‘Green Opium’ – Golf’s Place within China

Green Opium

‘Chui Wan’ being played with a stick and ball
in 1000 AD. Described as the earliest form of golf
In 1839, Britain began the first of two Opium Wars with China. Unhappy with the ban of the commodity on Chinese shores, merchants looked to Her Majesty’s government to open up this vast market to their produce.

Fast forward to the present day and an increasingly popular, and slightly more addictive, form of the narcotic is being forced upon China. This new ‘Green Opium,’ as some journalists have dubbed it, was banned by the Communist Party in 1949, and local politicians have fled from its association as it would be political suicide. The number of users is naturally hard to calculate due to its prohibition, however it is estimated that there will be twenty million by 2020.

The cost of the activity is still very expensive in China. One ‘hit’ will set you back an average of $150, with the duration of around four and a half hours. This has prevented the mass population from participating, however a niche of the population of 1.3 billion still equates to a vast amount of people.

Greenkeepers at Mission Hills have helped
make the course famous across the world
In 2004, a ban was issued by the National Government against constructing ‘Green Opium’ sites across the country. This was imposed to protect the “collective land of the peasants,” and maintain the communist ideals which the current government was founded upon. At the time of this law, there were 176 sites in existence, only 10 of which with government approval. Seven years later, this number has increased to 490 in a blatant disregard to the Party’s intentions.

Ok, enough metaphors. I am sure that you have guessed that the ‘Green Opium’ that has been eluded to, refers to the sport of Golf.

Officially, there are zero golfers in China.

The sport is still banned nationwide due to Mao labelling it the “sport for millionaires” back in 1949. However, as with so many political notions in the middle kingdom, there are an infinite amount of contradictions about China’s relationship with the game we love.

China – Golf’s White Knight

I wonder if Bubba ever
thought he would be in this situation
China is already portrayed as the shining light in the global golf industry. The worldwide recognition of Mission Hills is an excellent example of how far things have come. With the list of prestigious tournaments in China ranging from; the HSBC Champions, the BMW Masters and the Volvo China Open, the progress being made in the region is obvious.

The three brands mentioned in the previous paragraph are a testament to the commercial opportunities that are being seized. Head of BMW Golf Marketing Magnus Wiese said; “Golf is not a mass event [in terms of spectators] like it is on other tours, but it is a quality audience.” An important footnote is that BMW sales in China have grown 5 or 6 times in the last ten years. Giles Morgan, Global head of HSBC sponsorship and events, agrees that the demographic that golf engages with accurately reflects the core principles of their customers. When you consider that the annual growth rate of golfers in China was around 25% in 2009, it is no wonder the world’s leading brands are flocking to this market.

Breaking the sport into the lower income bracket will be China’s main challenge. The joining fee for Sheshan International Golf Club, home of the HSBC Champions, is $230,000, with visitors only able to play with members. A government tax of 24% on golf clubs is also hindering the construction of middle-tier golf clubs to interact with the lower classes.

Future of Golf in China

Overcoming these contradictions is important not just for the game of golf but for China as a whole. Chinese are unsure of their position in a post-Mao, newly capitalist economy, with an authoritarian political system. The lessons of golf’s integration can be the flagship example to the continued globalisation of China.

Guan – The Future of Golf
Tiger – The Past

The good news is that ‘green opium’ is not “a poison that undermines our good customs and morality,” as a government edict proclaimed in 1839. However, until the government accepts that it is no longer the “sport for millionaires” and can indent China more prominently on the world stage, the benefits will be definitively reduced.


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