China swings back at golf, shutting down 111 courses

In this Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016 photo, Japan's Hideki Matsuyama hits the ball from the fairway of the 18th hole during the 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, China. China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017 that the country has launched a renewed crackdown on golf, closing 111 courses in an effort to conserve water and land, and telling members of the ruling Communist Party to stay off the links. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING — China has launched a renewed crackdown on golf, closing 111 courses in an effort to conserve water and land, and telling members of the ruling Communist Party to stay off the links.

The state-run Xinhua News Agency said Sunday the courses were closed for improperly using groundwater, arable land or protected land within nature reserves. It said authorities have imposed restrictions on 65 more courses.

China banned the development of new golf courses in 2004, when it had fewer than 200. Since that time, the number of courses more than tripled to 683 before the new crackdown, Xinhua said.

Developers build courses under the guise of parks or other projects, often with the tacit approval of local officials. In one example chronicled by state media, an illegal golf course boasting 58 villas was originally built as a "public sports park," only to be secretly converted later. Many of China's cities, meanwhile, face severe land shortages and skyrocketing real estate prices.

Golf has also come under scrutiny by way of the sweeping anti-corruption campaign launched under Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Communist Party warned its 88 million members in 2015 not to play golf, likening it to "extravagant eating and drinking" and other bad habits that were at odds with the party's stated principles. An editorial in the China Daily newspaper the following spring clarified that party cadres were not to take free memberships or rounds.

China has veered over the years between rejecting and supporting golf. Amid a spirit of austerity and attacks on the country's former elites, Mao Zedong banned golf after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. One Shanghai golf course was turned into the city zoo.

Golf began to take off in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who instituted sweeping economic reforms and courted foreign investment. By the 1990s, a course designed by Jack Nicklaus opened at Mission Hills in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. Mission Hills now has 12 courses and is the largest golf resort in the world.

As in football and basketball, the government has invested in developing homegrown golf talent by importing coaches and promoting the sport. Australian golfer Greg Norman served for a time as an adviser to China's national team. And there are as many as 10,000 youth golfers and more than 300 international-standard competitions each year, said Wang Liwei, secretary-general of the China Golf Association.

According to Xinhua, every one of China's 33 provinces and regions has a golf course except for Tibet. Even mountainous, remote Xinjiang, home to most of Chinese's ethnic Uighur minority, has golf courses in the capital of Urumqi and two other cities.

Josh Summers, an American who has lived in Xinjiang for a decade and runs the website Far West China, said he had never met anyone in the region who had played a round of golf.

But, he said, "the elite perception of the sport ensures that, at least for now, the courses and random driving ranges still remain."

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Associated Press researcher Yu Bing contributed to this report.

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