Golf’s off and on existence in China is perhaps only rivaled by Pluto’s place in our solar system. Mao Zedong banned the sport during his reign in the 20th century. Then it enjoyed popularity in the post-Mao China in the 1980’s and 90’s before a bizarre, by Western standards, turn of events last year.
President Xi Jinping banned golf once again in 2015, citing financial corruption on the course. That decision drew furrowed brows from around the world. At a time when seemingly fewer and fewer people are picking up the game—and yet more international stars are dominating the fairways—no one could have predicted suggest a drastic decree from a world power.
Now, apparently, Jinping and the Communist party have reneged on the decision. Golf is once again legal in China.
China says it is no longer s crime 2 play d "hedonistic" game of golf. Communist party had banned members in 2015 from joining golf clubs.
— Amitabh Kant (@amitabhk87) April 15, 2016
An article from The Guardian cited China’s Discipline Inspection and Supervision News:
“‘Since it is only a sport, there is no right or wrong about playing golf…’ The newspaper pointed to article 87 of the Communist party’s disciplinary regulations which deals with potential punishments for the illicit possession of golf membership cards.
‘Can officials play golf while the nation steps up efforts to clamp down on corruption and promote austerity?’ the China Daily asked. ‘The answer is yes – if they pay out of their own pockets.
‘Playing golf itself is not a wrongdoing.’”
There’s a lot to unpack there but it boils down to this.
Money has exchanged hands on golf courses often by betting, sometimes by handshake deals, but almost always by illicit means. It has long been a sport for the elite and the rich. None of those characteristics jive with Communism. While China has become more Western in the last 20 years, there has still been an effort to prevent an all-out shift to capitalism.
The timing of the initial ban, though, was curious, as is this follow-up. If you recall, 14-year-old Chinese golfer Guan Tianlang finished as the low amateur at the 2013 Masters. He placed 58th as the only amateur to make the cut. One would have thought his success would have translated to a rebirth in the sport. And maybe it did at first.
The other aspect of the timing that is head-scratching is golf’s return to the Summer Olympics. Even more-so than the United States, China, like the Soviet Union in decades past, makes a state-wide effort to achieve athletic dominance. Think figure skating in the winter games and gymnastics in the summer. When Yao Ming became a basketball star, it caused a huge boost in popularity in the sport leading into the 2008 Beijing Olympics. China expected to contend for a gold in those games.
And yet golf was completely swept aside.
It’s back for now, which is good news for Chinese hackers of the fairways. And even it stayed illegal, that wouldn’t be the worst thing.
There are probably millions of Americans who wish they could rid themselves of their detrimental golf addiction.
— Fortune (@FortuneMagazine) April 14, 2016