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GOLF TRAVEL

Out With the Old ... The last couple of years have been a particularly fruitful time for course development in China. Alex Jenkins checks out six of the best new layouts that have opened

A Player’s Guide

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Photography by Tom Breazeale and Ryan Farrow

hina's importance to the global brotherhood of golf course architects cannot be understated. The country, which effectively outlawed the game for decades following the Second World War, has since become the centre of the course design universe. Every notable architect, with the exception of the US-centric Tom Fazio, has a presence on the mainland. The reason is perfectly simple: Asia, with China leading the way, is the one place where developers actually want to build new courses; development in the golf saturated States and large swathes of northern Europe has pretty much ground to a halt.

Volcanic Vision: The Lava Fields Course at Mission Hills Haikou

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Middle Kingdom Marvels: The impressivelybunkered Blackstone Course at Mission Hills Haikou (below); Hidden Tiger (right), in southern Anhui province, is a strong candidate for most beautiful course in the country

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This is not exactly news. Since the opening of China's first modern-day course – the Arnold Palmer-designed layout at Chung Shan Hot Spring in neighbouring Guangdong – in 1984, approximately 600 courses have come online. While commentators had once previously questioned golf's popularity among the country's one billion-plus populous, the last few years have seen an undoubted surge in player numbers. Official statistics where the game is concerned are famously hard to come by in China – depending on which reports you read there are anywhere between 300,000 and three million "regular golfers" – but try booking a last-minute weekend game at an upscale course across the border and you'll likely be disappointed. Ten years ago you could have pitched up without phoning in advance and literally stroll onto the first tee at your leisure. Much has changed, which has been reflected in the price one pays. Even taking into account the continued strength of the renminbi, green fee rates have soared on the back of increased demand, making China one of the most expensive places in the world to play. You don't get much change out of RMB2,000 for 18 holes and the obligatory cart and caddie combo (plus tip!) these days. Although it would be rash to suggest that

the mainland golf market has reached maturity, the way courses are built and maintained has certainly improved in recent times. With its diverse landscapes and topography, China is not short of wonderful golf sites. Unfortunately, back in the early to mid 1990s, at the time of the mainland's initial golf boom, the skills required to build world-class courses were generally lacking. It was often said that China had some of the most spectacular golfing terrain in the world, but that it was wasted by the construction of mostly humdrum layouts which were usually found in lacklustre condition. More often than not, this was down to inexperienced architects, poor build quality, short-sighted owners or a combination of all three. The last few years, however, have been good for Chinese golf – at least from a golf course point of view. While the eminently likeable Liang Wen-chong remains the country's only professional ranked inside the world's top 200, a number of new layouts have emerged that have gone straight to the summit of the standings as China's best. Intelligently designed, expertly shaped and – most crucially of all – great fun to play, these courses, the oldest of which opened barely two years ago, have the potential to leave a lasting impression on the world's golfing map.

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Mission Hills Haikou Double Happiness

Hidden Tiger GC Picture Perfect

Mission Hills isn't the type of organization that does things by halves – you only have to visit the club's original complex in Shenzhen, with its 12 courses and endless post-round amenities to realize that. But the new Mission Hills facility in Hainan – which already comprises 10 courses (and counting) located just 15 minutes from Haikou's airport – is arguably even more impressive, at least from an architectural standpoint. Brian Curley, who is without question the most prolific designer in China – and therefore the world – today, has done a staggering job in creating enough diversity to make every layout here, even the two par-three tracks, worth playing. But the undoubted stars of the show are the championship-rated Blackstone and Lava Fields courses. The former, which will host the World Cup in November, features striking, ragged bunkering and numerous carries from the tee is a particularly stout and lengthy test, one that recreational golfers are well advised to tackle from a suitably forward tee. Lava Fields is very similar in scope to the Blackstone but is rather more forgiving thanks mainly to the width of the landing areas. It's also, in our view at least, a touch more subtle, especially around the greens. Throwback-style bunkering and interesting shifts in topography, plus a brilliant set of par-threes, makes Lava Fields the pick of the bunch. www.missionhillschina.com

Gary Player describes his course at the IMGmanaged Hidden Tiger in Anhui province as a gift to nature, and he's absolutely right. Perched on the shores of mystical Lake Taiping with the famed Huangshan mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, providing a gorgeous backdrop, this is surely one of the most picturesque places in the country in which to tee it up. Thankfully, nine-time major champion Player and his design team understood their market well, and rather than create a monstrously difficult layout for the amateur, they have sculptured an approachable and wonderfully balanced course from the hilly terrain. Make no mistake: trouble, in the form of native grasses, attractive bunkering and, of course, the lake itself, lie in store for the wayward, but this is an enormously enjoyable track, one that is refreshingly free from residential sprawl. Admittedly it does require some effort getting to Hidden Tiger. The club is a three to four hour journey from Hangzhou airport, which you can fly directly in to from Hong Kong, but there's also the option of crossing the border and flying from Shenzhen or Guangzhou into Huangshan, which is about an hour's drive away. Adding to the allure: the five-star Crowne Plaza Hotel on Lake Taiping is set to open next summer. www.hiddentigergolf.com

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Stone Forest International CC The Stone is the Show

The Dunes at Shenzhou Peninsula Sandy Splendour Tropical Hainan is quickly evolving into China's golfing mecca, with new courses popping up all over the island at a quite startling rate. But perhaps the best of them all – and a strong candidate for the country's most outstanding project – is The Dunes at Shenzhou Peninsula, which features two Tom Weiskopf-designed layouts abutting Hainan's pristine southeastern coastline. Featuring windswept dunes, craggy rock outcrops and large, natural sandy wastes, the 54

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West Course here, which opened earlier this year and is the 1973 Open champion's first course in China, is as natural a layout that you're likely to find anywhere in the Middle Kingdom. While not a links course in the strictest sense of the word, the West is often referred to as one because of its firm and fast playing surfaces and proximity to the sea. The East Course is slated to open in November and promises to be no less enthralling. Indeed, it could even top its slightly older sibling, with more of its holes running along the shore's edge. The club's Composite Course – comprising five holes from the West and 13 holes from the East – has been earmarked to host competition play. www.shenzhougolf.com HKGOLFER.COM

For sheer spectacle there can be few places in the world that rival Stone Forest up in the hills of Kunming. Built beside the Stone Forest National Park, a popular attraction in its own right, the three courses at this impressive complex have been threaded through a primeval landscape of limestone karst formations, dense pines and lakes. Playing here is a seriously surreal experience; one half expects to stumble upon the odd brontosaurus or two when cresting a few of the more hilly landing areas. Of the three layouts – which were all designed by Brian Curley – the Masters Resort (B Course) has been tagged as the tournament course, but as spectacular as it is, we prefer the other two – Yufeng Ridge (A) and Leader's Peak (C) – because of their playability and jawdropping selection of holes. Unfortunately, Leader's Peak, which combines a front nine that thunders through tall pine trees and a fabulously fun finishing stretch in among the rocks, is open to members only. Conditioning at all three layouts is nearly flawless, with the cool season grasses providing sublime playing surfaces throughout. www.stoneforestgolf.com

Sand and Stone: The West Course at the Dunes at Shenzhou Peninsula (left) is a Tom Weiskopf design that features stunning seaside vistas; the magnificent limestone karsts at Stone Forest (above) make for an amazingly surreal playing experience HK Golfer・SEP 2011

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What really makes this track stand out, however, is its distinctive scenery. Large red natural rock formations frame many of the holes on the Moon Course and Jacobson deserves credit for taking advantage of these monoliths and weaving a wonderfully varied course through them. Lion Lake is home to a second 18, the Moonlight Course, another Jacobson design, and is operated by Troon Golf, the American course management company. www.lionlake.com

Jian Lake Blue Bay GC Coastal Cracker Lion Lake CC A Roaring Rebirth The Moon Course at this fully-fledged resort, situated on the outskirts of Guangzhou, has been making waves since it opened for play at the end of 2009 – and it's easy to see why. Rick Jacobson, who was formerly with Jack Nicklaus' design company, is the man responsible for the work and he has sculpted a full-bore track that rolls across pleasing, undulating terrain. (The course was built in part over the original Lion Lake course, a disappointing Larry Nelson design that the new owners of the development were quick to bury). Artfully bunkered, with large, jagged-edged pits protecting generally small, well contoured greens, it's fair to say that the Moon Course provides a serious challenge. Our advice: don't leave home without a deft short game.

Although not set to open until early next year, this Mark Hollinger (JMP) design, situated on Hainan's eastern seaboard, has the makings of something very special indeed. Developed by the same owner as the highly rated Jian Lake in Hangzhou (another Hollinger design), Blue Bay is a visual stunner, with sandy wastes and pot bunkers contrasting magnificently with emeraldcoloured playing surfaces and the azure waters of the South China Sea. The finishing stretch of holes, which takes advantage of a spectacular oceanfront routing, can play especially tough when the wind whistles through. Because of its length, the wonderful short par-four 15th offers a birdie chance but only if the correct tier of the multi-terraced green is found with the approach. The 17th, meanwhile, could well become a candidate for China's toughest par-three. Stretching to over 230 yards from the tips, the tee shot has to carry a salt water estuary to a large green bisected by a pair of bunkers. Perhaps not entirely conventional, it's certainly memorable.

Provincial Pleasures: Jian Lake Blue Bay (above) in Hainan looks set to become something special; Rick Jacobson's Moon Course at Lion Lake CC (right) is an exacting and memorable test 56

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