Midweek Books: The odyssey of golf in China

On Wednesday I highlight noteworthy new sports books, with links to reviews, interviews and other information about the subject and/or author.

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Golf was outlawed in China until 1984.

Now there are believed to be several million players, and hundreds of new courses have opened in recent years. These figures are growing, despite land reform efforts that prompted an official ban on the construction of new courses.

This is the paradox examined by Dan Washburn in “The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Game,” which was published earlier this month.

Washburn, an American writer who lived in China for a decade and is the online managing editor at the Asia Society (author’s website), weaves a story about so much more than golf. It is a reflection of a Chinese culture embracing more Western pursuits, habits and traditions, and the anomalies this poses in a society still ruled by Communist authorities.

Once denounced by Mao Zedong as a “sport for millionaires,” golf is being taken up in China by the beneficiaries of the nation’s post-Maoist capitalist economy, both the wealthy and upwardly mobile alike.

The Forbidden GameWashburn profiles some of these individuals, including Zhou Xunshu, who went from rural field worker to golf course security guard to aspiring golf professional. His is a fledging existence, since a Chinese PGA tour began only this year. But as this ESPN.com excerpt reveals, Zhou is nonplussed about it roughing it, given his peasant upbringing:

“Sponsorship or no, almost all the golfers on the tournament circuit needed a second job to survive. They also had to be conscious of every yuan they spent.

“For the season opener of the 2007 China Tour in Nanjing, Zhou had traveled to the tournament via a two-and-a-half-day train ride. Had he traveled by plane, he wouldn’t have been able to bring his own caddie, a luxury for most Chinese golfers, who usually use a young female caddie assigned to them by the course.

“He also never stayed at the official tournament hotel. He rarely ate his meals at the clubhouse restaurant; too expensive.

” ‘This place is very cheap, right?’ he would say after dinner in a town or village outside the golf course grounds. ‘Four of us can eat for the same amount one person would pay at the clubhouse.’

“Zhou was not the only one. In the days leading up to tournaments, a separate competition would inevitably break out among the players — who could find the cheapest hotel? Word would spread around the practice green that one golfer found a room somewhere for 30 yuan a night, including hot water, and dozens of other golfers may try to follow him to the same place that evening.

“It was not uncommon for Zhou to change hotels one or two times in the lead-up to an event. Wasn’t this distracting?

” ‘It’s no problem,’ he always said. ‘I only have one bag. I just put it on my back and go.’

Washburn writes that the new course moratorium in place since 2004 is ignored by local authorities who continue to allow their development. From an excerpt on Slate:

“The risks associated with opening a golf course in China, though seemingly minimal in recent years, are no secret. And while official land designations in rural areas often change on the whims of those in power, it was obvious villagers were farming on a portion of the land that is now a golf course. In fact, the company paid close to $1.2 million in fines for illegal land use between 2006 and 2008. But after each fine, sources say, the local government urged them to carry on with construction. The fines were viewed as a cost of doing business.”

And this is at the heart of Washburn’s examination of a sport exemplifying a society with so many subterranean contradictions and corruption. As Edward Chancellor concludes in a review for The Wall Street Journal:

“In short, this is a tale of modern China.”

More reviews here from The Financial Times, Caixin Online, and The Economist.

Washburn is interviewed by Marketplace and Golf.com.

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