Shanqin Bay - the red carpet treatment

24 April 2014 Respond to this article

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Shanqin Bay - the red carpet treatment

Fergal visits the Far East and experiences Shanqin Bay on his quest to play the World Top 100

April 2014

Shanqin Bay - 8th holeShanqin Bay is the only golf course in China to be ranked in the Top 100 Golf Courses in the World by Golf Magazine. To say it’s a unique experience to play here is the greatest understatement in the history of this game… but not for obvious reasons.

Firstly, it’s a million dollars to join the club and they have 22 members. Since it opened 3 years ago, the club has had 30 VIP guests that have visited the property. Golf at Shanqin Bay is not like any other club on planet earth. You have to get permission from the Club Chairman in Beijing to visit the property. You’re met at the airport by the General Manager, his assistant and then taken in a limo to the property. In the run up to your arrival, you’ll receive countless emails expressing how excited they are to have you visit. It’s clear that they want golf course raters to visit them, yet the due diligence to authorise your visit is immense. The security guard at the front gate knows your name, stands to attention with his hand to his forehead like you’re an admiral in the army and welcomes you to the club with the only English phrase he knows. It’s a nice touch, but so weird. 20+ individuals, all perfectly lined up in a row, then meet you and the welcome is ecstatic beyond words. The caddies, the club manager, the membership director, the chef, the superintendent, the club director and a whole host of other employees are literally standing in a line like they’re waiting to glimpse royalty. What your eyes witness is an entire Broadway production and makes a visiting player somewhat uneasy with all the theatrics going on. It’s as though the President of China has arrived and your every move has been calculated and rehearsed for months. It’s a long way from how I nonchalantly drive to Portmarnock Golf Club, put my shoes on at the back of the car without anyone batting an eye-lid, and shuffle to the first tee with the tip of my cap. At Shanqin Bay, you’re constantly wondering what they will do next. The welcome and hospitality is what the club strives for, as part of what they consider to be completely normal for golfers, namely 7-star customer service. If these people experienced golf in Ireland, Scotland or Australia for example, they probably would have heart failure and would wonder why it’s so unassuming and politely discreet.

Shanqin Bay - 15th holeHaving been one of the first guests ever to hit balls off the grass at the driving range (to the confusion of the golf staff), the theatrics continued to the first tee where multiple photographers get you to pose next to the famous rock which stands outside the 40,000-foot clubhouse. Note that they wanted the clubhouse to be twice that size, even though hardly anyone plays this course. It’s all so bizarre and then with about 40 people in uniforms standing around the first tee, you actually then get to start playing golf on the Bill Coore layout. I walked down the 1st fairway accompanied by the General Manager (wearing his 3-piece suit in 35 degrees Celsius) and other members of his staff to guide me around and give course guidance. I know in Japan that they have a tradition to stop after 9 holes for a bite to eat, but at Shanqin Bay, they went 2 steps further than that. They have fully catered for eating dwellings after the 4th hole and again after the 12th hole. Apparently the members stop at each house for a full service hour-long meal while playing the course. I was lost for words. This is not normal. I know many clubs in America promote “the experience”, but Shanqin Bay just takes the biscuit – and then some.

Shanqin Bay - 16th holeAfter the round, they’ve already made a framed photograph for you, engraved a personal message for you on a signed plate, hand-written a message on the club’s history book and given you full access to the pro-shop which has no cash register. The place is packed with employees with nothing to do; it’s farcical beyond description or imagination. But again, this is what they think golf is, and they are so proud of their property. To a visiting guest, you obviously go with the flow and show appreciation, but when there’s a guy standing to attention in the locker room waiting to put your shoes on and another guy to hold your towels, you have to take a step back and just wonder. All 194 of the employees live on the property in housing, so they don’t see the outside world all that much. You give up counting how many times you question what you’re looking at. Under no circumstances is anybody to conclude that I didn’t completely appreciate what they were doing for me, as you don’t get to feel like a King very often. It was just so different than the norm that it’s worth describing in detail what actually happened. The staff were constantly aware of where you were, have been trained extremely well and couldn’t have been more professional with how they presented their mythical property. They have learned all of the Golf Magazine World Top 100 golf courses in Chinese and English, so it was a treat to have my caddy say “Portmarnock Golf Club” in Cantonese to me when she saw my golf bag!

Shanqin Bay - 17th holeSo with all that said, the golf course is sensational. They didn’t have indexes on the score card yet, but you quickly learn that you’re on a championship layout crafted out of land that was once used as a fort and still has remnants of army barracks, watch-out points and “great walls” that wind their way around the course. I loved the fact that those features were gently incorporated into the layout, including the inclusion and restoration of the old walls. In fact, if you see the club logo, there is a tunnel that runs from the 18th green under the clubhouse to the pro-shop. That same tunnel was used in war times and the opening of the tunnel now exists as the club logo. The constant change in elevation, tumbling fairways and trademark Coore/Crenshaw bunkering are outstanding. This property was found in 2004 when the owner was flying along in his helicopter around Hainan Island, and after years of negotiation, he finally convinced Coore to break ground.

You’re always playing uphill or downhill, avoiding vegetation, playing over lakes or enjoying glorious holes that play towards the Pacific Ocean. It’s remarkable that they were even able to construct a golf course on this property. For a club that I know will hardly ever get used, it ranked very highly in strategic value because you are not always hitting driver off the tee and accuracy is a premium. Despite the 3 ring circus that’s going on all around you, they have incorporated blind tee shots, blind approach shots, fine-tuned knowledge of the prevailing wind, large contoured greens, false fronts and a topology that hardly required a bull-dozer. I’m proud, yet still dazed and confused, to say that I’ve played the course and can see that the architects created a routing that is highly commendable, yet seamlessly sacred at the same time. The stand out holes for me on the front side were the par threes (3rd and 8th), the par fours (6th and 7th) and on the back side, the epic stretch from 15 through 17 will stand out as amongst the greatest Coore/Crenshaw holes I’ve ever seen. The elevated tee shot on 16 is the signature photograph on the property to the drivable 308-yard par four green surrounded by devilishly placed bunkers. The tee shot on 17 is breath-taking along the shoreline to one of the most pitched fairways that Shanqin Bay has to offer.

I can see why Golf Magazine included it in its World 100 ranking, but wonder if the club will continue to get enough votes to justify its position on the list, as there are dozens of other candidates clipping at its heels. As I approached my limo to take me back to the airport, the “closing ceremony” began with employees taking my photograph, bowing at me, standing to attention and wishing me well. As you leave the gates, all that’s left to do is exhale really slowly and smile.

Article written by our US Consultant, Fergal O'Leary, who continues his mission to become the youngest person to play the Top 100 Golf Courses of the World.