I am standing on the first tee at Tiger Beach Golf Links and I am flabbergasted. Brad Shih, the club's amiable executive vice president, wanders over to me, puts an arm around my shoulder, and says jovially: ‘Just like Scotland , right?'
I survey the scene again. Laid out in front of us is a pure links course: rough sand dunes covered in wild fescue, rumpled fairways punctuated by seemingly inescapable pot bunkers, ocean waves crashing over a sandy stretch of beach in the distance. Then there is the wind: it is hammering in off the sea – the flags on the greens are fighting a losing battle to remain vertical. And there is the temperature: the nifty thermometer function on my new-fangled wristwatch reads five degrees. ‘It's more Scottish than Scotland ,' I reply in all seriousness, before scuttling a weak drive down the fairway.
Except that this is not Scotland . This is China . Or, to be exact, we are in China 's northerly Shandong province playing a golf course that looks 200 years old, but is, in fact, only six. The crashing waves in the distance belong to the Yellow Sea, not the North Sea . I challenge even gruff, hipflask-toting Aberdonians to tell the difference. It is astonishing.
What is even more astonishing, however, is that Tiger Beach , so called in honour of Tiger Woods' historic triple-major winning season in 2000, was designed not by a Jack Nicklaus or a Tom Watson, but by Beta Soong, the club's Taiwanese owner. Soong, a 59-year-old entrepreneur who made his millions in electronics, might be a self-confessed hacker when it comes to playing the game, but he knows a thing or two about developing golf courses. He also owns the highly rated Silport Golf Club, a parkland-style layout in Shanghai , which has staged the Volvo China Open on six occasions. But is he qualified to design one? In theory, no, but on the basis of what he has created at Tiger Beach , the answer is a definite yes.
Soong's love of links golf began in the early 1990s while he was in Scotland visiting a newly acquired factory near Glasgow . A few rounds on the Ayrshire coast and his mind was made up: he would return to China and build a course of a kind that Asia had never seen. But first he had to find a site.
It was not until 1997 that Soong found the canvas upon which to make his vision a reality. Halfway between the cities of Qingdao and Yantai lies the small town of Feng Cheng, and it was here, on a large plot of sandy terrain adjacent to the coast, that Soong decided to build. Most of today's golf course architects would scoff at routing a course over such land, but Soong was insistent: the scraggy, windswept site would be perfect for his dream project.
Before construction could begin, however, Soong took a tour of the classic links courses of Scotland and Ireland , where he collected thousands of photographs from St Andrews, Royal Troon, Ballybunion, Royal County Down and Carnoustie to help reaf-firm his plans for Tiger Beach . Shih, who was construction manager at the time, remembers the early days of building the course with fondness.
‘I had only ever been involved with constructing parkland courses and Beta's plans sounded crazy,' he says. ‘In fact, after we completed the first nine holes it was clear that it wasn't Scottish enough. We had very little idea of links golf – the style of bunkering, the mounding… so, under Beta's instructions, we tore it up and started again. We had to get it right.'
And they did. A year after opening, a delegation of local councillors from Angus in Scotland was in Yantai – Angus's sister city – on a cultural exchange trip. Hankering for a game of golf, the Scots were driven down to Tiger Beach where their impressions of the course, like mine, verged on the hysterical, says Shih. ‘They couldn't believe that such a course could exist in China . They said they felt like they were back home.'
Word quickly reached Carnoustie – the venue for the 2007 Open Championship – and, after visiting the course to see for themselves, Carnoustie's representatives met Soong and agreed on a sister-link relationship, the first time in the Scottish club's 300-year history that it has been twinned with another course. Furthermore, in 2005, Soong was given honorary life membership at Carnoustie for his vision in establishing a truly Scottish links course at Tiger Beach using his own inspiration and design.
My lasting memory of the club is not so much of the actual course – although it is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable tracks in the Middle Kingdom – but more of the spirit in which golf is played there. The vast majority of Chinese clubs are run purely as businesses. Their courses, which are usually flanked by ostentatious real estate, are full of less-than-etiquette-savvy members belonging to the country's elite. Tiger Beach is different. A four-ball can expect to get round in less than four hours, there is absolutely no on-course real estate, and the cosy clubhouse is functional, not grandiose like so many others. This is golf as it was meant to be, and long may it continue.
SPOILT FOR CHOICE
To single out just one particularly memorable (or signature) hole would be unfair on this mesmerising links – the place is so different in the grand scheme of Asian golf that it is far too easy to get lost in the uniqueness of it all. Having said that, there are a few features that tend to dominate post-round discussion – normally over a bottle (or five) of locally brewed Tsingtao beer.
At the par-five fifth, for instance, Tiger Beach has erected their own tribute to St Andrews – an exact replica of the famous Swilcan Bridge . Traditionalists might dismiss it as a tacky gimmick, which indeed it probably is, but it is certainly unforgettable and it has become almost a local rule to stand atop the bridge with your playing partners and pose for a photograph.
GOAT FOR TEA
At Royal North Devon Golf Club – England 's first links course – sheep roam the course chewing on the rough grasses that frame the fairways. Tiger Beach , meanwhile, allows goats to do likewise, and it is not uncommon to see 30 or more grazing by the side of the green as you line up your putt. Not that a Tiger Beach goat has a particularly long life expectancy. In the spring and summer months the club puts on a nightly barbecue for its members – and there are no prizes for guessing what is on the menu.