Golfing in China

January 14, 2008 2:28:06 PM PST
It could have been any course, anywhere. I faced a slightly downhill shot into a breeze--- 160 yards to a back pin on a bluff, with a steep drop and water lapping below. Instinct suggested the seven iron, but my head preferred the six.

"Seven," I told my caddy, but she thrust the six at me.

"No seven! Six!"

"Seven."

"Six---you do!!"

"Seven."

She sighed, and pulled the club, and then snickered in Chinese to her caddie friends. I swung, putting my ball in the middle of the green. "Tai-hau-cho! Goo-sha!" Then a big smile, as if she'd intended I hit that seven from the start. Lesson learned?and not because the par could save a putrid score. No, this was more basic than that. When your caddy runs your foursome like a dictatorial, Chinese version of a drill sergeant, stick to your guns. Or is that, stick to your sticks?

"You!! Ova'here." She kept us moving.

Of all my golf, China is the weirdest place I have ever played nine rounds in eight days. We saw the sights, too, but mostly, I went for the golf. It's not quite as extreme as bowling on Mount Everest or water skiing the Mojave Desert, but close.

Golf is relatively new in this nation of 1.3 billion people, but as the free market economy booms, so does interest the game. China has only about two-hundred courses, but five-hundred more are under construction. At first, only foreigners on assignment played. Next, Japanese and Koreans ventured in on vacation. Now, prosperous Chinese businessmen crave private memberships to go along with their BMW's and high-rise condominiums.

For American golfers, China offers one of the last bold frontiers. "Our concept is that this will be the golf experience for the player who has already been to Scotland, Ireland, or anywhere else," explained Terry Lazar, of Perry Golf. . "You can brag about being among the first Americans to play golf in China." Perry offers four golfing excursions through the country. My trip featured three days in the Beijing area, plus several more near Kunming, in the southern province of Yunnan.

Merely getting to the courses would be adventurous. During our first bus trip through Beijing's smoggy automotive snarl, we counted seven minor fender benders. The last of them toppled a metal gate across a bridge---our only route to the challenging, but fair, Beijing Golf and Country Club.

Amidst halted traffic and blaring horns, we yanked our clubs from beneath the bus and hiked them across the bridge, much to the amusement of chain smoking drivers in small, crowded cars. They must have marveled at the sight of pasty, jetlagged, middle-aged men, clunking in golf clothes and soft spikes. "American golfers!" we proclaimed in passing, as if they understood.

"Fong-luh," they replied. That means 'crazy' in Chinese.

Lazar quickly hired a passing truck to take our clubs the rest of the way?proof that he certainly knows his way around a crisis. He worked with the White House travel office during the Carter Administration. He told us to toss our bags into the truck's bed. Then, we watched, trustingly, as the driver pulled away with several thousand dollars worth of equipment. "Let's hope this guy doesn't do the math, and disappear."

Our clubs arrived without incident, but this small episode offers a practical example of why you should book any trip through China with an experienced operator handling tickets, accommodations, baggage, and tee times. Unless you know the Chinese language, culture, and geography, you'll feel as vulnerable as a fat duck wandering the streets of Peking.

Mostly, we played in agricultural areas. Every day, our bus carried us into the countryside, through small villages and farming communities. It felt like time travel. We'd see a peasant with his rickshaw, and then take a sharp left into a golf course.

We spent four nights in Beijing, and then moved to Kunming in the Yunnan Province, three hours by plane to the southwest. This area enjoys mild weather most of the year, due to its near tropical latitude and mile-high elevation. Kunming has a reputation as, "The City of Eternal Spring," and true to that promise, flowers blossomed everywhere. Yunnan is culturally diverse. Thirty-six million people live there---members of twenty-five minority ethnic groups---the Yi, the Bai, the Hui, Wa, among others. At times, we had to pinch ourselves to remember that we came for the golf. More than any hole or course, I will remember our unplanned stroll though a small village in the midst of harvest season. Drying yellow corn hung from the roofs and facades of almost every home. The townsfolk barely noticed us, but as anywhere else in China, don't walk up and clicking cameras in their faces. They'll run away. "No pictures!" You'll have better luck by asking for permission, first. Two young rascals from the local school were kind enough to indulge me, and then demanded to see themselves on the back of my digital camera.

We stayed thirty-five miles out of Kunming at the Spring City Golf and Lake Resort, with a large hotel, spa, restaurants, and two courses designed by Jack Nicklaus and Robert Trent Jones, Jr. We particularly enjoyed the Nicklaus Mountain Course. It is meticulously groomed, scenic, and challenging, but fair, with plenty of water and elevation changes. Close your ears, and it's as fine as any high-end resort at home, but not nearly as expensive. Suites and golf packages sold in the range of $300 per day.

The Trent Jones, Jr. Lake Course is more difficult, and diabolically so. Unless you're a masochist or a professional, play the white tees. If your drives don't land in the fairways, abandon hope. That said, it's beautiful. All the holes terrace above Lake Yang Zong Hai, set against a visually stunning backdrop of rolling mountain ranges.

A third course in the area, Kunming Sunshine Golf Club (www.sunshinegolfclub.com), offers as good a first twelve holes as you'll find anywhere. We were ready to pronounce Sunshine, "The best $110 golf course in the world,'" but its magic turned grossly mundane with the routing of its last six holes. I'm told that since our visit, Sunshine has improved, making this one of the world's great golf bargains and experiences.

Except for the act of hitting a ball, golf at even the best courses in China is decidedly novel, beginning with their clubhouses. Many bear the stark look of socialist architecture. They're big. They're square. They're unrefined. They reek of cigarette smoke. But, they're improving.

Unlike American courses, Chinese pro shops offer few souvenirs. You'll search hard to find gifts for your friends at home. At Spring City, I purchased a ball marker---one of the last in stock. If only they had known how dearly I would have paid for a Chinese golf hat.

Chinese courses conduct business differently, as well. In the states, we pay green and caddy fees in advance, and for range balls and refreshments on the spot. In China, you'll enter the clubhouse, sign in, and pay after the round. As you play, the caddy keeps a running tab, to be settled at the conclusion of your round.

It's like a golfing version of dim sum.

And then, there are the caddies. Expect them to surround your bus or car, and then whisk away with your clubs. Later, you will find them with a caddy standing next to them. From then on, you'll have to pry her from leaving your side.

Yes---she. The Chinese regard caddying as women's work---too demeaning for a man. Your caddy will probably be a young woman from a small village. She and the others serve at management's pleasure, often living in dormitories at the course. They send the money they earn home to their families.

Most of our caddies spoke broken English, at best, communicating with nods, gestures, or fingers held in the air. Our 'drill sergeant', whose name was Julie, had a wonderful sense of humor about herself, and us. "Your head look like golf ball," she teased about my chrome dome. "But, no dimples!"

Generally, we found our caddies to be the most earnest and well intentioned anywhere short of the professional tours. They enjoy working for accomplished players, and routinely "Oooh" or "Ahhh" fine shots. That's good for the ego. "You have excellent, straight, left arm." Julie informed me.

They will pamper you almost to the point of discomfort. When one member of our grouo, teaching professional Dave Mancour, hit his ball into a difficult spot, he felt obliged to pull his cart out of the mess. "It felt like the right thing to do," he said later. "She didn't like it."

David Balbi, another fine teacher who traveled with us, told a similar story. "I tried to help my caddie with a bag, and she had a fit. I was in shock, and backed off. For a woman to refuse such help from a man goes against my grain." We learned later that had their managers seen the women accept such help, they might have been fired.

Expect your caddie to wipe your clubs after every shot. If you hit a bad one, she'll shout, "Kan Jiao," for "Watch out!" She'll search, uncomplainingly, for any ball hit into woods or hazards until you tell her to stop, and apologize profusely if she can't find it. Your caddie will rake traps, provide accurate yardage, clean your golf balls before putts, and align them. Those reads won't always be correct, but what caddie ever is?

"Break is one puttuh left!" Julie instructed me before an eventual three-foot miss.

"You said one putter. That broke three feet!" I admonished.

"No! One puttuh," she insisted, extending her arms wide and holding up all thirty-five inches of my flat stick. "One puttah!"

We tipped our caddies an average of twenty dollars a round, about two times the expected rate. You're never again likely to pay so little for such good service.

I'd be remiss in describing this trip without commenting, at least a little, about China, itself. I last visited in 1988. Since then, its major cities have sprouted upwards. Cranes and growing skyscrapers dominate the urban horizons. Between now and the 2008 Olympic Games, China will construct the equivalent of five cities the size of Indianapolis.

During my previous visit, it was common to see peasants roaming Beijing or Shanghai in identical blue suits. Large photographs and murals of Chairman Mao loomed everywhere, or so it seemed, but not anymore. The dollar goes a long way in China. You'll pay three-star rates at five-star establishments such as the St. Regis Hotel in Beijing. My room had marble floors, feather down beds, American television, bottled water, the internet, and butlers.

In any Chinese city, make certain to visit a foot massage parlor. I'd never heard of them, but having survived the treatment, cannot wait for the next.

They led several members of our group to a medium-sized room. They instructed us to remove our shoes, socks, roll up our pant legs, and place our feet in the experienced hands of young, uniformed, female attendants who washed and soaked our feet in scalding hot tea. In unison, they pulled, kneaded, slugged, rubbed, squeezed, and manipulated our toes, feet and leg muscles in unimaginable ways, leaving us slaphappy, jellied, and completely refreshed by the time they finished.

All that ecstasy for?$12.

If you're game, Beijing offers more nightlife than you can handle. One evening, a local friend suggested we go for, as he described it, "A drink," which quickly became two, three, four, and then I lost count--- but after the vodka tonics I vaguely remember cocktails arriving in flames, in test tubes, and finally, seven kamikaze's---or so they tell me. My evening concluded with a ride in a speeding cab that, from the back seat, blurred Beijing's cityscape like the psychedelic pod journey in 2001, A Space Odyssey.

The next morning I shot a 53 on the front nine. Never felt a thing, except my head. But golfing in China??? Incredible.


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