The Day After Thanksgiving, on the Norman Course at Mission Hills Resort, PRC.

It’s been a decade since this piece was published in the print edition of LINKS Magazine, under an original headline that, as I recall, played on the “China Syndrome” trope. I recently ran across it online. So I’ve shared it here, 10 years down the road.

Almost immediately upon publication of this feature, President Xi Jinping started calling out golf as a tool of corrupt bourgeoise elites. At the time, many observers viewed this rhetoric as merely opportunistic. After all, the mainland Chinese course- and player-development markets were booming. Golf had just been designated an Olympic sport — and the Chinese LOVE Olympic sports. Surely golf wasn’t in any real trouble there. Surely this was Xi scoring political points. Surely this anti-golf rhetoric would pass.

Well, that moment might well prove the historic high-water mark for both Chinese golf and the subject of my story, Mission Hills, then largest golf resort on earth. Because Xi wasn’t posing. The Central Government had banned new course development a decade prior, a fact that provincial apparatchiks and rich developers had chosen to ignore. See here a piece I wrote for GCM China a year after the LINKS story, in 2015, detailing the haze of politics and environmental concerns — some real, some manufactured — then swirling about the Chinese golf industry. Five years later, more than 100 courses had closed down. As many as 500 remain operational today, but their existence is maintained very quietly indeed. A robust golf media sector had once thrived in China; today that roster of magazines, websites and TV channels has disappeared almost entirely. Mainland Chinese still love their golf. For a while, later in the 2010s, they simply played the game on holiday in Vietnam, Thailand and Japan. Once COVID-19 emerged in February 2020, that brand of tourism (all tourism) ground to a halt.

A lot can happen in a decade.

A lot can happen in a single night, too, and that’s the other story behind this story. To report the LINKS piece, I had traveled to Shenzhen, home to Mission Hills and the beating heart of hyper-capitalist China. I had arrived in Hong Kong, via Manila, just before Thanksgiving 2013, when the idea of a mainland Chinese and pro-democracy protests seemed the stuff of dark fantasy. As per usual, I stayed with good friends, a married couple — she a native Hong Konger, he an American expat who has lived and worked there for decades. They treated me to a Thanksgiving supper at The American Club. That evening I treated them to dinner at The China Club, a famous old-world restaurant of the early British-protectorate variety.

My subsequent travel plan, endorsed and scheduled by my hosts, and Mission Hills itself, was simple: Get a cab after dinner to a special bus station located near the Chinese border. Hong Kong is, of course, an island. An archipelago actually. But its land mass also includes a famous hunk of mainland, Kowloon, which shares the border with Shenzhen. Because Mission Hills caters to so many Hong Kong-based members and resort guests, motor coaches run regularly from this station, over the border and back again, every day of the week.

So I poured myself into a cab, along with my big suitcase and golf clubs. It was 15 minutes to the bus station. Yet upon our arrival, it was clear the bus station was closed. I asked the guy where the border crossing might be. He nodded and dropped me 10 minutes up the road. After clearing customs, lugging my oversized bags up stairs and through tiny turnstiles, I emerged from the border facility to find the immediate environs completely devoid of taxis.

This had been my half-cocked alternate plan: Get over the border and hire a taxi to Dongguan, where Mission Hills and my on-site hotel were located. I possessed an early smartphone, but nothing like Google Maps or Translate existed at that primitive time. What’s more, I had not yet secured a People’s Republic of China SIM card — and there was no shop inside the border building — so my iPhone was essentially useless. Having visited China several times before, I knew it was always wise to have a Chinese friend or hotel concierge write out important addresses, in Mandarin, because very few cabbies in Beijing or Shanghai speak or understand a lick of English. These measures had not been undertaken as part of my half-baked, half-in-the-bag travel pivot.

Finally, I located not a cabbie but ‘a guy with a car.’ Sometimes, in China and Southeast Asia, that’s preferable. He and I spent quite a while trying to communicate exactly where it was I wanted to go. For all its celebrity and sheer size, “Mission Hills” meant nothing to this fellow. Neither did “Dongguan” or “golf”. I resorted to swinging imaginary clubs, then showing him my golf clubs. This seemed to result in a measure of recognition. So I got into his car.

Ten minutes later, he pulls over on a busy highway, where he gets out and starts chatting and gesticulating with half a dozen other guys by the side of the road. “This is where I get robbed, beaten up or both,” I said to my now-completely-sober self. Better to go down swinging, so I put my passport in my front pocket and joined them. Turns out my driver was basically selling my fare to the highest bidder! Soon I was transferring my stuff into a different unmarked car headed north.

Once again, I’d received no real indication that this driver had any idea where Mission Hills or Dongguan were, or whether he fully understood that these were my intended destinations. But lo and behold, 45 minutes later we pulled up in front of a hotel — my hotel! Filled with thanksgiving, I located an ATM and paid the man handsomely.