The future of golf has shifted to a most unlikely place: China, where statistically 0 percent of the population plays, where up until the mid-1980s the sport was banned by the communists for being too bourgeois, and where the construction of new courses is still technically illegal. It has been said about China, however, that while nothing is allowed there, everything is possible. So even during its supposed moratorium on golf course construction, China has managed to emerge as the only country in the world in the midst of a "golf boom": Hundreds, some say thousands, of courses are expected to open in the next several years.
The epicenter of this growth is China's tropical island province of Hainan, not long ago a lawless place with an economy built largely on smuggling, prostitution, and unchecked property speculation. Beijing is now determined to transform Hainan into a tourist paradise, with golf expected to play a major role (so much so that many joke Hainan is now a "special golf development zone" where mainland restrictions don't apply). While between 100 and 300 courses are expected to be built here, the most mysterious project -- and by far the most audacious -- is the latest offering from Hong Kong's Mission Hills Group, already owners of a 12-course resort in southern China's Guangdong province. Its Hainan club, when completed, will be the world's largest, with some 22 courses covering an area nearly 1.5 times the size of Manhattan. But the highly secretive Mission Hills development, a behemoth undertaking that displaced thousands of villagers, is also the most controversial, so controversial that it required a code name: Project 791.
With the central government guaranteeing a "top international tourism destination" by 2020, Hainan's destiny appears predetermined. No one disputes the poor province's many infrastructure needs, but the prospect of another decade of furious growth has some on the island concerned for its already fragile ecology and centuries-old ways of rural life.