Bringing the most sophisticated design team in golf to arguably the least sophisticated market in the world was always going to be a fascinating experiment, and one with all sorts of possibilities and permutations. So it has been with the Shanqin Bay project on the south-east coast of China’s Hainan Island, designed by Bill Coore in partnership with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.
Like a number of projects these designers have worked on, this one had a dramatic site, beautiful scenery, an unconventional routing and some absolutely outstanding design components. As it readies for an official opening, however, it has something quite foreign to this company’s work of late, an uncertain future.
We aren’t suggesting that Shanqin Bay’s well healed, and politically connected, client has financial troubles, nor that the opening won’t generate positive press, but it does remain to be seen whether the sizeable investment made to build this course will pay dividends in a country where the golf design envelope has rarely been pushed to this degree. There is no doubt, that for many Chinese golfers this will be a tough course to swallow.
Shanqin Bay is located near the rural, third world village of Bo’ao and built on a site that features a glorious mix of beach, sand, dunes, canyons and some high rocky bluffs, either looking inland away from the coast or, in places, spectacularly down toward the water. These elevation changes are so steep that Bill Coore’s initial feeling upon inspecting the site was to ‘question whether a golf course could be built here’. It wasn’t until his 6th or 7th day walking the property that he uncovered a circulation pattern that made any sense, and one that would allow for the severe elevation to be used on the downhill holes.
This routing scheme was one of the keys to making Shanqin Bay work. The other was a client who approved the plan, and allowed the design team to build a course with three closing short par fours and unconventional features like a blind Alps green. Throwing the rule book out the window on such dramatic terrain is the only way to create quality golf, and the developer here deserves a great deal of credit for giving his designers the freedom to build the holes and sequences they really wanted. This is as far from the 36 in – 36 out, par 72 championship formula as you’ll find anywhere in China. Par depends on the wind, a number of greens are open to bouncing shots played off surrounding slopes, the fairways are huge and strategic, and some of the most difficult up and downs are those from the short-cut grass.
Another interesting aspect of the project is the lack of continuous cart paths. Virtually all golfers in China drive, yet wear at Shanqin Bay is expected to be spread across the layout’s vast, undulating fairway areas. Aesthetically, the lack of paths together with the views, the scale of the terrain and the use of native tropical vegetation make this a beautiful golf course to look at. It has also been beautifully built, with the shaping done across the property by Jimmy Craig and his crew absolutely first-class. Of particular note are the scraggy bunkers, and the manipulation of difficult areas like the 6th, 10th and 13th into some of the most attractive parts of the golf course.
It needs to be noted here, that while western golfers are likely to enjoy and understand this place more than the locals, it’s probably not what most of them have in mind when they imagine a Bill Coore course in China. For a start there is a large irrigation lake in the middle of the main property, and an entrance road cutting across the 13th hole. There are also areas where mounding has been added to protect stray balls from violently collapsing terrain or to push jungle bound balls back into play. There is also, in places, an absence of intermediate rough and an instant reload awaiting those just a few feet outside the short-cut areas. Fairways are generously proportioned, but given the standard of the average golfer here and the fact that strong winds whip across the site from the South China Sea, the management of the dense jungle vegetation will likely take some time to fine-tune and perfect.
Perhaps most notably, unlike other Coore & Crenshaw layouts this is not the sort of golf course that lends itself easily to repeat play. The holes are certainly fun, but the wind can be very stiff here and the terrain is so steep that only the fittest, or keenest, golfers will feel like heading back to the 1st tee after walking off the 18th green. For the rest, a relaxing drink in the clubhouse is likely to prove a more appealing option.
None of this is a knock on the design work of Coore & Crenshaw, but instead a feature of the terrain at their disposal for this golf course. The Shanqin site is perhaps best described as Kapalua (scale & vegetation) meets Cape Kidnappers (cliffs & views), with a little Lost Farm (sand and dunes) thrown in for good measure. The layout is dramatic from the outset and although hard not to gush over the seaside holes, the entire course is full of real quality.
One of the features of Shanqin Bay are the large, complex green areas which have been meticulously shaped and brilliantly conceived to continually force better players to flirt with the most serious hazards in order to access pins or set up simpler approach shots. A number stand out, from the broadly angled 1st green with a seemingly generous bail-out area to the left that can bedevil even the most skilled chippers, to the equally charming 9th green, with its apparently ‘easy side’ this time located on the right.
Elsewhere on the front nine, the most obvious standout holes include the rising then falling 2nd, a glorious looking par five played initially beyond a bunkered crest before tumbling down along a broad, but narrowing plateau split by a large central bunker. With a cross-wind pushing you to either jungle on the left or a chasm on the right, the prudent play seems to be to lay back for your second shot and leave a simple flick toward the green for your third, but there is just enough space and temptation to entice the loose stroke, with very serious, and instant, consequences. The short downhill 3rd is another fine test of your ball control. The tee shot here is played to a front-right-to-back-left angled target with a gorgeous ocean backdrop. The next par three, the 8th, is shorter and even more memorable. Played across a shallow ravine, the green site rests on a pristine sand dune with all the putting swales and ridges completely untouched and natural. This hole is sure to be one of Shanqin Bay’s most photographed and most famous.
Perhaps the most contentious hole, for Chinese golfers anyway, will be the par four 5th (right), played first around the irrigation lake and then blindly over a large scrubby dune. From the very back tee you also drive across an old farmers hut. The walk from fairway to green here, for those opting out of the cart, is quite spectacular. The actual target, on the other hand, will probably only appeal to the adventurous as it falls steeply away at the back and is certain to torment those unable to judge their approach shot precisely, or unfamiliar with how to play a chasing approach into an Alps-style green. The next two greens, like many on this course, also encourage the bouncing approach, though each is fully visible from the fairway and generous on those bouncing their ball correctly from the higher side.
On the back nine, the long downhill par three 11th is another beautiful hole and cleverly favours the opposite shape of shot to the earlier falling par three. The final short hole, the uphill 14th, is also worthy of mention for its cunning ledge green and the manner in which the wind tends to swirl around this area. The previous hole, a brutal length par five with some generous fairway contour, is another highlight hole and a credit to the shaping skills of the construction team given how attractive it looks yet how unappealing, relatively speaking, some of the middle ground is.
Without question, however, the holes likely to live longest in your memory are those at the close, starting with the long, cliffside par four 15th. If the 180-degree ocean views don’t get you here, the simplicity of a design that forces you to drive close to its sole fairway hazards is almost certain to. The next is a brilliant drivable par four that drops more than 50-feet to a green that can be approached safely from the lay-up zones, but screams to be attacked from the tee given its generous side-door entrance.
The stunning 17th then plays literally along the beach. From a tee perched atop an elevated bluff, this mid-length par four follows the sand as it shifts slightly to the right and heads toward a long, but uncomfortably narrow green site with trouble lurking on both sides. Finally the 18th (right), and another drivable par four for the really strong and a memorable two-shot test for the rest, who dare not attack a dangerous ravine from the tee and prefer instead to approach this shallow, ridgetop green from the safety of the fairway.
One of the most eagerly anticipated openings in China for some time, Shanqin Bay is going to test the local golf market in more ways than one. Those who play here will be forced to learn how to play running golf shots, and how to control their swing and ball flight in the wind. They will also quickly learn that options, width and strategy makes the game more fun, but also more challenging, than narrow, defined avenues of play.
More than the skills of its combatants, however, Shanqin Bay is going to test the appetite of the Chinese for genuine high quality golf. It will also test an unsophisticated golfing media who, until now, have been happy regurgitating press and acclaim from news sources abroad. In China, if the foreign media like a golf course then it must be good. Shanqin is different, because many in the media have never seen golf like this and may be unable to articulate its qualities. I expect the course to polarize local opinion, and for the ultimate measure of its success to be based on the preparedness of prospective members to pay the exorbitant joining fee, or of the international cognoscenti to turn Bo’ao into a genuine tourist destination.
Shanqin Bay is a really difficult course to both rate and rank, because it has so much obvious drama and quality but the virgin terrain here lacks the natural playability of sites like Sand Hills, Friar’s Head, Lost Farm, Old Sandwich and even Bandon Trails. So the truth is that while the golf course here is not perfect, it is perfect for this particular property and it’s only the crazy high standard of the Coore & Crenshaw portfolio that prevents us from decreeing it one of their best efforts. What we can declare, is that Shanqin Bay is a terrific place to play and clearly the best golf course in China right now.