For the last five years Cindy Reid has been the most sought after golf instructor in the world’s most populous country. As CEO of the Cindy Reid Golf Academy at Mission Hills in Shenzhen, China, the former director of instruction at TPC Sawgrass has seen the good, bad and ugly in Asia. She is also the person whose advice has been sought by the likes of Hank Haney and Butch Harmon. Reid sat down for this interview with Global Golf Post‘s Senior Correspondent Steve Eubanks and gave her version of the truth about golf in China.
GGP: What is the biggest misconception about golf in China?
CR: People assume that China is exploding with growth in golf. There’s growth, and if you go to certain areas, like Hainan Island in the south, you see a lot of construction, but it’s not the panacea that people think. There are fewer courses under construction in China now than there were in America 20 years ago. Golf is 30 years old in China, so every new course that comes on line represents a big percentage increase, because the base was so low. There is growth, sure, but in terms of facilities, China still represents a small fraction of the golf industry.
GGP: Then why does the rest of the world look at China as a Boomtown for golf?
CR: Well, when the game is shrinking everywhere else, any growth is viewed as a boom. But I also think people are awed by the size and scope of the facilities in China. It took Pinehurst a century to have, what, 10 golf courses? Mission Hills built 12 courses in 20 years, and will double that number with the Hainan Island project in the next 10 years. And the courses they’re building couldn’t be built in the West. If an architect wants to lop the top off a mountain to build a course, there’s no EPA or Corp of Engineers or Sierra Club telling him he can’t. That’s not always a good thing, but it gives golf developers a lot more freedom, which is funny to say about a country like China.
Then there are the clubhouses. I mean, when we built the new clubhouse at TPC Sawgrass everyone was talking about how big it was. The main clubhouse at Mission Hills is five times that size and it’s one of three clubhouses in the resort. My academy facility is 32,000 square feet with 20-foot-high hitting bays so students can practice indoor flop shots. The numbers sound crazy to someone from the U.S. or Europe, but that’s very common in China. There’s nothing Westerners can do that the Chinese can’t supersize.
GGP: Are average Chinese people playing golf?
CR: Not yet. The average Chinese citizen is still incredibly poor by Western standards. Golf is for the rich, and there are a lot of rich people in the country. Beijing has a million millionaires, and Hong Kong still sells more Rolls Royces than any other city in the world. Golf is a status symbol in Asian culture, so most of the wealthy people in China are learning to play golf or getting their kids into the game. The middle class is growing, but it’s going to be several years before you see the average Chinese man or woman playing.
GGP: So, we won’t see an influx of Chinese tour players for awhile?
CR: No, I think you’ll see some very good players sooner rather than later. You have Zhang Lianwei, who’s the first person from mainland China to win a European Tour event, but the big wave, in my opinion, is going to be in the women’s game. The Chinese are attacking the game like everything else: with the kind of disciplined work ethic we haven’t seen in the West in a century. The China LPGA Tour is in its second year. Winners are shooting 12- or 13-over par, but the enthusiasm is there. It won’t be long before Chinese girls start popping up on the LPGA.
GGP: Why girls?
CR: They work harder. Boys in China are put on a pedestal, and a lot of them from successful families are spoiled. Maybe it’s a product of the one-child policy, or cultural bias, but there are a lot of 23- and 24-year-old men still living with their parents and not working very hard. But the women work their tails off. On Hainan Island, the Missions Hills’ construction and maintenance crews are all women. They just have a stronger, more dedicated work ethic than the men. And because they are around the game more as maintenance workers and caddies, girls are picking up the game and learning much faster than boys.
GGP: Could China be the next South Korea on the LPGA?
CR: I don’t think China will have as large a percentage of players as the Koreans, because the game is different in China than it is in Korea. A middle-class civil servant in Korea can play golf or at least hit balls, and get lessons for his daughter. That’s not happening in China. But the Chinese will have an impact. Remember, the most talented 30 percent in China is more people than the entire population of the U.S.
GGP: So, is the current growth of golf in China likely to continue?
CR: I think it will for awhile. I keep hearing things about the coming Chinese real estate bubble, but there is still a lot of wealth pouring into mainland China, and even though they’ve embraced capitalism, the Chinese are new at being rich. There is no old money in China, so anyone who has a lot of wealth is anxious to show it off. You’ll never find a rich Chinese person dressing down, for example. If they have it, they flaunt it. Golf is a big part of that, and it’s likely to remain that way regardless of what happens with real estate.
GGP: How about the counterfeit problem?
CR: (Laughs) Golf’s not alone on that front. You should check out the DVDs you can get on the street in Shenzhen. Knockoffs are a problem, but it’s a problem that’s starting to work itself out. Not only is the government cracking down more on counterfeiters, all the little golf stores that opened in towns all over China – I mean every town of any size had at least one karaoke bar and a golf store – those are closing down from lack of business. Foreigners are wising up and not buying the knockoffs, and the locals would never support them.
GGP: So, what advice do you have for people in the West looking at golf in China?
CR: I would say to people in the business: come on over. The water is warm, but you better know how to swim when you get here. Yes, golf is growing, but you can’t bring a Western mindset to China and expect to succeed. In fact, you can live and work in China for decades and never understand the culture completely. For the average player, though, I would definitely recommend adding golf in China to your life bingo card. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.