Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

September 26, 2021

© Tom Breazeale

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The best tees in China

Newly steeped in golf culture, the Pearl River Delta serves up a bevvy of World Cup courses

Golf in the People’s Republic was banned under Chairman Mao; he deemed it decadent and elitist. Though it's hard to pin down an official estimate on the number of golfers in China today, the current consensus puts it at about three million and golf is the fastest growing sport in the People's Republic. Chairman Mao is probably spinning in his mausoleum on Tiananmen Square. Golf scores high on the country's ambitious tourism agenda, too. There are already 600 courses completed and an estimated one thousand on drawing boards. By 2015, it’s predicted that China will have 2700 courses with the hopes of attracting more than 250,000 North American golfers annually.

Construction of new courses has been so rapid, widespread and unregulated that Beijing officials can only estimate how many have been built. Pretty astounding, considering that the first golf course only opened in 1984 and that most greens fees, while reasonable by North American standards are roughly a quarter of an average worker's monthly salary.

Mission Possible

And no where is this growth more apparent than in the Pearl River Delta. With the goal of emulating the commercial success of Hong Kong, nearby Shenzhen was also been designated a “special economic zone,” attracting millions in a frenzy of foreign investment. Not surprisingly, Shenzhen is now home to the planet’s largest golf club, according to Guinness World Records.

Imagine 12 championship tracks in a region that was farmland and rice paddies less than two decades ago — that's Mission Hills (tel: 011-86-755-2802-0888;, about a half-hour drive from Hong Kong International Airport. The golf course was founded in 1994 by Dr David Chu, known as “the father of golf in China.” Now his sons Ken and Tenniel (who grew up in Toronto) head the management team.

Apart from being the world’s largest golf destination, Mission Hills is also a gated residential community housing two five-star resorts (in Shenzhen and neighbouring Dongguan), four clubhouses (including the world’s largest at 65,000 square metres), three spas and myriad bars and restaurants.

You could spend 12 days at Mission Hills tackling a different course every morning. Jack Nicklaus led the way with the World Cup course in 1994. In the years following, 11 more top international golfers were commissioned.

The variety is astounding. David Leadbetter’s contribution, with its generous fairways, might be the best place to start. While Jumbo Ozaki’s Canyon Course plays through dramatic canyons of dense forest; the sweeping, sculptured bunkering and water features are intended to evoke a calming Zen-like effect. Ernie Els’ has dramatic elevation changes and a rock-walled tee on the signature fourth hole. Nick Faldo designed China’s first Stadium Course with a treacherous island green on the 16th.

On the shortest 18, the Annika Course, Ms Sorenstam, in her design debut, offers a unique combination of six par-threes, six par-fours and six par-fives — six is considered to be lucky number in China. David Duval’s layout is a traditional design, and José Maria Olazabal’s contribution portrays his comfort zone with the short game with its more than 180 bunkers dotting the complex’s longest course.

Finally, there’s Greg Norman’s challenge, the toughest in Asia, with plenty of uphill battles and long carries. Part of the back nine runs through a jungle giving it an Apocalypse Now setting.

Mission Hills Shenzhen employs more than 3000 caddies, most of them young women from farm villages. Clad in red tracksuits and yellow aprons, they are extremely well trained and invaluable on the greens. And if you find one that speaks English well, book her for the next game. If not, have some fun with sign language.

The Chu family is also keen to grow the game with juniors. Back in 2001 when he was the world’s top professional, Tiger Woods was invited to Mission Hills. He was back in April 2007, leading a clinic for juniors.

Ode to Haiku

And if you’re looking for an even newer golf destination, Hainan Island is red hot. The Mission Hills Group opened 10 new courses in Haikou on the north end of this island in 2010. Located in the South China Sea, Hainan enjoys the same tropical climate as Hawaii and the northern end of the island is covered in lava rocks spewed from the Dao volcano that last erupted in 1933. Instead of having more pro golfers brand their names on the 10 new Haikou courses, Schmidt-Curley Design was given the mandate of building tracks that showcase different eras and geographic regions. The team who also built the dozen Shenzhen courses, are experts in earth moving.

Why all this action and investment on a tiny South Sea island? The Chinese Central Government has an aggressive plan to make Hainan the world’s leading tourism destination by 2020. Golf is key to this goal and Mission Hills, as the leading golf developer and brand in China, was asked to lend its expertise.

I think of the monumental Mission Hills projects as the modern-day equivalents of the Great Wall of China — except these endeavours are intended to open up China to the rest of the world instead of keeping nomads out. In case you are skeptical of this grandiose scheme, remember the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Haikou opened with the Mission Hills Star Trophy in October 2010, a celebrity pro-am tournament featuring the likes of Annika Sorenstam, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Hugh Grant and Lorena Ochoa, the winner, who played the Blackstone Course. I know this because I watched the video from the television installed above my Jacuzzi tub and I couldn’t wait to tackle it.

GOLF Magazine named the Blackstone course 2010’s Best New Asian design. This marked the first time courses in the Pacific Rim were ranked on the annual list, evidence of golf’s continuing shift of power to the East. The 7808-yard beauty weaves through a remarkable landscape of mature trees, lakes and lava rock. It’s a bit like playing on the moon on some holes.

Blackstone is the must-play course but then again, so are the others. Sandbelt Trails is patterned after Australia’s famous Sandbelt region near Melbourne, complete with eucalyptus trees. The Vintage has some quirky square greens, occasional blind shots and wicker basket “flags” reminiscent of turn-of-the-century designs. Stepping Stone is a par-three, pitch-and-putt course. Lava Fields has even more volcanic stones to dodge.

Meadow Links is based on traditional Open courses in the eastern US with distinctive grass-faced bunkers. Stone Quarry is a wild ride and tribute to Pete Dye’s devilish bunkers and small greens. Double Pin offers 18 par-three holes and two pins on each green to accommodate all handicaps. The Preserve is beautifully landscaped with abundant flowering shrubs and swaying palms. And last but not least, Shadow Dunes features towering dunes and the proximity between greens and tees makes it pleasantly walkable.

Lagoons and volcanoes

The folks at Mission Hills do nothing in small measures. Adding to guests’ pleasure is a 518-room luxury hotel with state-of-the-art rooms and amenities. (Warning: the brown thing wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon on your bedside table is not a piece of chocolate; it’s a lava stone).

Sip and sup in more than 10 lounges and restaurants including a disco, Japanese sushi bar and a bakery offering decadent cupcakes and steaming cappuccinos. There’s both an Asian and American chef at the Magma Café, so depending on your cravings, you can order a hot dog and milkshake or Hainan chicken, an island specialty simmered in a delicious stock. The breakfast buffet offers everything from dim sum to custom-made omelets.

The immense pool complex comprises a Lava Lagoon theme park with a man-made beach; a Lazy River tube ride and full recreation centre with an indoor pool, billiard, ping-pong and mahjong tables, Kid’s Club, gymnasium and more. On the planning board is a shopping mall and seven-star hotel. Boutiques sell everything from pearls harvested nearby in the South China Sea to designer duds. In case you’ve forgotten some golf gear you’re bound to find what you need in the massive pro shop.

If all this sounds exhausting, then chill out in the opulent mega-spa. Be adventurous and try something different. Perhaps a consultation with the doctor of Chinese medicine who will help you balance your yin and yang with prescribed teas?

A walkway made of local bamboo and shaped like a dragon’s spine leads from the spa to the Volcanic Mineral Springs where you can soak in 200-plus hot and cool pools infused with ginseng, peony, geranium, mint, lavender and violet. Or play chess or Chinese checkers in the Games pool.

And after all that golf, you might be ready for a foot massage. I recommend a session with a reflexologist. I was led into a room with four reclining chairs all facing a wall with a big TV screen. A tiny woman appeared with a wooden bucket filled with tepid tea infused with herbs into which I soaked my feet. As I watched CNN, her talented fingers probed every inch of my feet and calves.

Reflexology has been practised in China since the fourth century BCE. The theory is that every organ in the body is connected to a specific reflex point on the feet. Precise manipulation of these points can stimulate vital functions, improve circulation and soothe nerves. Who knows, maybe even lower your handicap? Reflexology, like golf, was frowned upon during the Cultural Revolution; now it’s alive and well.

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