The bellman, dressed like a highly decorated admiral, knocked at the door to deliver my suitcase and golf clubs so I fished in my pocket for a tip and pulled out a crumpled, red and white bill. Through my balcony window, I could hear the click of golf shoes on the cart path as a foursome wound their way to the first tee of the Greg Norman designed course.
I could have been at any resort in North America but I wasn’t – it was mainland China and the face on the money was that of the late Chairman Mao, father of Chinese Communism and fierce foe of western decadence.
While the Chairman is undoubtedly spinning in his specially built crystal coffin in Tiananmen Square, his countryman are embracing the royal and ancient game. There are at least 600 courses in the Communist bastion and while the rest of the golf world is flat lining, in China the game in the midst of a mini-boom.
The Chinese love numbers and there is no place with gaudier digits than the Mission Hills Country Club. Located about an hours drive outside of Hong Kong, it is home to 4 spas, 12 golf courses and 51 tennis courts. On its busiest days over 2400 golfers tee it up at the resort and four holes in one have been recorded in a single day. And these aren’t pitch and putt layouts. The names attached to the courses include Pete Dye, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Annika Sorenstam. (In case you get a little restless at 2AM, all 18 holes of the Vijay Singh course are completely lit, so you can play around the clock.)The courses have hosted some of the world’s top players including Freddy Couples and Davis Love III who teamed up to win the World Cup here in 1996.
While the golf is good, it was the surprises that intrigued me.
As the resort’s head of food and beverage explained the restaurant’s exotic dishes, I complemented her on the food and her English, which were impeccable. Turns out that she had graduated from the University of Manitoba and previously had worked as head of F&B at the Old Mill restaurant, which is about a drive and wedge shot away from my house in the west end of Toronto. (Guess Walt Disney was right – It’s a small world after all.)
I’m used to Irish caddies, especially the grizzled veterans who look like they’ve been wrestling leprechauns all night, so when I arrived at the first tee of the Olazabel course - the best of the 12 layouts - I was surprised to meet a young, female caddie. The resort houses 1500 women loopers who live in an on-site dormitory, like a giant sorority house, although I suspect there aren’t any panty raids from the local college boys. Decked out in sharp, red coveralls, yellow bibs and jungle hard hats, the caddies hang on the back of the carts which stay on the paved paths and then hustle out to the ball with clubs and advice. My caddie was Sally, who was originally from one of China’s Northern provinces. Her English was excellent although she kept her comments on my shots to a minimum. If I hit it solid, she called out triumphantly, `beautiful’, but if I chunked it fat, she would cast here eyes down and whisper, `oh’. Feeling ashamed, I tried a little harder.
After Mission Hills, our group moved northeast, towards the city of Donguan. We were a little behind schedule, so our bus driver hammered the horn, a not so subtle signal to other vehicles to get the hell out of the way. The highway system in southeast China is not much different than the GTA’s although there are some roadside anomalies. On the outskirts of the city, a young guy in a sleek, black Mercedes, with a cell phone strapped to his ear, zipped by us in the outside lane. Fifty metres away, in a farm no bigger than the infield of a baseball diamond was a man, shouldering a warn plank, balanced at each end by heavy buckets, the same way farmers have been carrying water for the last 1,000 years.
At the end of the week we headed back to Hong Kong and played one of the Gary Player designed courses at the Jockey Club. After the round, we returned by ferry to the village of Sai Kung where houseboats bobbed in the harbour and local fishermen unloaded their daily catch at the seafood restaurants lining the water. We grabbed a ringside seat and while we waited for our rice and fish, sipped a couple beers, comparing scorecards and swapped stories on missed birdie putts. Like Uncle Walt said, it really is a small world after all.
More articles by Ian Cruickshank