Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Where golf spoils more than just a good walk

There are, admittedly, even duller sports to watch. If, that is, darts, sumo wrestling and Formula One motor-racing can even really be called sports.
And I know I’m about to upset some very enthusiastic amateur competitors. Some of my best friends, etc…
But when it comes to golf, I’m with that most brilliant of all newspaper columnists, Mark Twain – as I am on a lot of subjects.
It was Twain who described golf as “a good walk spoiled”. Which may have been the worst to be said of the game in Twain’s time. He died in 1910.
To be fair to all those who are obsessed with the game, I can understand how golf might get you that way. The fine physical and mental details, and the constant striving to improve your own performance, all play to the fundamentals of the human condition.
Having been hooked in the past on snooker and pool, I can appreciate how striving to knock little balls into holes with sticks can become compulsive.
And there is no obvious good reason why patches of the Norfolk countryside in places like Eaton, Sprowston Manor and Caldecott Hall shouldn’t be given over to the enjoyment of the old game.
You might argue that it’s better use of the land than building another “executive” housing development, an industrial park or a shopping mall.
But there are parts of the world where golf spoils more than just a walk.
Take Portugal’s Algarve, where whole fishing villages have been wiped from the map, their people displaced, to build courses for the amusement of holidaymakers.
Or Tucson, Arizona, which is in a beautiful location but a daft place for a sizable city. Let alone five luxury golf courses.
Seen from the air, Tucson National is an unnatural splotch of lurid emerald in an arid desert landscape. It looks mad, and it is.
The two rivers that caused Tucson to be established where it was dried up a century ago. Most of the water there now comes from underground – a resource that won’t last forever. Not with a million people drinking it and washing their trucks in it.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild expects his citizens to take a “pledge for water”. He has made saving the stuff the central plank of his administration.
The colossal, always-on sprinkler systems keeping those greens and fairways green and fair are hardly setting the right example. It’s one rule for the trailer-park, another for the limo-chauffeured denizens of the National.
This makes a good symbol of the wide – and widening – gap between America’s rich and poor.
If you want such a symbol for the world, you could hardly have a better one than the sporting playground of the United Arab Emirates.
Qatar bought football’s 2022 World Cup. Abu Dhabi has the climax of the Formula One season (given double points last time for emphasis). Dubai, with no cricket tradition, is nevertheless now where that sport has its international headquarters.
And golf’s European Tour mutated in 2009 into the Race to Dubai.
A glittering new playground for the world’s richest built by the sweat of some of the world’s most exploited migrant workers.
Shimmering pools and highly watered sports grounds in a desert. None of which drink up more of that precious water than the sprawling, beautifully manicured, luxuriously verdant golf courses.
A good walk made possible. For the over-privileged few. The acme of capitalism.
Which is just what China is meant not to be. And yet.
It’s the bizarre – you might say surreal – situation in China that has got me thinking just now about the inequalities enshrined in the game of golf.
For a supposedly still Communist country, China has some pretty stark inequalities of its own. And a burgeoning middle class that likes to travel, shop, dress smartly in “Western” style – and play golf.
In 2013, 12-year-old Ye Wocheng from Dongguan became the youngest golfer ever to qualify for a European Tour event. The China Open. Tianjin, a city of 14 million people and the principal port for Beijing, being an even further-flung outpost of “Europe” than Dubai.
Its Binhai Lake Golf Club, and the Tomson club in Shanghai where this year’s Open will be held, are among more than 600 courses in China. It is estimated that 1.1million of the country’s 1.3billion people play the game.
Which would be less surprising if golf hadn’t been technically illegal in China since 1949, when Mao Zedong banned it as a bourgeois entertainment.
In 2004 China’s modern rulers introduced a law banning the building of golf courses. Since when the developers have renamed them “sports parks” and the number of them in the country has quadrupled.
The reason given for that ineffectual law was the protection of farmland. Now, in Beijing, 12 courses have recently been closed in a crackdown intended to ease overcrowding. The capital’s population, estimated at 21m, is reckoned to have grown last year by around 500,000, or two and a half Norwiches.
You might think a city that size could do with a few open green spaces. But perhaps not for the exclusive use of the one-in-1,000 who fancy the occasional round of golf.

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