Reuters - Tue, 02 Mar 09:16:00 2010
Golf participation in China is set to explode despite a development ban on new courses and the extortionate cost of green fees, according to the China Golf Association.
China's first golf course was built in 1984 and although around 500 more have sprung up since, a six-year-old government ban on new development has slowed growth.
The United States, by contrast, has around 18,000 courses, while Europe has an estimated 6,000, leading some to question whether the facilities exist to support a boom in Chinese golf.
"The existing 500 courses are enough for the basic development of golf," CGA vice president Wang Liwei said.
"No matter how many course there are - 500, 1,000 or 10,000 - it is a sport of players. We are also taking alternate measures, such as building driving ranges in public green spaces."
Last year's decision to add golf to the Olympic programme from 2014 has helped rekindle interest in developing the sport, its inclusion seen as a key factor in the allocation of resources by the state-run sport system.
"Entering the Olympics will greatly push forward the development of golf in China," Wang added.
"The good news is that golf has already become a sport in the (quadrennial) National Games, which means it will draw greater attention and support from provincial sports authorities.
"A platform will be built through them, to popularise the sport among the youth, and to improve professional golf and marketing development.
"Golf in China will enjoy explosive growth after that."
China banned the building of new courses in 2004 because of concerns over the illegal procurement of vast tracts of farmland by some developers.
"We resolutely abide by the government policy of saving farmland," said Wang, who is also a government official.
"However, there is still some wasteland or barren land that could be used to build golf courses."
Developers have always found ways around the ban by, for example, requesting permission to build a hotel with huge surrounding grounds - which subsequently prove large enough to accommodate 18 holes.
Playing is still, however, prohibitively expensive for all but the richest Chinese - joining a club cost an average of $53,000 (£35,500) in 2008, according to a KPMG report.
That makes the CGA's struggle to popularise the game among China's 1.3 billion people an uphill task, and their youth development strategy all the more important.
The CGA has not been slow to enlist the support of the wealthy clubs, foreign golf tours and sponsors who have flocked to China in recent years, including Europe's biggest bank HSBC, whose $7 million (£4.7m) Champions tournament is the richest in Asia.
"The CGA launched a joint youth development project with HSBC in 2008," Wang said. "It has benefited 20,000 children in three years. Over 2,000 have attended the golf camps. We also have a national youth tour.
"At the provincial level, there will be more free opportunities for children to participate in golf. Clubs are also offering their spare resources for the popularisation and youth development."