David Evans attempts a round of golf at a unique and challenging Scottish-inspired course in Shandong .
I've managed to make it into a deep pot bunker to the right of the fairway in front of the first green without causing anyone serious injury. My introduction to the Tiger Beach Golf Links in Shandong province is not going well.
Owner Beta Soong and in-house instructor Liu Anda, along with a bevy of caddies, watch as I hack away at my ball with a sand wedge. At my first attempt I manage to bury the head of the club deep into the sand. I hear Soong mutter, "Oh dear," under his breath. After my second unsuccessful attempt and to perhaps prevent me from turning the bunker into a beach scene from the Normandy landings, Liu jumps in beside me. Silently the PGA professional draws a line in the sand and turns the club so the head is a full 45 degrees from the angle at which I had it. On the first strike the ball pops out of the bunker onto the green. This pathetic display says much about my skills as a golfer. Yet even for a seasoned player, this 7,222-yard course - one of only a handful of links in China - presents a challenge far tougher than that put forward by Asia's manicured parkland courses.
A links course is usually located on a treeless strip of earth along a stretch of coastline bordering arable land; Tiger Beach is no exception. It is characterised by few, if any, man-made obstacles on its sandy, windswept terrain. The challenge comes from fairways and greens that are far more undulating than usual, more blind spots around dunes and mounds, and many more shots from uphill and downhill lies. Players must play for accuracy rather than force, aiming down narrow fairways lined with springy, wind-flattened coarse grass. Because of the wind whipping in off the sea, a canny links golfer learns to pitch a low trajectory. I must be the canniest of golfers, with most of my shots barely skimming the surface of the fairway.
Soong, who made his money in electronics, found his inspiration for Tiger Beach in Scotland during a business trip in the 1970s. Today, the Taipei-native owns Tiger Beach and the 36-hole championship Shanghai Silport Golf Club, the venue for this year's Volvo China Open. Tiger Beach is located along a 1.5km strip of Yellow Sea coastline just outside the rapidly expanding town of Haiyang , 90 minutes' drive from Qingdao airport. The area's economy is one of the fastest growing in China , yet despite the construction boom, it is still heavily cultivated, with locals claiming their fruit and vegetables are the best in the country.
"When I came here 10 years ago, it took 2 1 / 2 hours along a country track," says Soong. "My friend said, 'You're crazy to build a golf course here.'" With mountains to the west and sea to the east, this may seem an unlikely location for a course, especially to those used to the landscaped versions of southern China , Southeast Asia or continental Europe . While most of the clubs springing up in China are vehicles for luxury property development, Soong's "crazy" credentials are confirmed when he insists Tiger Beach is a labour of love, not money. With an adjacent strip of links ready for transformation into a further 18 holes, the 59-year-old businessman has no plans for private villas, residential clubhouses or even a hotel.
"There's no money in a links course," he says, before adding, "It should be about the golf." Tiger Beach opened in 2000 after three challenging years of design, redesign, construction and reconstruction. Brad Chih, the course's executive vice-president, was responsible for turning Soong's vision of a links course into reality. This involved poring over hundreds of photographs of courses throughout Ireland and Scotland , including those of Royal Troon, Royal County Down, Montrose and St Andrews . Chih must have done something right because in 2002, Carnoustie Golf Links, home of this year's British Open Championship, signed a Sister Links Agreement - the only one of its kind for the more than 300-year-old club. And while he has been careful not to fall into the trap of transplanting a copy from west to east, Soong couldn't help giving a nod to his main inspiration, St Andrews, on the fifth - a replica of the famous Swilcan Bridge . Attention has also been paid to reducing the course's visual impact on the environment. The paths are made from natural gravel while the clubhouse, administration blocks and, in the accommodation section, 46 standard and luxury rooms have been built using local stone, with reclaimed clay tiles for the roofs. The on-course restaurant serves local and western dishes but for the more adventurous, Haiyang is within easy reach. Rooms have broadband internet and are centrally heated, and a massage room in which to relax after a day's exercise is on hand.
I cut short my round at the end of the front nine, the less undulating of the two halves. Soong and Liu (staff call him Mr Six Under because the character for "Liu" is the same as that for "six" and "Anda" sounds like "under") head off to the more challenging back nine. The rest of my afternoon is spent honing my low-trajectory shots on the driving range. Chih ambles over and my shots either improve or grow worse under his watchful eye, I can't tell.
You don't have to be a great golfer to own or manage a golf course. Soong has managed to design a course some have described as championship standard even though his swing needs work. But what he lacks in technique he has more than made up for in vision and a great deal of patience. What he has ended up with is a course and a challenge rarely seen outside Europe or North America . "If you haven't won on a links course, you are not a champion," says Soong. "Two-metre sand bunkers beside the greens mean everything can change on one hole."