On a ladder of spending in developing economies, growing affluence first means wheat and meat. Then, climbing somewhat higher, people can afford consumer durables like a washing machine and a car.
On a Chinese spending ladder, we could add golf. But it is a bit more complicated.
Where are we going? The growth of Chinese golf has been a pretty good barometer of China’s progress and problems.
First, some history…
Saying that golf was a “sport for millionaires,” Mao Zedong prohibited it in 1949. (Similarly, Hugo Chavez used a 2009 TV address as an opportunity to say, “Let’s leave this clear. Golf is a bourgeois sport.”) It took until 1984 for the Chinese government to lift the ban but then, in 2004 again they limited the sport with a golf course building moratorium. Still though, between 2005 and 2010, the number of golf courses increased to more than 600 and now, with golf having become an Olympic sport, the state-run China Golf Association has built a national golf training center as a part of a program to develop a national team. They even hired British Open winner Greg Norman to advise them.
Proving that Mao was correct, among a wealthy Chinese minority, golf has become increasingly popular. Players need the time for practice and the money for the greens fees, lessons, club membership. As for the number of golfers, no one knows. Estimates place the total somewhere between several hundred thousand and several million.
On the problems side, Chinese golf promoters have had to cope pollution and land development. Air pollution caused officials to change tee-times at an October Ladies Professional Golf Association event. And, the reason for the 2004 golf course moratorium was concern about using arable land and water for recreation instead of agriculture.
Our bottom line? Thinking of golf as a microcosm, we can see that economic development creates cultural contradictions, an affluent minority and a tough transition from the dominance of agriculture.