x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Golf becomes the latest status symbol for aspirational Chinese

A growing number of successful Chinese businessmen are taking to what they see as a rich man's sport: golf.

Golf is the luxury leisure import that conveys wealth and power in China, where the sport is gaining in popularity. Natalie Behring / Bloomberg News
Golf is the luxury leisure import that conveys wealth and power in China, where the sport is gaining in popularity. Natalie Behring / Bloomberg News

BEIJING // The middle-aged man in a suit slams shut the boot of his silver E-Class Mercedes as a diminutive female caddy struggles with the large bag of golf clubs she has taken from the car, before dropping them gratefully on to a cart.

"Golf is becoming more and more popular in China," says the businessman, before settling in the cart and being driven off without giving his name.

Early on a Thursday afternoon, the car park of Beijing Links Golf Club is full with Audis, BMWs and Mercedes-Benz, the cars and 4x4s mostly in dark colours and all with tinted windows.

The vehicles leave no doubt golf is a rich man's sport in China. At this club, where life membership costs 6 million yuan (Dh3.39m), the manicured fairways are a world away from the life of China's migrant workers, who would have to save every penny they earned for 25 years before having enough to join.

"It's a very expensive sport," says Zhang Xiaobo, 25, the club's member services supervisor. "Twenty years ago it wasn't very popular, but recently a lot of rich people have become interested in playing."

The club has more than 400 members, and despite its hefty fees offers reasonable value compared with others in the capital.

The club, which is 10 years old, bills itself as the oldest in the city proper. Many others have opened to vie for the yuan of the capital's nouveau riche, who have seen their bank balances climb rapidly over the past decade of double-digit economic growth.

There is also Pine Valley, featuring a course designed by the US professional golfer Jack Nicklaus, and the Beijing Longxi Hotspring Golf Club, which is built alongside a five-star hotel.

The English champion Nick Faldo designed the course at Beijing Honghua International Golf Club, while Beijing Cascades Country Golf Club promotes its deluxe villas. And there are more than 15 other courses in the capital.

Despite a supposed ban on building golf courses in China, well-connected developers have been able to increase to 600 the total number of courses in the country, according to recent reports citing Beijing Forestry University figures, up from just 170 seven years ago.

Some stand as testament to the impotence of central edicts in the face of provincial or municipal corruption.

China's golf enthusiasts appear to savour its associations with wealth.

"We treat it as a kind of sport but [mainland golfers] don't," said Douglas Ho, the membership sales executive with Hong Kong's 007 Golf Society. "They treat it as a sport where they can express their social status."

China's golf industry has not yet repeated the excesses of pre-crash Japan, when speculation on golf club memberships meant they were worth a combined total of US$200 billion (Dh734.59bn), according to information posted by San Jose State University.

But there are echoes of what happened there, says Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor in Tsinghua University's school of economics and management.

In many parts of the world, a round of golf is used as a way to entertain clients but in China this importance is magnified by "guanxi", the murky web of connections and influence behind so many of the country's commercial success stories.

"It has an aspirational aspect to it as well," says Mr Chovanec, a high-profile commentator in Chinese media on the interfaces between economics and society.

"You're doing something that's showing you're wealthy. You're doing something that, especially if you're part of a club, you're showing your influence. It's conspicuous consumption, affluence."

In Chinese business circles, there is a focus on "demonstrating success", he says, so if it is not a round of golf, it might be an evening banquet of expensive dishes.

"It's not that you don't take people out to dinner in the US and want it to be nice, but there's not such an emphasis on impressing people," Mr Chovanec says.

"It's part of the social dynamics of China and it has been for a long time. You're showing both your success and the degree to which you're honouring your guest. Golf fits into that cultural pattern."