China's Shanshan Feng, ladies world number four, received a bronze medal in the Olympic Ladies Golf Tournament in Rio last year (Photo: Getty Images)
China has shut more than 100 golf courses in the last five years amid a campaign against a sport which has been vilified by Beijing’s Communist rulers but enjoyed by local officials.
The building of golf courses was banned in China in 2004, but demand from the growing ranks of wealthy and local-level cadres has seen numbers rocket from fewer than 200 to 683 over that time.
A total of 111 golf courses were “outlawed” after they were found to have been using large amounts of land and water, according to China’s top planner, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC).
Another 18 golf courses have been ordered to return and restore illegally occupied land, and 47 told to cease construction or business activities.
The sport has been something of a taboo under Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the ruling Communist Party warning its 88 million members not to play golf, likening it to "extravagant eating and drinking" and other bad habits at odds with the party's principles.
There have also been efforts to clamp down on illegal development, with courses at times being built under the guise of parks or other projects. Communist Party members have even been warned against accepting free rounds or club memberships.
Jack Nicklaus signs autographs for kids in Beijing (Photo: Getty Images)
Golf began to take off in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who instituted sweeping economic reforms and courted foreign investment.
By the 1990s, a course designed by Jack Nicklaus opened at Mission Hills in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Mission Hills now has 12 courses and is the largest golf resort in the world.
As in football and basketball, the government has invested in developing homegrown golf talent by importing coaches and promoting the sport. Australian golfer Greg Norman served for a time as an adviser to China's national team. And there are as many as 10,000 youth golfers and more than 300 international-standard competitions each year, said Wang Liwei, secretary-general of the China Golf Association.
According to Xinhua, every one of China's 33 provinces and regions has a golf course except for Tibet. Even mountainous, remote Xinjiang, home to most of Chinese's ethnic Uighur minority, has golf courses in the capital of Urumqi and two other cities.
Josh Summers, an American who has lived in Xinjiang for a decade and runs the website Far West China, said he had never met anyone in the region who had played a round of golf.
But, he said, "the elite perception of the sport ensures that, at least for now, the courses and random driving ranges still remain."
China currently hosts three tournaments on the European Tour, highlighted by the WGC-HSBC Champions in October.
Shanshan Feng is China's highest-ranked Tour professional at world number four. On the men's circuit, Haotong Li represents China's finest as world number 144.
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