Golf course draws criticism in China

From Bloomberg News

Chipping and putting have joined law and economics as required courses at China's Xiamen University, sparking outrage in a country where golf is still frowned upon as a pastime of the rich.

College officials in Xiamen, a southern coastal city, have added golf to some degree programs, saying expertise in the sport will improve students' career prospects. State-run media attacked the decision, leading Peking University in Beijing to drop plans for a driving range on campus.

"Promoting aristocratic sporting activities in universities is a vulgar pursuit of lucre," the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper said in an Oct. 16 editorial.

With 1 million golfers in China compared with 1,000 a decade ago, the sport symbolizes the struggle to marry communism with the free enterprise system that has created a class of rich entrepreneurs and executives. Just two of the 350 golf courses built since 1984 are open to the public, and expensive private clubs are out of reach for most.

It may take decades for golf to lose its elite image, said Li Yong, deputy general secretary of the China Golf Assn. in Beijing.

"More and more students like the sport," Li said. "But the pressure on universities is from the government and public because they don't think golf is good for students."

Li backed the idea of colleges adding golf facilities to help make the sport accessible to more people. "Universities have the opportunity to popularize golf," he said.

Rising incomes in China are enabling more people to play golf and attracting sponsors. More than 25,000 spectators attended this month's HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, where South Korea's Yang Yong-eun edged world leader Tiger Woods by two shots. Yang won $833,300, Asian golf's biggest prize.

The tournament was the fourth European Tour event in mainland China this year. In 2003, there were none. London-based HSBC Holdings, Europe's biggest bank by market value, provided $5 million in prize money.

For Woods, golf is a sport that unites people from different backgrounds. "Sports in general is inclusive," he said at a news conference. "I think that's a unifier in itself."

Chinese golf may be an exception. Xiamen University President Zhu Chongshi last month announced mandatory golf lessons for management, law, economics and software engineering majors.

"Opening golf courses may help students understand culture and learn networking skills, which may be good for them after they graduate," Zhu said on the university's website. "First-rate universities should cultivate the elites of society."

Peking University has caught the backlash of the debate over Xiamen's plan. President Xu Zhihong on Oct. 27 said he was halting construction of a driving range because of the "controversies it triggered," New China News Agency reported.

All colleges should introduce golf lessons to spread the sport and improve students' ability to make business contacts, said Zhang Lian Wei, 41, China's No. 1-ranked player.

Some students aren't so sure.

Golf is a "useful networking skill," said Sun Jinwei, a second-year humanities student at Beijing's Tsinghua University. "But the offer of golf should be elective, not compulsory."

Huang Sheng, 21, a marketing student at Beijing's Renmin University of China, said golf was important for business because it helps build connections. It's a "kind of skill, like driving a car or using a computer," she said.

Still, Huang said she couldn't afford to play. A round at the private Shanghai Sun Island International Club costs as much as $125 for a nonmember -- almost double the average Shanghai worker's weekly pay, according to government data. The fee at Shenzhen Longgang public course in Guangdong is $50.

After a surge in course construction in the last decade, the government stopped issuing permits for new facilities two years ago. It cited a shortage of land in a country where there are 1.3 billion mouths to feed.

HSBC, founded in China in 1865, is trying to sway the doubters. It recently signed a three-year agreement to promote junior golf with the China Golf Assn.

"There is an elitist problem, and we want to help the CGA change that," said Giles Morgan, HSBC's London-based head of sports sponsorship and marketing, who attended the Shanghai tournament. HSBC will sponsor events and training for young golfers, said Li from the golf association.

China has spent millions of dollars on sports facilities in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Golf has missed out because it isn't an Olympic sport, Li said. Public opposition may slow the spread of golf to more universities.

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