Golf: China's 'Forbidden Game'

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Building a golf course is hard work. Building one in a country where course construction is against the law is even harder work. That's one of several challenges Dan Washburn explores in his new book, "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream."

Washburn spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.

Highlights from Bill's conversation with Dan Washburn


BL: How did it happen that the construction of golf courses came to be forbidden in China?

DW: Well, the most recent moratorium on golf course construction came about in 2004. Beijing issued a ban on it citing an out-of-control real estate market and the illegal seizure of farmland — both very valid concerns. But what they did was they instituted this ban and, in effect, turned their backs and let this thing that they were supposedly trying to stop grow even more out of control.

So in 2004, according to state media, China had around 176 golf courses. Since the moratorium went into effect, no other country has built more golf courses than China. And right now there's anywehere between 600 and 1,000. No one knows exactly how many because it was so unregulated. A few years ago the government started looking at a satellite photos to try to get a handle on the number of golf courses in the country.

BL: Just three weeks ago, the PGA Tour China held its last event of 2014. To what extent has that become a popular event in the country.

DW: I think it's more important for the development of Chinese golfers than it is for the development of Chinese fans of the game.  And when I say Chinese golfers, I'm not talking about recreational golfers. Now that golf is an Olympic sport — we all know that China is more than a little crazy about Olympic medals — the government is starting to pay some attention to the game, and they want to get as many Chinese golfers competing in the Olympics as possible.

The way you do that is by attaining world ranking points, and the only way you can do that is by competing in international tournaments. So, the PGA Tour in China [is] the way the PGA can get its foot in the door in the market they view as the next big thing — or they hope to be the next big thing — but for China it's a way for golfers to earn these valuable world ranking points and get their names on the Olympic radar.

Zhou Xunshu (Courtesy Dan Washburn)
Zhou Xunshu (Courtesy Dan Washburn)

BL: There’s a great story in "The Forbidden Game" about how a peasant-turned-golf-course-security-guard took up the game. Tell us about Zhou Xunshu and don't leave out the first time he hit a golf ball.

DW: I think Zhou is really the ultimate underdog. And his inspiring story is really at the heart of the book. He grew up in a very poor mountain village in arguably the poorest province in China — Guizhou China. He gets a job as a security guard at a golf course in Guangdong Province — the birthplace of golf in China. That was the first time Zhou had even heard the word golf. But he was forbidden to play because he was a lowly security guard, so he devised kind of in secret a way that he could try this game.

And the moment that you mentioned, he was at the driving range at the golf club that he worked at, and the upper staff of the golf club, they were trying to hit this ball over the 225-yard marker at the end of the driving range, over the hill. And nobody could do it. Zhou was watching on as he often did, and he spoke up and he said, "Hey, can I have a try?"

And imagine, this is his first time ever hitting a golf ball. But he reared back and swung. He hit nothing the first three times and people were starting to jeer. And he focused all of his energy, reared back and swung and went long and straight and went over the hill. And from then on he thought, "Maybe I can do something in this game."

Bill's thoughts on "The Forbidden Game"

According to Dan Washburn, "the Chinese Dream" is not so different from the future to which folks in other countries aspire. Those with nothing seek to acquire something, whether it's indoor plumbing or the big house on the hill. Those with a little seek to better their own circumstances and to provide greater opportunities for their children.

[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'The Forbidden Game'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from Dan Washburn's "The Forbidden Game."[/sidebar]When the dream involves golf, the Chinese version is complicated by the fact that the sport used to be banned in that country. These days there are lots of golf courses in China, but apparently high government officials are still likely to use an alias when they register for tee times, lest their careers be tainted by association with the pastime of plutocrats.

Washburn focuses on the stories of three especially intriguing characters associated with the rise of golf in China, and in telling their stories he provides his readers with a sense of what the country was, is, and may become.


This segment aired on December 20, 2014.

Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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