Tenniel Chu, the son of the founder of Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, is at the center of the sport's rebirth in the country. Courtesy of Tenniel Chu [China Daily]
When China televised its first golf tournament in 1995, people in Shenzhen "dressed like royalty but acted like hooligans".
This was a decade after the sport re-emerged in the country, says Tenniel Chu, son of the founder of Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
"Back then, people turned out in their finest ballroom dresses and high heel shoes, and men were wearing tuxedos," says Chu, recalling the club's first hosting of the World Cup of Golf.
Over a decade later in 2007, it signed an agreement to host the prestigious event for 12 years.
"When balls went astray, people rushed to pick them up. Kids were tempted to jump into the bunkers and play in the sand. At that time, an understanding of the sport had not yet been cultivated," he says.
Dismissed during the first few decades as a symbol of bourgeois decadence, golf was officially reborn in China in 1984, a year that saw five clubs spring into being nationwide.
Golf's arrival at the former boomtown of Shenzhen, however, heralded the fruits of the country's economic miracle, and since then the country's 300-plus clubs have remained centered in Guangdong province, Shanghai and Beijing.
Growth was helped by what Chu describes as "three defining events that changed China's golfing landscape forever", as well as Hong Kong's return to the motherland in 1997 and the golf tourism this triggered in neighboring Guangdong.
The first of these pivotal events was the completion of the club's Jack Nicklaus course in 1994, giving China its first PGA-accredited course; the second was the arrival of the (televised) World Cup the following year; the third was simple: Tiger Woods.
"Tiger's visit to China in 2001 was a huge publicity coup. Playing our Nicklaus course (for the Tiger Woods China Challenge), he was pitted against three top Chinese professionals, which was perfect because it showed that China had its own rising stars," Chu says.
In the space of two years, the number of Chinese golfers had doubled to 1 million.
It now stands at about 3 million, including 2,000 competitive amateurs and 300 professionals.
The China Golf Association predicts it will equal the United States' stagnant golfing population of 20 million by 2020.
While Mission Hills was instrumental in raising the game's profile, Chu says few shared his father's faith when they first set out.
"A lot of people thought it was a big risk - a project bound to fail," he says.
"In the beginning we had about 100 rounds of golf a week, certainly not enough to sustain the maintenance and growth of our facilities in the long-run."
But word soon spread of the club's world-class courses. With the creation of a highway to the Shenzhen border that shortened a two-hour drive across rice paddies and through people's backyards to a 20-min journey, the stage was set.
Male golfers Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong then began taking major steps to put China on the world map.
Meanwhile, world stars and big tournaments began making the trip to China, a journey that led to the upgrading this year of the Shanghai-based HSBC Champions to a WGC event worth $7 million.
Not that everything is perfect. Far from it, Chu says. Elitism remains a chronic problem as Chinese fees are among the most expensive in the world.
Clubs often charge members $50,000 to join and greens cost $160 on weekends.
"One of the most critical challenges is to reposition golf as a sport able to nurture future role models," he says.
The government nationalizes all golf courses. Most of them are rebuilt into parks. The Hungjiao golf club is rebuilt into a park in 1953 and a zoo the next year.
Liao Chengzhi, then vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, says China "may consider" building golf courses for foreign investors.
Golf returns to China with five clubs set up.
The Jack Nicklaus Course at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen becomes the country's first PGA-accredited golf course.
China sees first televised domestic tournament in the form of the World Cup of Golf, turning out galleries of thousands.
Tiger Woods turns up for his China Challenge, single-handedly raising awareness of the sport on a national level.
World Cup of Golf begins 12-year stay at Mission Hills.