A clutch of the golfing world’s A-listers yesterday teed off at the Hong Kong Open, acutely aware of the astronomical value of the land beneath their feet and of the precarious position of the tournament’s historic venue.
Hong Kong’s bureaucrats, under pressure to alleviate a chronic housing shortage, and the territory’s developers have their eyes on Fanling, the 170 hectare course that has hosted the Open since 1959.
With the lease due to expire in two years, the Hong Kong Golf Club is fearful its fairways might end up covered in concrete.
The situation puts Fanling, a relic of British colonialism just inside the border with China, at odds with rapid development.
While many question the need for the private golf club in a territory crying out for cheaper homes and more space, the prospect of losing Fanling is unpalatable for some players.
“We live and breathe golf so, for us, Hong Kong loses part of its identity by losing the golf course,” England’s Tommy Fleetwood said ahead of the tournament.
At 6,100m, the course is one of the shortest on the European tour, but it is big enough to find itself in the firing line in the territory of 7 million, where competition for space is brutal.
In a place where median house prices are 19.4 times median incomes, many believe the land should be given over to public housing.
Development is already taking place next to the course, where almost-finished tower blocks loom beside some of the holes, accompanied by the din of construction.
Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Greg Norman and the late Peter Thomson are among those who have won at Fanling, whose short fairways, small greens and dog legs have won a legion of fans.
“You have to think your way around,” Spain’s Sergio Garcia said. “It’s going to test you, and those are the courses that we love.”
“There’s no better place to start off the season,” Masters Champion Patrick Reed said.
The Hong Kong Golf Club — which was formed in 1889 as the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club, making it one of the oldest golfing societies outside of Britain and Ireland — paid a one-off premium to lease the land at Fanling.
It has been reported that it pays a token HK$1 (US$0.13) a year on top of that, although the government has refused to confirm this.
While non-members can play, one round costs a hefty HK$1,100. Corporate membership reportedly runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
A video entitled “Five top reasons for preserving Fanling golf course” on the club’s Web site points to its wildlife, history, ancient Chinese tombs and the development of young players.
However, given the clamor for homes and the money at stake, the future is unclear.
“There is a long list of top players that have played in the Hong Kong Open, whether they’ve won it or not ... and when you talk about it, they’ll always mention the golf course, Fanling,” Fleetwood said.
At the end of yesterday’s first round, England’s Aaron Rai, Australian Jason Scrivener and Japanese Yusaku Miyazato were tied for first on five-under-par 65.
Taiwan’s Lin Wen-tang was in a share of 23rd on one-under, while Lu Wei-chih shared 53rd with one-over.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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