -- or golf's Omega-sponsored World Cup, which currently calls Mission Hills' first development in Shenzhen home.

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A man rakes seeds at his home in Yongdong, one of the many small villages adjacent to the Mission Hills golf course development. Some locals, bracing for a culture clash once wealthy mainland golfers and tourists start frequenting the golf complex, worry that development will soon eclipse traditional ways of life. But others think the growth is a good thing. "I think they should bring in more big projects and attract more foreigners, just like Hawaii," said a taxi driver. "As the economy develops, the living standards of the people will improve as well."

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Young men pass the time during a lazy afternoon in Yongdong. Although many residents of villages like Yongdong gave up land for the development, it wasn't without struggle. In fact, the border of the golf property has changed more than 100 times over the past few years due to disputes with villagers, mostly over compensation. In rural China, people have no legal ties to the land, so developers negotiate with the government, which then in turn distributes payouts to the villagers, who are well aware that the local governments keep a large portion of the money for themselves.

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A woman rides her bicycle down a lane in Meixiao village, which borders Mission Hills. Many of the villages surrounding the golf project are laid out in maze-like fashion, with narrow stone paths weaving between small, single-story stone homes featuring walls of irregularly shaped pieces of lava rock and gable roofs covered in tile. Some structures are hundreds of years old.

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An elderly woman walks down a small alleyway in Meixiao. Remnants of similar centuries-old villages were incorporated into some of the 22 golf courses in the Mission Hills project.

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A caddy holds an umbrella as a golfer watches his putt at Taida Golf Club, just outside Haikou. Taida, which opened in the early 1990s, is Hainan's first golf club, and because its course and facilities are outdated, it currently offers cheap greens fees (around $44) to lure customers. Taida was recently purchased by a Beijing-based real estate company that has major upgrades planned for the club -- namely a slew of new luxury villas -- in an effort to compete with regional upstarts like Mission Hills.

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Caddies hang off the backs of golf carts at Taida Golf Club. Long before it became known as the "Hawaii of China," missionaries in Hainan referred to it as the "Isle of Palms." The Chinese have historically been more skeptical of the island and its pirates, monsoons, and mysterious natives. In fact, a Tang Dynasty official exiled to Hainan famously said he was being sent to the "gate of hell."

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A worker repairs the grass at Meilan Golf Club, near the Haikou airport. In January, the central government announced specific plans to turn Hainan into a top international tourist destination -- like Hawaii or Bali, state media emphasized -- by 2020.

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An aerial view of Meilan Golf Club, one of the newest golf courses on Hainan Island. Golf courses on Hainan will increasingly need to rely on tourists from the mainland to succeed. Hainan is a poor province with only a couple of thousand golfers, and the lagging global economy has also taken a toll on business. Visitors from South Korea and Japan, who in the past accounted for a large chunk of Hainan's golf tourism, no longer find traveling to China to play a few rounds such a bargain, and though Russian tourists continue to crowd Hainan's beaches, none of them play golf.

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The brand-new clubhouse at Meilan Golf Club. A shortage of golfers in the short term is not necessarily a concern for many developers, whose interest in golf construction has less to do with the game played on their courses than it does with the luxury villas they can build around them. So far, finding people to snatch up these million-dollar homes has not been a problem on Hainan. "It is all about selling vacation houses and having it full three to four months of the year," one golf course architect explained.

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Hainan Island's magnificent eastern coast as seen from the Tonggu Ridge, near the city of Wenchang. Hainan may well be China's greenest province, but the past several decades of development have taken their toll on the island's ecology. Hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin forest and natural habitat have been lost thanks in part to a once out-of-control real estate market and the slash-and-burn farming techniques of local villagers. But the biggest culprit, starting some 60 years ago, has been the conversion of ancient woodlands into "commercial forests" used to produce rubber, timber, and paper. Because of these practices on Hainan, many native plant and animal species are under severe threat, most notably the Hainan gibbon, considered one of the 25 most-endangered primates in the world. Logging was banned in Hainan's natural forests more than a decade ago, but as is often the case in China, enforcement can be erratic.

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A woman in Bohou village sorts rice on the roof of her home, with Sun Valley Golf Club in the background, in the resort city of Sanya. While many neighboring villages were relocated several years ago to make room for Sun Valley (which boasts the "only par-6 hole in China"), tiny Bohou remains in its original location, its entrance hidden by a line of tall palm trees directly behind the security guard's post at the private golf course's gated entrance. Bohou's residents used to be farmers, but their rice paddies are now fairways and greens. These days, most villagers find work at the luxury hotels and resorts that dot nearby Yalong Bay.

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Workers tend to a bunker at Dragon Valley Golf Course, which opened in January. Golf projects in China often take longer than they would in the United States. Laborers, sometimes recruited from local villages, understandably have no concept of what a golf course is supposed to look like. "We can build a golf course in the States with about 25 people, including myself," said one golf course construction manager working in Hainan. "Here it takes 150 people. It's just an everyday fight, an everyday fight. But you can't get mad. They just don't know. It's inexperience."

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A worker carries baskets at Dragon Valley Golf Club. Dragon Valley, a picturesque par-72, 7,173-yard course nestled in a lush green valley, was designed by Schmidt-Curley Design, one of the many American golf architecture firms active in China. Schmidt-Curley, also responsible for all of the golf courses at Mission Hills, recently opened a Hainan office due to the demand. Hainan, and China in general, is increasingly a priority for nearly everyone working in global golf course design or construction. "This is the only place in the world building right now," said one industry professional.

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