China’s enormous and extraordinary Mission Hills complex spans 22 golf courses in two different locations. Mission Hills Haikou, located on the tropical island of Hainan, is home to 10 of those courses and an ever-expanding array of attractions.
CHOICE can be everything in golf. Is it a 5-iron or the 6? Go for it or lay up? Do I play on Saturday or Sunday? China’s enormous Mission Hills complex serves up an ocean of options for travelling golfers, combining an eye-popping 22 courses in two diverse destinations that epitomise the notion of being spoilt for choice.
The dozen courses at Mission Hills Shenzhen are well known; perhaps less so are the 10 more located on Hainan Island at Mission Hills Haikou. Often referred to as “China’s Hawaii”, Hainan is the tropical island province nestled in the South China Sea south-west of Hong Kong. The younger of the two Mission Hills sites, the selection extends beyond the golf courses of the Haikou complex. More than just the “Largest Golf Club in the World”, Mission Hills’ accompanying facilities are equally sizeable.
Unmistakable while touring the courses is the 18-storey, five-star resort hotel that is as imposing as it is impressive. I initially feared getting lost amid the restaurants, bars, shops and spacious relaxation areas but there soon appeared a logical sequencing to each section of the resort. Difficult to miss are the chains of ornamental handprints of famous actors, golfers and other sportspeople who’ve graced Mission Hills. Try resisting the urge to put your hand within the giant, mitt-like prints of Yao Ming, China’s 2.29-metre (7-foot-6) former basketball star; I’ll bet you can’t.
Mission Hills’ “golf and more” mantra is evident everywhere. On site are the largest mineral springs in the world, a seemingly endless chain of themed springs for the ultimate way to relax and rejuvenate. The 168 baths vary in size and architectural style to represent five of the world’s continents. The resort’s sumptuous spa is a natural extension of the springs and features multiple levels of immaculately decorated treatment rooms. I felt certain I’d struggle to walk after the punishing foot massage I received on my second night, yet woke the next morning feeling as light on my feet as ever.
A short shuttle ride away is Centreville, a vast and cosmopolitan shopping mall for those seeking a little retail therapy. Down the road is Movie Town, an eye-opening attraction to wander through that is the site of many a local movie production. And opening this month is Wet ’n Wild, a first for China and developed by the same Australians who brought the famed water parks to the Gold Coast and Western Sydney.
“It’s essentially three industries mixed together: theme park, movies and golf. That’s never been done in China,” Dr Ken Chu, the chairman and chief executive of the Mission Hills Group and son of Mission Hills founder David Chu, told Forbes in 2015.
“What was formerly volcanic wasteland and later unsuccessful farming land is now one of the premier golf resorts in the world.”
It’s a remarkable array of attractions, yet why do golfers beat a path to Mission Hills? Proximity is one huge bonus. As Kevin Davidson, a director of Australian-based touring company China Golf Experience says, there’s no need to leave once you’ve arrived. It’s a bonus Mission Hills Haikou has over playing golf in, say, Thailand or Vietnam, where the top courses are spread out and require a daily trek or constant movement to cover each one. And the costs are only marginally higher, if at all.
Reaching Haikou is best done through Hong Kong, the “Gateway to Asia”, although direct flights are in the pipeline. From Hong Kong, it’s an easy hour-ish flight to Haikou where the unpacking can be limited to a one-time hassle. Instead the emphasis is on the high calibre of service the Mission Hills staff affords guests and the total golf experience, providing variety between each layout all within unique, head-turning settings. Nowhere else other than Hawaii can you play golf on volcanic terrain – and you’re not saddled with the huge Hawaiian green fees. Course architecture aficionados might cringe at some aspects of the Mission Hills Haikou courses (the opening hole of the Meadow Links course is styled to appear like a giant panda), but they are sound designs in excellent condition and in an exotic location. And when one design firm pens 10 different layouts on the one site, it is no easy task to establish tangible points of difference. Yet the prolific design firm of Lee Schmidt and Brian Curley has done so with aplomb.
They took just 18 months to construct, with all 10 courses built simultaneously. One story says that the activity was so frenetic across the 22-square-kilometre site during the building phase that, based on satellite surveillance images, the American government was concerned the Chinese were constructing a new military base on Hainan and so deployed a spy to confirm what all the activity was about. Whether or not that spy was a golfer is unknown, but if he or she was, their response would surely have bypassed Washington D.C. and instead alerted the likes of Pebble Beach and Bandon Dunes that they have new, stiff competition in the East.
The Full Experience
A fantastic way to see Mission Hills Haikou and The Dunes Shenzhou Peninsula is via China Golf Experience’s “Two Resort Challenge” from March 4 to 12, 2018.
Covering six courses across the two sites during the eight days, the competitive side of the Two Resort Challenge will be a four-ball Stableford event. Courses scheduled include warm-up rounds at Sandbelt Trails and Lava Fields, before competition rounds at Stone Quarry, Black Stone and the East and West courses at The Dunes Shenzhou Peninsula.
Other inclusions in the $2,490 (twin share) package are five-star deluxe accommodation, full buffet breakfasts, all green fees, shared carts and individual caddies each round, a welcome Chinese banquet dinner, final night awards banquet dinner, land transfers and the expert advice of the CGE team.
Visit www.cgegolf.com.au for more details.
Mission Hills Haikou’s 10 courses are like an amusement park for golfers. Each one has a theme and keeps that identity throughout the 18 holes. Some reinforce their points of difference purely through the tee signage and tee markers, while other variances are less subtle. The Stone Quarry course, for instance, uses partial railway sleepers as tee markers, while Shadow Dunes implements conch shells. At Stone Quarry, old railway tracks remain in various spots on the course, often complete with a mining carriage or two.
Such touches are entirely artificial, of course, but are authentically artificial – if that makes sense. What is clear is how what was formerly volcanic wasteland and later unsuccessful farming land is now one of the premier golf resorts in the world.
The greens on all 10 courses are paspalum, a grass I enjoy more and more every time I play on it. In a high-traffic, tropical environment these lush surfaces stay hardy and play truly. The green sizes don’t vary much except for the Lilliputian putting surfaces of the pitch-and-putt Stepping Stone course and the gargantuan greens of Shadow Dunes, which average more than 1,000 square metres each. The bunkering is a feature throughout without being overdone. Stepping Stone features the fewest with 43 while Stone Quarry owns the most sand with 215.
The mark for the speediest tour of playing all 10 courses is two days, which is an exceptional feat. Somewhat surprisingly, the record for haste is not held by the super-fit Dr Chu.
“Nobody likes to play golf with me, because I find the sport too slow,” Mission Hills’ chairman quipped to Australian Golf Digest. “What I do is I play speed golf. So I don’t talk with you when we play, because I just want to sprint and I just want to run and get a full workout out of it. My fastest round is 45 minutes (on the Vijay course, in Shenzhen).”
Still, 10 courses in 48 hours is a frenetic pace and one too swift to allow for the individual charm of each course to sink in. Yet it does beg the question of such a vast golf complex: do you need to play all 180 holes? You may, of course, but a four, five or six-course golf ‘degustation’ will still give first-timers a taste of Mission Hills Haikou – and leave something to thirst for next time.
What Mission Hills Haikou gives you is a magnificent snapshot of a different side of China, a cleaner, tropical, less frantic view of the world’s most populous nation. It’s an expansive resort and the entire complex is growing at a speed reflective of modern China, although the sense you’re in a singular part of the country is palpable. And the golf on offer is first-class, perhaps bordering on daunting when you consider the menu – much like when a waiter places an enormous meal in front of you and for a moment you contemplate whether you have the patience and stomach to finish it. Indeed, the only time I encountered any feeling of disappointment – other than at the state of my golf game – came when I realised I’d be leaving some of the courses ‘on the plate’.
The Magnificent 10
Each of the Mission Hills Haikou courses has a different look and feel – and a different story.
1. Black Stone: The core course stretches to 7,140 metres and covers 142 hectares as it weaves through a striking landscape of mature trees, lava rock, thick jungle vegetation and expansive lakes and wetlands. Lava rock walls and village ruins created years ago remain as a testament to the site’s past. Adding to the look are wild, irregular bunkers and transitional sand edges that effortlessly work into the native lava rock. As the premiere tournament venue, Black Stone provides extensive spectator mounding for fans and a thrilling world-class challenge for the world’s greatest players.
2. Sandbelt Trails: Patterned after the exceptionally strong courses of the Melbourne Sandbelt, this 6,698-metre course features large bunkers dominated by high sand flashes and crisp, thick lips rising above the fairway and green surfaces. Eucalyptus trees evoke the Australian landscape while transitional bunkers blend into the native jungle, creating a natural and unique look over the course’s gently rolling terrain.
3. The Vintage: Modelled after courses built at the turn of the century, this 6,672-metre layout features a lay-of-the-land routing with treelined fairways. The distinct, natural terrain is mixed with quirky features that utilise odd, sometimes geometric shapes, abrupt mounds, deep pot bunkers, square edges, and the occasional blind shot. Wicker basket pins and man-made features resemble the handiwork of days past, evoking a classic charm.
4. Stepping Stone: The first short par 3 course is a true pitch and putt layout but with dramatic islands of turf surrounded by lava rock and large sand expanses. This course plays through, and seamlessly blends in with, the native surrounds of black rock and thick vegetation.
5. Lava Fields: While similar in many respects to the tournament Black Stone course with its irregular lines of turf and wild bunkering, Lava Fields presents far less tree cover. There is a sense of expanse that creates a ‘big’ look while the black rocks and sand dominate the landscape like no other course in the world. At 6,767 metres, it too is capable of hosting significant events.
6. Meadow Links: Based upon the traditional US Open courses of the eastern United States, this layout features lay-of-the land sensibilities and somewhat geometric shapes in both bunkering and fairway lines. Distinctive features, such as the fabled ‘Church Pew’ bunkers, make for a unique look where grass-faced bunkers and native grasses give the course an open meadow feel with occasional clusters of trees. The large greens make putting difficult.
7. Stone Quarry: This course showcases all the wild-ride features associated with Pete Dye’s designs. Railroad-tie sleepers, abrupt mounds and moguls, long sandy waste bunkers, devilish and sometimes small greens plus railroad car bridges all create a distinct look and playing experience. These features prove all the more dramatic as the course snakes through ancient volcanic quarries supported by steep rock walls and timbers.
8. Double Pin: This collection of 18 par 3s incorporates a unique and distinct feature: two pins on each green. The flags are designed to offer two options: one easier and more assessable hole location and one more difficult. An arboretum-style landscape provides an enjoyable atmosphere full of colourful trees and flowers, complementing the blue skies and clean air of Haikou. Players of all skill levels will be able to handle Double Pin, while everyone from families and beginners through to tour pros will find a quick round to complement their day’s play or practice.
9. The Preserve: With a strong emphasis on beautiful landscaping based upon a backbone of dense palm plantings, this user-friendly course plays off a more modern design. Sculpted bunkering punctuates wide fairways leading to green complexes where perimeter mounding feeds balls onto the putting surfaces with modern conviction. Vivid landscaping with an abundance of flowering shrubs and ground covers are the dominant images on this course, while palm trees add a welcome relief from the sun.
10. Shadow Dunes: Bringing sand to the city, this course offers a unique environment of towering sand dunes and native vegetation found along the vast beaches of Hainan Island. This course features large undulating contours that feed into some of the largest greens at the resort. These wild surfaces will leave monstrous putts at times. Not a course to be over-powered by prodigious length; short game and pinpoint accuracy are the more desirable traits across the 6,035-metre, par-70 course.
Bet On Black
Black Stone is viewed as Mission Hills Haikou’s premier layout [above]. The site of the 2011 World Cup of Golf and numerous Ladies European Tour events, among others, the No.1 course uses the volcanic rock outcrops to striking effect. It couples that feature with dramatic bunkering, artful terrain changes and several daring carry options, either across the black rocks that give the course its name or over water hazards. While the course is a handful right from the opening hole, our group sensed a crescendo was building as we neared the latter stages of the inward nine. Indeed, from the 15th hole home is a quartet of holes where it all goes on the line.
The par-4 16th, which Rory McIlroy once drove with a 3-wood, might be the pick of the four as players have three separate landing areas to choose to aim for with the tee shot, and one of those is the green itself. Alas, a steady headwind when we played prevented any fireworks from the tee, but in the right conditions – and with McIlroy-like skill – it wasn’t difficult to see that option was on.
Lava Fields is one of several of the Mission Hills Haikou courses situated a short shuttle drive from the resort. It utilises the same volcanic rock outcrops as Black Stone, although in its own way. One aspect remains common, however: there will be no easy escape from these dark hazards. You might find your ball among the rocks but trying to avoid a penalty stroke will surely see the golfer break their wrist, club or both while trying.
Anecdotally, Lava Fields is the second-favourite course at Mission Hills Haikou, behind Black Stone. The remarkable and omnipresent feature of the two courses clearly captures the eyes and imagination of visiting golfers. Miss the rocks and the ball will likely encounter thick, tropical vegetation from which there will be no retrieval. Beware: that stuff is more sinister than Steven Bowditch’s eyebrows.
My caddie’s name was Wang, but she asked me to call her Joy. With her happy demeanour, efficient manner and distinctive broad-rimmed glasses, she reminded me of Lydia Ko, pre-contact lenses. Guests playing multiple rounds are usually able to request the same caddie, providing they haven’t already been booked by another player. Joy was with me for 36 of the 54 holes I toured at Mission Hills but she can’t go everywhere. The Preserve is walking-only and the caddies don’t work there. Elsewhere, it’s carts on paths on every course in all but the summer months, so expect some cross-fairway hikes.
Shadow Dunes carries a slightly unfair reputation for having too much movement in its huge greens. They are large and wildly undulating – there’s also a triple green, shared by the fifth, seventh and 13th holes – but their size and terrain truly makes this layout. The changing of pin positions can alter the optimal approach strategy and even create some backwards-curving putts. Some golfers find that too much to ingest, but if, like me, you think the ball on the ground is far more interesting than the ball in the air, Shadow Dunes will appeal to your golf imagination.
The line between success and failure on such greens can be extraordinarily fine. I found this out with a pair of 8-iron approaches to the par-3 13th and par-4 14th holes. At the former, my shot landed atop the crest of one of the huge mounds in the green and was millimetres away from finding the wrong side of the hump and winding up 50 feet from the cup and almost certainly eliciting a three-putt. Yet it just caught the right side of the ridge and instead fed down to 10 feet from where I made the uphill birdie putt. A few moments later, my 8-iron that looked so good in the air at the 14th came up a few centimetres shy of cresting a similar ridge in the green that would have seen the ball finish stone-dead. Alas, this time my ball retreated down the hill and came to rest much farther from the flag.
I shrugged, Joy sighed and we went to work on conquering the two-putt for par. Later, I birdied the last hole of the day at Shadow Dunes, another 10-foot putt toppling in for a memorable way to finish a bite-sized taste of golf at Mission Hills Haikou. I can already feel my appetite for the main course building.
See the November 2017 issue for Part II: Mission Hills Shenzhen.
Hainan’s Dunes Duo
Mission Hills Haikou might be the largest golf complex on Hainan Island but it wasn’t the first. The island’s golf momentum began when the 36-hole complex at The Dunes Shenzhou Peninsula opened in 2009, a year prior to Mission Hills. The change of decades was an explosive time for golf on Hainan and the twin Tom Weiskopf designs led the way.
Recently rated as the fifth best course in Asia by one publication, the East course at The Dunes receives the majority of the accolades, although the West course is the preference of many visitors. What is indisputable is the amazing setting and intricate design traits of both layouts. This part of the Shenzhou Peninsula – situated on the south-east coastline of Hainan, about two hours’ drive south of Mission Hills – is littered with majestic rocky outcrops as well as a pristine stretch of beaches. Weiskopf incorporated both features into his courses as well as expansive waste bunkers and more conventional pots.
There are only subtle differences between the two Dunes courses. The East builds momentum throughout and saves its coastal gems for the end, while the West ebbs and flows more, touching the coast twice as it meanders across the site. If you like a course that rises to a crescendo then the East is likely to be your pick, but if constantly changing surroundings and a sense of ‘What’s coming next?’ is more your preference, then go West.
The beach is squarely in play on the par-5 16th hole of the East and at the eighth and 16th holes of the West, two par 4s with the coast to the golfer’s right. The Dunes’ rocky outcrops are best utilised on the East course, notably close to the edge of the green at the par-3 6th hole and later to frame the tee shot at the downhill 17th, a potentially driveable par 4. There, the wall of boulders left of the fairway is tall enough and near enough to have you thinking of a scene from a western as you wander down the fairway, so much so that it might seem entirely appropriate for a gun-totin’ bandit to spring out from behind them – until, of course, you remember this is still China.
Adjoining the courses are twin hotels, Sheraton Shenzhou Peninsula Resort and its sister Four Points property, which represent both logical and luxurious places for travelling golfers and their non-playing partners to stay. The region offers myriad cultural experiences, while the hotel with its restaurants, spa, beachfront location and enormous swimming pool allows the body and mind (and stomach) to recuperate after a 36-hole duel.
As a point of difference and to experience a pair of excellent courses, any trip to Hainan Island should include time on the Shenzhou Peninsula. The Dunes’ proximity to Mission Hills and Haikou Airport makes it an easy add-on or even starting point for a golf trip on Hainan. More fine courses are on offer at Sanya, 90 minutes away in the island’s south, but the two-hour journey between Mission Hills and the Shenzhou Peninsula allows for a round to be played at either location on the day you travel from one place to the other.
Things To Know About China
Modern China is a far different place from the China your grandfather remembers. It’s fast-paced, vibrant, enigmatic and with various Western influences. There are, however, helpful hints to know:
* A Chinese visa is a must for tourists (and costs about $140). Allow a minimum of two weeks for the process prior to departing, but ideally a little longer. Your correspondent’s outbound flights needed to be rebooked due to the approval process being strung out several days longer than anticipated.
* The ‘Great Firewall of China’ is real. What you’ve heard is correct; Facebook and other social media, along with Google, Gmail and other related websites are mostly inaccessible. There are ways around it (VPNs – virtual private networks – are popular) but otherwise expect to lose contact with those everyday sites while in China. (Within Hong Kong, full access is available.)
* Hotel security deposits are huge. It is standard for hotels worldwide to hold money on a credit card upon check-in, perhaps just a dollar or up to $100 or so, but in China the figure is closer to 800 RMB (about $160) – and that’s per night. If you provide debit account details, they will initially take that amount from your account, so beware.
* English is becoming more prevalent. Many staff in the bigger hotels and golf resorts speak English and speak it well. While a language barrier still exists at times, chances are Australian tourists won’t encounter any communication problems.
* The caddies are diligent but an English-speaking one is not guaranteed. They are excellent green-readers – no mean feat when there are as many as 180 of them to learn! – and highly observant in general. On one hole, my caddie waited before driving away from the tee for what appeared to be no apparent reason. Then I realised why. I was drinking from a bottle of water and he hadn’t wanted the jolt of the cart taking off to spill any. They’re also resourceful. My caddie at The Dunes Shenzhou Peninsula spoke only minimal English but took to using the translation app on her smartphone to convey her advice.
About Mission Hills
Numbers don’t always tell the full story but the figures Mission Hills can display are mindboggling.
Mission Hills Haikou spans 22 square kilometres, and 11 million cubic metres of dirt were moved during construction with 450 kilometres of irrigation pipes running through the 10 courses. Along with 20 hectares of artificial lakes are 2,185 hectares of wetlands maintained by the resort. There’s 100 kilometres of cart paths, plus 50 kilometres of stonewalling. And Mission Hills employs 4,000 people, including the large caddie fleet.