To the casual observer, businessman Beta Soong, standing on the windswept first fairway at Tiger Beach Golf Links, resembles any other keen amateur golfer calculating his approach to the pin. But he isn’t. The man who built and owns this course has other things on his mind. Should that pot-Bunker be a little to the left, deeper perhaps, or does it need pulling back from the green? That dogleg-not acute enough? And what about that green: surely it should have a steeper gradient? He checks the wind, then hits his ball and moves on.
“He’s an artist and he has a dream,” says Tiger Beach Executive Vice President Brad Chih of Mr. Soong, his boss. “Every time he comes here, he stands on the tee and says, ‘Brad, the left side: Higher is better. Brad, this hole doesn’t have enough bends. Brad, I don’t think there’s enough of a dip.” But then, Mr. Soong has to be a pretty obsessive character in the first place; otherwise, he’d never have tried to build a traditional links course on a mountain-fringed three-kilometer strip of land bordering the Yellow Sea in China’s Shandong province.
Like the original links courses, located on the wild coasts of Scotland and Ireland, 59-year-old Mr. Soong’s 6,604-meter course occupies the barren stretch of sandy soil that “links” the beach with arable land. Links courses are usually landscaped around natural obstacles such as humps, low-lying scrub, rocks and coarse grass. Fairways and greens tend to be undulating, with many blind spots. In addition, players have to contend with strong winds that whip in off the water. Canny golfers must learn to hit with a low trajectory. Courses like this are far less manufactured than the parkland courses that dominate in Asia, and offer a greater challenge to the golfer.
“Koreans are afraid of wind; that is why in Korea you will see mountains on one side of the course,” explains Choi Young-soo, Korea PGA referee for the Korea economic Daily/Lynx/Xelex First Amateur Ranking Tournament 2007, which was held at Tiger Beach, its first time outside South Korea. The event, which took place in March, brought together 140 winners of Korean amateur competitions from 2006 and was shown live on the Seoul Broadcasting System golf channel. Mr. Choi says the organizers decided to hold the event at Tiger Beach to create a level playing field for the competitors, as there are no true links courses in Korea. But the course’s particular challenges had to be toned down for the tournament. Korean players don’t like hitting downhill, Mr. Choi says, so he had to move some of the flagsticks further up slopes.
There may be cultural reasons like this for the lack of links courses in Asia, but another explanation is economic. Links courses are located on windy coastlines of rough grass, rock and changeable weather: hardly the best place to sell the sort of luxury property developments that accompany many Asian Courses. And, parts of China aside, very little of Asia’s coastline offers the right topography for a links course.
Of the few courses claiming links credentials that have sprung up in China, such as Shanghai Links Golf & Country Club in Shanghai and Golden Pebble Beach Golf Club in Dalian, most are manufactured courses located near the coast and aren’t true links, argues David Valentine, director of economic development at Angus Council, a local authority in Scotland.
“Tiger Beach is the best links course in Asia,” says Nobutaka Nakamura, executive editor of Golf Digest Japan, who has played the course. “It is the closest to an original British links course that you can find in Asia. The mere sight of the spectacular Chinese mountain landscape makes a game of golf (there) a memorable experience.”
Mr. Valentine’s relationship with Tiger Beach began in 1999 when the local Scottish council twinned with Shandong’s Yantai municipal government. During the British Open that year, Yantai’s mayor was invited to Carnoustie Golf Links, which is in Angus; he remarked that it resembled Tiger Beach, which was then being developed. A visit to China by Mr. Valentine and several Carnoustie staff, including greens keeper John Phips, confirmed this. In 2002, a sister agreement was signed between the two clubs-a first in Carnousite’s 300-year history. In another first, Mr. Soong was given an honorary life membership.
“(Tiger Beach) was as near to a Scottish links-style course as you could get,” says Mr. Valentine, a keen golfer who tries to visit the course at least twice a year. “There are differences in the grass, but the design is very much what you see around that part of Scotland. Willie Gardner, the vice chairman of Carnoustie, gave them some instruction on the bunkers and (Brad Chih) reshaped most of them—now they’re all pretty difficult.”
Taipei-born, Shanghai-based Mr. Soong isn’t your typical golf course owner in Asia. While he owns the parkstyle Shanghai Silport Golf Club, which played host to this year’s Volvo China Open, Tiger Beach—named after his favorite golfer, Tiger Woods—remains something of a pet project. And he has no plans for property development.
If Tiger Beach looks familiar, that’s no accident. Right from his early visits to Scotland as a young businessman in the 1970s, Mr. Soong has been captivated by the country’s links courses. As well as visiting many of them, he has hundreds of photographs of links, including Royal Troon Golf Club and Montrose Golf Links in Scotland, and Royal County Down Golf Club in Northern Ireland. After the signing of the sister agreement, Carnoustie’s Mr. Phips gave Mr. Soong two one-kilogram bags, one containing Scottish gorse, or furze, seeds and the other grass seeds, to add to Tiger Beach’s authenticity—Scottish grass is said to be more springy. There’s even a nod to St. Andrews with an exact replica of the famous stone Swilden Bridge, which crosses a stream on the Scottish course’s 18th hole, on Tiger Beach’s fifth.
After long harboring the desire to open a links-style course in China, in 1997 Mr. Soong received a call from a friend about a stretch of wild, undeveloped coastline that resembled what he was looking for. In between Mr. Soong buying the land the same year and the club opening in 2000, Shandong boomed. Haiyang was once a sleepy port town; today construction cranes and new developments litter the landscape and nearby Yantai port is being expanded to handle 100 million metric tons of cargo a year. A new paved road has cut the journey from Qingdao international airport to the club by an hour, to 90 minutes. With flights from South Korea and Japan taking about 90 minutes, the club is popular with golfers from those countries, as well as with expatriates working in nearby port facilities.
Such is the appeal of playing a links in Asia, Tiger Beach recently played host to a small group of executives from a major European golf sponsor, who flew in by private jet. They stayed 13 hours but played just nine holes. According to one of the party, “it was just too difficult.”