Golf in Asia: Managing Mission Hills

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 24, 2020 13:45 Updated

With its 11 golf courses, each designed by some of the biggest names in golf in the last 50 years, Mission Hills in China is the biggest golf resort in the world, and one of the most important. Here, the Chu brothers, who run it, known as the faces of golf in China, talk about the venue and growing the game around the world. 

The Chu brothers, Ken and Tenniel Chu, are said to be the faces of golf in China (chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group, Ken, is known as ‘Mr Golf’ in China), and the driving forces behind the world’s largest golf resort, Mission Hills. Fueled by them, Mission Hill, which has 11 championship courses and an 18-hole par three course, each designed by a different golf personality such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Annika Sörenstam, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Sir Nick Faldo, José María Olazábal and David Leadbetter, is is the vehicle that presents China to the world – and the world to China. The Golf Business was able to ask them a few questions about their work.

Mission Hills is the world’s largest golf resort. Did you ever imagine Mission Hills becoming this big?

Ken: When my father (the late Dr David Chu) decided to invest in golf in China, when it was non-existent, it came as a surprise for me. But as a true visionary, he saw the opportunity of China’s reform and open-door policy in the 80s. My father saw his mission as promoting international goodwill through golf, making the sport a medium. It is a tool, to link the east and the west, and to build trust and friendship. Golf remains a business language, a social networking tool, even until today.

What vision do you have for Mission Hills?

Tenniel: On the golf front, our mission is to grow the game so it’s available for everyone, beyond how it is seen traditionally as a prestigious and elite game. Each year over 25,000 juniors go through our doors – we have the world’s largest youth golfing programme. We also have three golf courses that are free to juniors globally to access and experience golf.

Tenniel, you studied golf management at university, did you always know that you would work in the golf industry?

Tenniel: Golf is an international language; it is a sport like no other that has the means to connect with everyone in the same way. I’ve been playing for more than 40 years now, so yes, I have always wanted to work in the industry.

Therefore, I took up a postgraduate programme in golf course management at Humber College. This was followed by working at the PGA Tour headquarters in Florida. Beyond that, I also wanted true on-the-ground experience to complement my studies. That’s why my first job was picking up golf balls at the driving range for Vijay Singh. I really learned from the bottom up.

How do you manage the world’s largest golf resort?

Ken: It is really about delegation, discipline and time management. I subscribe to another philosophy of three ps – profits, people and planet – I work for my company, for the people, and the betterment of society. In managing the company, I believe in getting the best person for the job, and while this is a family business, it is not run like one. All of our senior management are recruited professionally and have been working with us for more than a decade. We respect the professionals and let them take charge.

You work with Annika Sörenstam on the Annika Foundation to boost female participation in the sport. Is encouraging equality in golf an important part of what you do at Missions Hills?

Tenniel: Most definitely, and youth development is at the core of Mission Hills.

We are actively involved in growing the sport through our ‘Junior Golf Program’ and several other initiatives. Since 2005, we have invested more than $6 million into our junior programme.

Do your other siblings have an interest in golf?

Ken: Our younger sister, Catherine, is already onboard the Mission Hills. Under Catherine we have partnered with Bromsgrove School  in Worcestershire, a top British independent school with over 540 years of history. Bromsgrove School • Mission Hills offers an innovative and holistic bilingual education.

Do you think that the golf industry has a long way to go to build participation and equality? How do you think equality in the sport should be approached?

Ken: The sport of golf has traditionally been a male-dominated sport, and until today, golf remains mainly a business language. With that said, ladies generally do not participate in it. This gives rise to the term, ‘golf widow’, which I am a disbeliever of. Therefore, we think that a key aspect to approach equality in the sport is to open up access to all genders and ages. This was also our motivation when we created tournaments such as the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am. By tying in the tournament with the energy of entertainment and various sporting stars, we opened doors to non-golfers who want to catch their favorite celebrities on the course.

Tenniel: I am proud to say that we have changed the game of golf, evolving it from being a sport for the affluent to one that caters to the mass market. By making Mission Hills Haikou accessible to the public, we aim to promote the game of golf by making it affordable. In addition, by introducing many more attractions, facilities and amenities, we encourage families to visit a golf destination collectively to have a good time.

What plans do you have for the brand?

Ken: Our future focus will definitely be to continue growing our integrated destination resorts, and there is huge growth potential to be reaped. Hainan, for one, is well positioned to interface with the international markets given its status as an international tourism island for the past decade. We can be certain of further boosts to the number of international visitors, especially tourists from the 59 countries who will now enjoy visa-free access to Hainan.

Tenniel: On the sport front, we have a football academy operated by FC Barcelona and basketball academy operated by the NBA, complemented by interactive museum experiences. The ‘Barça Academy Pro’ in Haikou will be the first overseas FC Barcelona football school directly managed by FC Barcelona and staffed by FC Barcelona coaches. On the other hand, the ‘NBA Basketball School – Mission Hills Haikou’ will open to male and female players, from junior level to professionals. NBA players and legends will visit the school to provide additional instruction and training to young players, fostering their development.

What have been the standout moments in your careers?

Tenniel: At Mission Hills, we are either the first to do something, or we do it the biggest. Whether it’s bringing the first international golf tournament to China – the 1995 World Cup of Golf, Tiger Woods’ first visit to China, or creating the world’s largest golf resort, we definitely showcase a new China to the whole world. That’s very rewarding.

Ken: I would say that some of the key highlights in my career would be developing Mission Hills Haikou from the ground up. We completed the 10 courses in 18 months, and that was when I was pretty much a freshman when it came to project development. However, I am grateful for the support from partners such as Brian Curley whom helped designed these amazing courses.

Do you both have a favourite course to play in the resort?

Ken: This is like asking me to choose my favourite child! What I can tell you is which courses are the most played at Mission Hills. These are Jack Nicklaus’ World Cup Course, Jose Maria Olazabal’s Olazabal Course and Greg Norman’s Norman Course.

Tenniel: The best course would undoubtedly be the Blackstone course at Mission Hills Haikou. The 7,808-yard signature course, built on a bed of ancient lava rock, was voted best championship course in Asia and hosted the 56th edition of the World Cup in 2011. The course begins with a wide variety of hole lengths and natural amphitheater green settings, while the final holes allow spectacular views of the closing holes with little need to move.

Where do you see Mission Hills in the next five years?

Ken: We will continue to build on our existing foundation based on the group’s ‘golf and more’ leisure philosophy, expanding on our business segments. We will continue to branch out into a wider range of investments and offerings, and focus on our role as a ‘super-connector’, bringing into China brand offerings and experiences from around the globe. By building on our strengths, opening up new markets and exploring novelty projects, we will offer our guests more diverse, vibrant, and memorable experiences.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir January 24, 2020 13:45 Updated
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