Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Move Over Scotland: China Invented Golf

Posted on 25. Jun, 2010 by in Articles, Golf

And it’s coming home to the Middle Kingdom

HONG KONG, On the outskirts of the Middle Kingdom

The Scots never knew what hit them.

Everyone knows that these sturdy northerners invented golf. After all, the

first written record about golf comes from 1457, when King James II banned the game because his subjects preferred it to archery practice, which made golf a threat to national security.

But now the Middle Kingdom has staked a claim.  Academics from China, which famously has given the world gunpowder, spaghetti, and paper, not to mention the compass, umbrellas and the rudder, and which claims that its sailors discovered America decades before Columbus, assert that golf is in fact a Chinese game.

The evidence comes from a Ming dynasty scroll exhibited in a 2006 exhibit at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.  Titled “The Autumn Banquet,” the painting, which has been dated as early as 1368, shows a well-coifed Chinese gentleman  swinging a stick that could be a golf club at a small sphere which resembles a golf ball towards what clearly is a hole in the ground in the midst of what just might be a green. 

Even more troubling for the Scots (not to mention the French, the Dutch, the Belgians and even the Laotians who have staked claims to this venerable game) is a reproduction, also shown in the Hong Kong exhibition, of a Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) mural showing courtiers wielding golf-like sticks.  The painting is accompanied by a book Wan Jing, or Manual of the Ball Game, which was published in 1282 and provides rules for a game that doesn’t seem that far from our contemporary pastime.

According to Professor Ling Hongling, of Lanzhou University, an even earlier Song Dynasty (AD 960-1279) book called the Dongxuan Records describes a game called chiuwan – literally “hit-ball”. It was played with ten different gold- and jade-encrusted clubs, including a flat-surfaced cuanbang – equivalent to a modern-day driver,  and a shaobang, similar to a three-wood.  Giving the golf-proud Scots no quarter, Ling adds that the Chinese book refers to a prominent Chinese magistrate of the Nantang Dynasty (AD 937-975) who instructed his daughter “to dig holes in the ground so that he might drive a ball into them with a purposely crafted stick”.

According to Ling, golf was exported to Europe by Mongolian travellers during the late Middle Ages.

Regardless of the veracity of these claims, it was clearly the Europeans, particularly the British, who brought golf back to Asia.

The expatriate Brits developed Asia’s first golf course in 1826 – Royal Calcutta in India – and British rubber planters built courses near their estates in Peninsular Malaysia.

Rana aristocrats returning from visits to Scotland brought golf to Nepal as early as 1829, when the Royal Nepal Golf Course was built.

But the Dutch, who played a similar, but hole-less game in the 1200s called colf, also had a hand in promoting golf in Asia.  It is said that golf was played by the Dutch when they occupied what is now Sri Lanka between 1656 and 1796. Nevertheless it was the British who established Sri Lanka’s first course, the Royal Colombo Golf Course, in 1879, which makes it the fourth oldest golf course outside the UK.

The Dutch did, however, establish Indonesia’s first course, in 1872. This was the Batavia Golf Club, now the Jakarta Golf Club (generally referred to as Rawamangun), a favorite early-morning sporting venue for high-ranking government officials.

Foreign invention or not, golf in Asia has taken off higher than a kite (another Chinese invention) throughout Asia, and in particular in China itself.

Consider the statistics.

In 1990 there some 1.5 million golfers and 764 courses in Asia outside Japan, according to Asian Golf Monthly.  By 1998 the number of golfers had more than doubled to 3.8 million, and the number of courses had increased to 1,200.  The magazine estimates that by 2008 more than seven million Asians will be playing golf. By comparison there are some 32,000 courses in the world, with the United States leading the pack with some 18,000 courses hosting more than half of the world’s 35 million golfers.

As one pundit exclaimed, in China, the glories of the Ming Dynasty might be giving way to the Ping Dynasty.  Back in 1982, just three years after China’s “reform and opening up” policy, Arnold Palmer designed the mainland’s first golf modern course.  The number grew to 20 in 1994, and by September 1997, just two months after Britain returned Hong Kong, China had 55 golf courses, with 500,000 golfers. By 2005 there were 200 courses in the country, with 500 to 1,000 more already under construction, according to Fan Bin, vice chairman of the Beijing Golf Association.  Jack Nicklaus Design, which creates some of the world’s most appreciated layouts, has by itself churned out a dozen courses in China.  China now ranks fifth in the world and second in Asia (tied with South Korea and Thailand) in terms of the number of courses.

Gary Player, one of the most successful professional golfers and a noted golf course architect in his own right, says “My insight is that Asians may have more passion for golf than any other people in the world, and the growth potential is staggering.”  He has designed more than 30 courses in Asia; Jack Nicklaus Design once worked on 11 contracts in Thailand in a single year.  In Malaysia the number of courses has swollen to 204 in 2002 from just 72 in 1988.

This boom doesn’t mean that all the golf courses make money.

The Japan Golf Membership Prices Index (the fact that such a creature exists speaks volumes about how entrenched golf is in that country), which indicates joining fees in some 500 golf clubs nationwide, has fallen below its starting level in 1982, after rising nearly 700% at its peak in 1990.  Similarly, the Singapore Business Times Golf Index, which tracks membership values in seven clubs, is down more than a third from its highest point in 1994.

Sam Ng, a reporter at Asia Times Online says that “almost half of China’s more than 200 courses are running a deficit.”

In Thailand, where many golf clubs are struggling to just pay their debts, Les Walsh, of Golfworks Thailand, which organizes corporate golfing events and tours, says “only about 5% [of the clubs] are profitable.”  But Robin Moyer, publisher of Golfing Asia Publications in Hong Kong is more bullish, saying that “The Asian golf boom is here to stay.”

What makes the game so appealing?

Guy Goh, a Singaporean who started Golf Vacations magazine and who is a director of the International Golf and Life Foundation, feels that golf is still a growing industry.  He suggests that “with urbanization and increased stress the affluent in Asia need to get closer to nature, and a golf course, with its trees and water hazards, is a perfect environment in which to relax.”

Another friend, a Thailand-based Indonesian businessman and self-confessed golf junkie, attributes the Asian golf boom in part to the popularity of Tiger Woods, who is half-Thai. But there are other reasons, he argues, citing “it’s high profile, a good place to seal business deals, and suits itself to gambling.” Ultimately though, he says “today’s Asian golfers play golf simply because they love the game.”

Both these men imply that money aside, golf in and of itself is fun and challenging and surprising and sometimes even other-worldly.  Which leads to one final candidate for the “inventor” of golf. Some people suggest we should venture beyond the Middle Kingdom and look towards Middle Earth.  In The Hobbit it is said that Bullroarer Took invented the game of golf when he knocked a goblin’s head down a hole.