Thursday, June 14, 2012
The biggest competitive and commercial force in golf history is taking aim at the biggest prize in the world economy: China. And he probably wouldn’t be doing it if it weren’t for a private golf club nestled just off Highway 68.
On June 12, Jack Nicklaus appeared at Pasadera Country Club, the signature course he designed before its 2000 debut. The Tuesday cameo came at a time with numerical meaning for a game fixated on numbers. Fifty years ago this Sunday, a 22-year-old Nicklaus played his first U.S. Open, beating Arnold Palmer for his very first major, of a record 18. This same week he played his last U.S. Open too, at Pebble Beach Golf Links. The announcement was also scheduled to sync with the U.S. Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club, which starts today, June 14.
But the number that gave the announcement its import: 1.3 billion, as in the number of Chinese citizens he’s ready to convert into different types of Tigers. He signed a partnership called Nicklaus-China with Finergy Capital to furnish the “strategic, comprehensive and responsible” growth of golf in the most populous country in the world (and, as Olympics fans know, one of its most athletically competitive).
Nicklaus said 1.3 million Chinese already play golf, and that number’s growing at 13 percent a year. “But with growth comes responsibility and education,” he added.
Golf in the U.S., where 26 million (and sliding) play, is a $76 billion annual industry.
Nicklaus appeared alongside Guang Yang, Finergy’s founder and a graduate of Harvard who has amassed influence as a vice chair of China Life Franklin Asset Management Company of Hong Kong and purchased Pasadera in 2010 with Hainan Airlines. When asked whether he anticipated this grander move when he acquired the club – which just added a Nicklaus Lodge wing for members and made Nicklaus its honorary chairman – Yang talked about golf cred and culture.
“China has a short history with golf,” he said. “It’s now growing, and the culture should with it. No one’s better for that than Jack.”
The club, which has already seen upgrades since the ownership shift, was acquired to grease relations with other major players too, he added later.
“We see the club as a platform for business dealers to build economic ties that will continue to grow by being here on the West Coast, in a beautiful place like Monterey,” Yang said.
Nicklaus, when pressed by the Weekly to explain how he would manage China’s ambitious golf growth and planned real estate accompaniments in a sustainable way – given a sport known for huge water impacts in a country that seems to add a coal plant as often as someone tees off at Pebble – the “Golden Bear,” as Nicklaus is known, cited his track record. He has designed 370 courses around the world, he said, and has experience consulting on everything from construction to agronomy to operations.
“There is strategic land planning needed,” he said, “and water conservation is big here and around the world. It’s less expensive to fit the course to the land than to force it on the land.”
That thought reflected something more golf-centric he said later: “Golf is not about brute strength. It’s about feel and finesse and athletic skills.”
But having the two biggest bears in the business doesn’t hurt either.
A TV special, “1962 US Open: Jack’s First Major,” debuts an hour before the final round of the U.S. Open, 11am Sunday, June 17, on NBC, local channel 6.