CDT Bookshelf: Dan Washburn on Golf in China

Dan Washburn worked as a writer and columnist at a small newspaper in Georgia prior to his “rather impulsive decision to drop everything and move to China in 2002.” Mr. Washburn, managing editor at the Asia Society and founding editor of Shanghaiist.com, has written his first book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream. Mr. Washburn follows the lives of three men navigating the male-dominated world of . They are a varied trio, but one that shares a common denominator: . In various ways, the sport has affected their lives and livelihoods, and this in a country where course construction is officially banned. Washburn’s book touches on many facets of contemporary Chinese life and politics as he tracks the characters’ progress toward achieving the Chinese Dream.

I recently corresponded with Mr. Washburn via email about his book:

danwashburn_2014China Digital Times: The subject of your book is “golf and the ,” and the primary characters are Martin Moore, Wang Libo and Zhou Xunshu. Why tell the story through the lives of these three men?

Dan Washburn: Even though my book is a work of non-fiction, I wanted it to read more like a novel. I wanted it to be alive and character-driven — more show than tell. Martin, Wang and Zhou, the three people whose stories are intertwined in the book, offer readers unique first-hand looks into different aspects of China’s bizarre relationship with golf, and thus modern China itself. Martin provides a literal ground-level view of what its like to navigate China’s politically charged business environment. Wang shows what life is like for China’s villagers in the face of breakneck . And I think Zhou, the peasant farmer turned security guard turned pro golfer, is the embodiment of the Chinese Dream, or at least some definition of that ideal. Their stories are quite dissimilar, but I think all three men have few things in common: they are relatable everymen who work hard and are easy to root for.

CDT: When and how did sports writing and China intersect for you?

DW: I have written about sports for as long as I can remember, and I was a sports writer and columnist at a small newspaper in Georgia prior to my rather impulsive decision to drop everything and move to China in 2002. I started freelance writing, often for the South China Morning Post, soon after my arrival in Shanghai, and some of my stories were indeed sports related: a profile of an American basketball player trying to keep his career going on Shanghai’s pro team, a feature on the search for “baseball’s Yao Ming” (they never found him), etc. But golf wasn’t really on my radar until a chance encounter led to me covering some European Tour events in Shanghai for ESPN.com in 2005. Still, in those days, I knew little about the big, complicated picture surrounding the game in China. I had no idea it would be fodder for a book or be just a good window into modern China. But I quickly learned that the story of golf in China actually has little to do with golf. So I don’t really consider my book to be sports writing — it’s just writing.

CDT: Writing about golf led you to address environmental concerns, social inequality, land disputes, growth of the middle class, political corruption, and the idiosyncrasies of doing business in China. What makes golf a unique avenue for exploring these hot topics?

DW: I guess it shouldn’t have been that surprising to me. Golf may be a sign of an economy on the rise, but it’s also a prohibitively expensive pastime in a nation of 700 million peasant farmers. It’s a game that requires a lot of land in a country with limited arable soil and 1.4 billion mouths to feed. It’s a resource intensive activity in a country with severe water shortages. It’s known as “the rich man’s game” by most Chinese, and because of this elitist reputation it’s also tied to corruption in the minds of many, and thus remains politically taboo. Adding to the intrigue, construction of new golf courses has supposedly been illegal in China since at least 2004 — but over the past decade no country in the world has built more golf courses than China. Statistically 0 percent of China’s population may play golf, but the rise of the game happens to be a great way to tell the country’s story.

CDT: The struggles and uncertainty faced by professional golfer, Zhou Xunshu are a far cry from the lavish lives led by top PGA professionals. Are the prize purses for professional events in China increasing and are sponsorship offers more plentiful?

DW: Zhou is part of the rough-and-tumble first or second generation of Chinese professional golfers. These are primarily men from poor backgrounds who stumbled into the game relatively late in life, but through hard work and raw talent were able to eek out livings as “professional golfers” — it was better than working on a farm or in a factory. They were typically self taught and coachless, and benefited form the fact that they came along when golf was still in its infancy in China. The first golf course in modern China didn’t open until 1984 and “professional golfer” wasn’t an officially recognized profession until 1994. Guys like Zhou probably would not be able to break into the game if they were just trying to get started today, and if the window of opportunity for them to be successful in competition isn’t already closed, it’s just barely open. What we’re seeing entering the scene now is the first generation of Chinese golfers who were able to start playing the game from a very young age. They are mostly rich kids, with parents willing to spend large sums of money on training and travel. There are opportunities for Chinese golfers to play domestically, but competition is more intense now. For example, if you study the leaderboards of the events on the PGA Tour China Series, which just launched this year, you’ll see just as many foreign names as Chinese names, if not more. Zhou has stopped competing and now focuses on coaching, making money from wealthy parents who want their children to be the next Chinese golf stars.

CDT: For a sport to take off in China, it seems to require the success of a Chinese athlete on the international stage; Yao Ming, Li Na, Liu Xiang. Have the successes of golfers Feng Shanshan and Guan Tianlang precipitated greater interest and investment in the sport in China?

DW: Feng Shanshan is easily the most successful Chinese professional golfer thus far. She’s won a major. She is ranked in the world top-10. No one even comes close. But she has said that she often doesn’t get recognized when she comes back to China, and she has struggled to attract domestic sponsorship. This could be because golf is very much a fringe sport in China, enjoyed primarily by a small sliver of the very wealthy, and domestic companies know that segment is already dominated by foreign brands. This could also have something to do with golf’s image problem in China, which I spoke of earlier. There’s no doubt though that the successes of Feng and Guan (who made headlines by playing in The Masters at the age of 14 in 2013) have inspired some well-off Chinese kids to pick up the game — or at least they have inspired the parents of these well-off Chinese kids. Government investment in the game has also increased dramatically, but that is due to an entirely different reason. In 2016, golf will return to the Olympics for the first time in more than a century, we all know how important Olympic medals are to China. This has given the Chinese government a reason to embrace a sport it otherwise must keep at arm’s length. Their strategy is more top-down than grassroots, but no other government is putting more money into developing its elite young golfers than China. And since Olympic eligibility will be dictated by world-ranking points, China will make every effort to get its best golfers playing on the international circuits. Success won’t come quickly, and its more likely to happen on the women’s side of the game first, but golf broadcasters the world over had better start working on their pronunciation of Chinese names.

CDT: Unlike basketball, which calls for a ball, a hoop, and a hard surface, golf necessitates a set of clubs, a few balls, transportation to a course, and money to pay for a round. Faced with these hurdles to play do you think golf will ever ascend to become one among China’s most popular sports?

DW: Highly unlikely. There are just too many obstacles. The majority of the population might not even know what golf is, and even if they did they surely wouldn’t be able to afford to give it a try. Everything about golf in China is expensive, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. It all starts with the land the courses are built on. For developers to make money from a course, they have to be able to sell real estate — luxury homes, typically — alongside it. Those who buy those mansions want their communities to be exclusive, so greens fees remain very high. There are no truly public courses in China; it’s all private or semi-private clubs. And since golf remains a politically taboo topic, I just don’t see the kind of municipal courses we know in the West popping up in China. Local governments make far to much money from the sale of land — they are not about to give up some acreage so people can enjoy a cheap round of golf. Driving ranges may be the key to reaching a broader audience in China, but golf will likely always be a niche sport in China. Still, with 1.4 billion people, a niche can still mean millions of people.

CDT: A golf course demands much land and water and in resource-starved China, one expects this could create tension among different groups. Has China’s golf-course development boom you write about slowed at all in recent years?

DW: For most of the past decade golf courses were truly banned and booming in China. They popped up by the hundreds, at a time when they were disappearing in most other parts of the world. For those working in the struggling golf course construction industry it was said that if you weren’t working in China, you likely weren’t working at all. While the rate of growth slowed in recent years, China still remained one of the only places in the world where new golf courses were getting built. There were always periodic crackdowns on construction during those boom years, but they were mostly temporary, and the number of courses only continued to increase. But that doesn’t seem to be the case these days. I recently corresponded with a veteran of the China golf course industry, and he described things as being in “full stop mode.” He continued: “Things are not going well for golf these days in China and most developers are sitting on their hands and waiting. I do not blame them. While a few projects continue to sputter along, most will go nowhere anytime soon. Everyone keeps talking about new policy coming down next year to clarify things, however I do not believe this will happen anytime soon because being ambiguous right now works to the central government’s advantage.” Of course, this being China, everything could change by the time you publish this interview.

CDT: In the United States, promising and privileged junior golfers may attend golf academies, which provide both academic education and golf instruction. There is a David Ledbetter Golf Academy in Shanghai; do aspiring young golfers typically stay home to advance their games or do they prefer to leave for U.S. or international facilities?

DW: I’ve often said that the first international Chinese golf stars will have likely spent a good chunk of their formative years in Florida. And that still may be true. The best coaching and most competitive tournaments have always been outside of China. I think that could change though. There are more opportunities for junior golfers in China and nearby countries every year. And more quality coaches are entering China, as well, because that is where so much of the young talent — and money — is.