China golf out of the rough? PGA, club maker Honma bet on post-Olympic boom

Thu Oct 6, 2016 1:15am EDT
 
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By Donny Kwok

HONG KONG (Reuters) - A year after China ordered public officials off the fairways in a crackdown on graft, the business of golf is betting hunger for the game among middle class fans and an Olympic medal for a home-grown star can drive the sport back to growth.

The PGA Tour, organizer of golf's flagship events, says it wants to more than double the number of events on the Chinese mainland as Beijing basks in the glow of a bronze medal in Rio for Feng Shanshan - also a multi-millionaire winner on the international Ladies PGA Tour.

Meanwhile Honma Golf Ltd, maker of the world's most expensive clubs, made its debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Thursday after a HK$1.26 billion ($162 million) listing, touting the chance of China growth as a key attraction in its prospectus. Feng, sponsored by Honma, also appears in the document - and helped out in roadshow presentations.

"Double-digit or triple-digit growth in the population (of golfers) is very achievable," said Gregory Gilligan, Beijing-based head of the PGA Tour's Chinese affiliate, speaking in a recent interview at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club in Hong Kong, where the China PGA Tour will hold its first event outside the mainland from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6.

After years of being unofficially tolerated, golf was officially banned for members of the Chinese Communist Party in October last year during a draconian anti-corruption drive. The sport's popularity took a severe hit, and over a hundred courses closed.

China has since softened its position, arguing earlier this year that golf itself was "not a wrongdoing", according to a report in China Daily, as long as officials pay their way and stick to playing outside working hours, rather than stroll the fairways while during work time on the public dime.

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Shanshan Feng of China bites on her bronze medal in women's Olympic golf competition. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque