The Chinese government has closed 111 golf courses and has told 88 million Communist Party members to stay away from the links, according to the Associated Press, in its latest attempt to crack down on golf.
When Mao Zedong came to power in China in 1949, he effectively banned golf, the so-called “sport of millionaires,” and most existing courses were closed or repurposed. But in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the sport’s popularity crept back following the opening of the first modern course, partially owned by Arnold Palmer, in 1984.
Golf was still seen as shady, the sole provenance of the bourgeoisie—most people couldn’t afford greens fees—and a political career-killer. In 2004, citing a need to protect “the collective land of the peasants,” all new golf course development was banned. It didn’t really work.
In the years since, the number of courses has more than tripled from the 176 courses in existence across the country in 2004, to over 600 today. It’s the result of booming golf course construction done surreptitiously, but with the support of local government. In 2014, the Telegraph described the less-than-legal but largely standardized procedure:
To get around the restrictions, savvy developers label their projects as “resorts”, “sports parks” or “ecological restoration projects”. One developer I spoke to likened golf in China to prostitution. “That’s illegal, too,” he said. “But there are still prostitutes everywhere in this country.”
Most successful developers have at least one person, if not three or four, whose only job is to maintain solid relationships with – if not blatantly pay off – the local officials who sign off on various aspects of development projects. These staffers call themselves CEOs, “chief entertainment officers”, because they’re constantly picking up the tab for meals, drinks and trips to the local karaoke joint.
While new development boomed, the Chinese Communist Party banned golf club membership completely, walked back that ban provided politicians paid out of pocket for the opportunity to play, and shuttered 66 courses and stalled 46 in development as part of a crackdown on corruption.
Now, in what appears to be a sign of lessening ambivalence, 111 of the existing 683 courses were just closed and a further 65 more received restrictions. Forty-seven courses still in development were ordered to halt construction. The closures cite improper groundwater, arable land, or nature reserve usage. But the news also comes with a renewed reminder to members of the ruling Communist Party that they should avoid golf altogether—which, even in the face of a flourishing quasi-underground sport, doesn’t bode well for the future of golf in China.