Hainan Island Bids to Become the Hawaii of China

Golf comes ashore on a tropical island in the South China Sea

A story last month in the New York Times detailing runaway golf and real estate development on China’s Hainan Island reminded me of a postcard I received several months ago from Tom Doak. Long before the financial meltdown in 2008, the golf designer told me two things: He wanted to be the one still working when the recession hit; and those who wanted to build golf courses in the years ahead were going to have to travel further for the privilege.

Back to the postcard, actually an oversize notecard with a photo on front and a project description on back. Doak, dressed in jeans and a Sebonack windshirt, is standing on a nondescript tract of land, actually a 300-acre island in the Nandu River. In the distance is a double-arched concrete bridge spanning the river. Tethered near the water’s edge is a water buffalo, jokingly described as Doak’s “collaborator” on a new golf course that was begun last year for the owner of Guangdong Golf Channel China. The layout, Renaissance Golf’s first project in Asia, will be the centerpiece of a resort hotel development, one of many such projects currently underway on Hainan, which boasts balmy weather, lovely beaches and (for the moment) pollution-free air.

An island province the size of Belgium located off the mainland’s southwest coast in the South China Sea, Hainan has been designated by the nation’s leadership as a test case in developing an “international tourism island” by 2020, which is around the time China will boast more golfers than any other nation on earth.

Have a look at the numbers. The Chinese golf population is estimated at anywhere from 2 to 3 million at present, depending on the source. In the U.S., 9% of Americans, or 26 million in a population of roughly 291 million, are counted as golfers. Nine percent of China’s current population of 1.3 billion (China is home to one in five of all the people in the world) would be 117 million players. That figure might sound unreasonably high, but even half that number would be more than double the number of golfers in the U.S.

The Chinese are hardly immune from the game’s siren call. Upwardly mobile natives who’ve gotten hooked on golf refer to the ancient Scottish pastime as “green opium.” Ironic that a game once decried by Chairman Mao as a bourgeois waste of time is flourishing. Since the “Bamboo Curtain” was parted in the 1980s, golf has mushroomed across the mainland and has now moved onto a tropical island due west of Vietnam, itself an emerging golf destination that promotes the Ho Chi Minh Golf Trail.

It will be interesting to track golf and real estate development on Hainan, an island that appears poised to repeat the mistakes of the West. Newly minted Chinese entrepreneurs have flocked to what Doak and others describe as the “Hawaii of China” to ignite a real estate boom. Property speculators arrive with bags of cash to buy apartments whose cost per square foot rivals dwellings in the trendier precincts of Manhattan. Five-star hotels command up to $1,500 per night during peak season and holidays. According to the recent New York Times report, one company charged prospective buyers $80 a night just to camp out in a tent! (Even Donald Trump can’t get away with that).

Early days - Hainan Island under construction

There’s also talk of licensed casino gambling and racetracks. Pundits are wagering that Hainan could overtake Macao, the former Portuguese colony now under Chinese sovereignty, “as China’s preferred island of iniquity,” according to the Times.

Back to the golf. With more than 20 courses up and running and dozens more on the drawing board, Hainan is off to a flying start. Prior to the international recession, observers were predicting that 100 courses would be built on Hainan, equal to the inventory in Myrtle Beach.

There’s another factor behind the growth. Ever since golf was announced as an Olympic sport, China has made no secret of the fact that it plans to be competitive when the Summer Games are played in Brazil in 2016. “We will strive to make achievements in the new Olympic categories, particularly golf,” said Xiao Tian, deputy head of China’s General Administration of Sport.

While Doak’s unnamed course awaits completion later this year on an island that shares the volcanic characteristics as the Big Island of Hawaii, Schmidt-Curley Design has just announced the opening of three new courses on Hainan Island. Partners Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley have a long experience in China. The tandem is responsible for building 10 of the 12 courses at Mission Hills Shenzhen outside Hong Kong, the mega-complex accredited by Guinness World Records as the “World’s Largest Golf Club.”

Their three designs at Mission Hills Resort – Hainan, a new development under the aegis of parent company Mission Hills China, are located 15 minutes from the capital city of Haikou. According to the design firm, “The courses are destined to be regarded among Asia’s finest layouts and the world’s greatest collection of volcanic golf courses.” The Blackstone Course has already been tabbed to host the 2010 Mission Hills Star Trophy and 2011 Omega Mission Hills World Cup.”

Curley, a former Pete Dye associate, noted that each course has a different personality. At Blackstone, a bed of lava rock was capped with more than one meter of topsoil to make golf possible, though uncapped portions of the lava periodically cross the line of play. Groves of mature trees frame the rolling paspalum fairways. There is no rough. “We wanted it to appear as if liquid turf was poured from the sky and flowed along the terrain just as the lava did centuries ago,” Curley said of Blackstone, which stretches to more than 7,600 yards.

Stone Outback, inspired by Australia’s Sandbelt courses, occupies a gently rolling site staked out by eucalyptus trees. Large flashed–face bunkers with shaggy brows characterize the design, which is bordered by native jungle. Like all three courses at the development, Stone Outback offers wide corridors and a big canvas for golf but has adjacent greens and tees to promote walking.

Curley said that Stone Ruins, the third course at Mission Hills, pays homage to classic American courses built at the turn of the 20th century. Holes were routed to leave the densely forested site as undisturbed as possible. Quirky features include deep pot bunkers, abrupt mounding and several blind shots. Merion may be a world away, but Stone Ruins has wicker basket pins. “The oldest course in China is a new course in Haikou,” Curley said of a layout that mines Chicago Golf Club, National Golf Links of America and others for its inspiration.

Coming on stream at Mission Hills Resort - Hainan

All this serious golf (and yachting) on an island that was long dependent on agriculture and fishing for its livelihood. In Imperial times, Hainan was viewed as a remote, toxic swamp, a place of exile for banished officials. Hainan had a seedy reputation as a center of gambling and prostitution during the 1990s. Now the central government has agreed to invest 1.7 billion yuan (US$249 million) in Hainan to enable it compete against rivals such as Bali, Phuket and Hawaii.

I lived in New York City during the days when Times Square was dirty and derelict. It was not without its neon charms, but it was sleazy. I never imagined it could be sanitized, never believed it ever could be rated “G.” And yet it is. Maybe the same fate awaits Hainan. It all depends on whether or not the island’s overheated real estate market, which reportedly increased by more than one-third in the first five weeks of 2010, doesn’t implode as it did throughout the Sun Belt just a few short years ago.

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