Ken's golf Mission now on course
WHEN Ken Chu plays golf on one of the 22 magnificent courses that comprise the two Mission Hills complexes he owns in southern China, he runs between shots.
"People hate playing with me," he says. "They can't keep up. I play what I call speed golf - it's a sort of endurance training."
Few people perhaps are in quite such a hurry as this remarkable 38-year-old who, in less than two decades, has helped build the biggest golf club in the world - and disarmingly suggests that he's just getting started.
He talks about expanding into other regions of China and, eventually, overseas.
Dr Chu - charismatic, articulate, Hong Kong-born, Canadian-educated and indisputably the world's biggest golfing entrepreneur - runs the huge Mission Hills golfing complex which was begun by his father at Dongguan, just over the Hong Kong-China border, 20 years ago, and has spread to Hainan Island, 800km to the south.
Mission Hills operates 12 courses at Dongguan, each designed by a golfing great - legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, David Duval, Ernie Els, Jose Maria Olazabal, Vijay Singh and Annika Sorenstam. Mission Hills' 10 courses at Haikou on Hainan Island are each a work of art, carved out of an old lava field, where black volcanic rocks define greens and bunkers and provide a unique personality to each course.
The statistics are breath-taking. And so is the speed at which Mission Hills gets things done.
Consider this. At Haikou, there are 10 golf courses, a multi-storey clubhouse that looks like a small palace, a super-deluxe five-star hotel with 538 rooms and 12 restaurants, and Asia's largest spa.
The whole thing was built from scratch in just 18 months.
The two complexes employ 15,000 full-time staff and more than 40,000 casuals. On a busy Saturday at Dongguan, when wealthy Hong Kong businessmen make the 90-minute drive to Mission Hills for a round of golf, 5000 caddies are waiting, ready to help make the experience truly memorable.
The brightly-garbed caddies are female, all seemingly aged between 17 and 25, attractive and cheerful, and very knowledgeable about the game.
After only a hole or two, they'll know your game, which club you need to reach the manicured greens and, if you wish, they'll read your putts - invariably with uncanny precision.
Before Mission Hills, their future would have been working on farms around Shenzhen and Dongguan. Ken Chu says that sort of employment would earn them about A$100 a year.
"Now they're making $1000 a month," he said.
Golf's different in China. It's not so much about competition and scores - it's more about the experience.
Golfers at Mission Hills must hire a caddy - they cost about $15 a round - and use a cart. Carts never intrude on to the fairways, remaining on the cart paths as golfers and caddies trek out together to the ball. As a result, the fairways remain lush and green.
Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of staff are on hand to make a visitor's stay enjoyable, relaxing and memorable. Each time a bus pulls up or a golf cart takes a fork in a path, a uniformed attendant smartly stands to attention and snaps a salute in your direction.
Nobody, it seems, ever waits more than a second or two at a counter, a restaurant or a shop. Visitors are always met with a smile and a greeting.
Get up early in the morning and you'll see gangs of workers sweeping the roads and plucking weeds from garden beds. Stay up late and, even at midnight, you'll find well-dressed sales executives manning desks in the foyer should you be interested in buying a unit or a villa. Dr Chu and his family have gambled heavily on the popularity of golf in China.
And so far, it's looking good.
The first golf course in China was not built until the mid-'80s and by 1992, only about 20,000 Chinese were playing the game - a tiny 0.002% of China's massive population.
But by the end of the century, there were 500,000 Chinese golfers - a figure that doubled in 2001 when Tiger Woods made his first trip to compete in the Mission Hills Tiger Woods China Challenge.
Dr Chu estimates five million Chinese now play golf, and predicts that figure will explode to 20 million by 2020.
Asked how much his family had invested in the two Mission Hills complexes, Dr Chu thinks for a moment, scribbles some figures, does some quick conversions and declares the figure to be $4.2 billion.
Not that he's placing all his eggs in the golf basket.
"We offer a 'golf and more' package," he says.
"We're not just a golf club.
"We must cater for the golf widow and offer something for the whole family."
So, both complexes provide superbly-appointed spas, great restaurants, shops and, at Haikou, the world's largest mineral hot springs with 168 separate heated pools - some of them as intimate as a large bath.
At Dongguan, they're building a shopping centre, complete with modern cinema, and at Haikou an entertainment precinct in partnership with Hong Kong's Lan Kwai Fong Group, which will include a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a Marriott Renaissance Hotel, jointly providing more than 500 rooms.
"It's a town centre that we're creating," Dr Chu says and points to the villa and unit developments springing up adjacent to the golf courses - buildings growing higher, it seems, even as you stand and watch them.
HOW MUCH IT COSTS
Return flights from Brisbane to Guangzhou on China Southern Airlines, including domestic connections from Shenzhen to Haikou and back to Guangzhou, start at $1048.
Golf packages at Mission Hills Dongguan begin at $398 per person (includes accommodation, breakfast, a 90-minute spa treatment and a round of golf).
7 days/6 nights packages at Mission Hills Dongguan are about $2160 per person (includes accommodation, breakfast, 8 rounds of golf (including 2 weekend games).
3 days/2 nights at Mission Hills Haikou from $650 (includes accommodation, breakfast, 3 rounds of golf, mineral springs, bus shuttle).
7 days/6 nights at Mission Hills Haikou from $2160 (includes accommodation, 8 rounds of golf)