Honing golf in China
Mission Hills' golf resort at Haikou, China.Supplied picture

Two holes to the left. My ever-smiling caddie Jack had been calling the putts all day and I'd been letting him down. I hadn't come to grips with the slow greens on Mission Hills' Sandbelt Trails course, made slower by a tropical downpour two hours earlier.

But you know how fairytales end. Some 10 metres off the green on the final hole and I heard that musical rattle beloved of golfers as my ball dropped into the cup. A four on a tough par five and a lazy five stableford points - it almost made my score respectable.

Jack's face split into a wide grin, high fives all round and an extra 20 renminbi on his tip.

The next day on the world-renowned Blackstone course there would be no fairytale ending. Walking in the footsteps of World Cup golfing luminaries such as Rory McIlroy, I again putted like a coward.

I could blame the breathtaking nature of the layout, its rows of finger-like bunkers, its strategic water hazards and the stunning black lava rock on which the course is built - but rather than taking your game apart these courses can reward golfers of any standard.

Think where you want to hit the ball and execute it well and you'll feel a million dollars. Push it around, or miss your putts, and you'll pay the penalty.

Mission Hills' golf resort at Haikou, on southern China's Hainan Island, is a revelation. Ten courses designed by US firm Schmidt-Curley and a world-class resort were hewn from volcanic lava rock and mud in 18 months.

At the height of construction, it employed thousands of workers. The city of Haikou, which has a population of five million, is a 15-minute drive from the resort, the same distance as the airport.

We played Sandbelt Trails in the afternoon. It was humid, but not unbearably so. The blue tees opened with a 516m par five, the longest on the course. Feel less courageous and you can play off the whites at 469m. The golds measured 527m and the pros play off the blacks and have to cover 569m. The reds for me were a more comfortable 441m.

It was wide, it was forgiving but there was a very nasty bunker guarding the green to the right. And that's how the course played - room to move on the fairways but the greens demanded care.

You just knew that the fifth, a 140-yard par three (112 for women), was going to hold terrors close to the business end. Happily, I landed on the green - and then three-putted.

My moment of magic came on the 392m (470m off the blue tees), par five 18th. I was too frightened to take on the water about 146m from the tee, so I hit a comfortable five iron to its edge, played another mid-range iron to avoid bunkers and left myself a pitching wedge into the green. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Sandbelt Trails, Blackstone lies at the base of the resort hotel but it is an altogether different beast. It is set in a stunning landscape and asks you to think about every shot you play.

A third course, The Vintage, also lies near the hotel. The other seven, including Shadow Dunes and Lava Fields, are a short ride away.

Two days earlier, we had been at Haikou's big brother, the sprawling mainland Mission Hills resort covering the towns of Shenzhen and Dongguan, a few hours from Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

If Haikou is a classy foreign language film, then Shenzhen-Dongguan is a Hollywood blockbuster. Golfers of the calibre of Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els have put their names to the design of one of the 12 courses at the resort, which is spread over three clubhouses.

Tiger Woods changed the face of golf in China when he played here 10 years ago and celebrity pro-ams which have attracted the likes of Hugh Grant, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Phelps and Matthew McConaughey have also raised its profile. Grant's love child was said to have been conceived at Mission Hills. Rumours, rumours, but the source was impeccable.

But the serious business is on the golf courses, and the Norman project has gained the reputation as the toughest. A quick tour of it proved why.

The Shenzhen-Dongguan courses are set amid forested, rolling hills, so there's little sympathy for wayward tee shots. But Norman's course is characterised by its knee-high rough, a thickly matted grass that swallows golf balls and stretches for dozens and dozens of metres in front of the tees.

It is regarded as the ultimate challenge.

Jose Maria Olazabal's course is the longest off the back markers and features 160 bunkers. Its closing hole is a stunner. An elevated tee looks down on a bunker-strewn fairway. It wraps its way left around a long lake that sits at the base of the resort hotel. Shoot for the pin at your peril.

An Australian I met loved it so much he had cancelled his booking on David Duval's course so he could play it again. He was a 20-handicapper and justifiably proud of hitting 95.

It was the Duval course that I played at Dongguan. Set amid the forest, it had generous, rolling fairways but, again, demanded precision around the greens.

My favourite hole was the 80m (109m from the blues), par three eighth. It was beautifully wooded and the green sat way above our heads.

Leave it short and the ball would virtually roll back to your feet, hit it left or right and you had a hell of a chip up the hill, long and there's trouble at the back. Mess up the hole but soak up the scenery.

A 10-minute shuttle-bus ride away from the Dongguan complex is the much smaller Mid Valley clubhouse. It hosts the popular Nick Faldo course and the Pete Dye course. It was a contoured, tricky little beast but reserved for club members only.

A further 10-minute shuttle ride away is the Shenzhen clubhouse. It is the base for the final five courses, the jewel in the crown being the Jack Nicklaus World Cup course. Layouts designed by Vijay Singh, Ernie Els, Jumbo Ozaki and the par three tester by Zhang Lianwei also live here.

But while Mission Hills is largely about golf, it isn't all about golf.

At Shenzhen-Dongguan, you can spend a fortune in Asia's largest pro shop, an even bigger fortune at the high-end retail shops or simply soak up the five-star luxury in a range of bars and restaurants.

It has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gym, games rooms and activities for children. A short shuttle-bus ride takes you to the country club, which boasts no fewer than 56 tennis courts. The spa and massage facility is a wonder to behold.

The Haikou complex has features of a similar standard but its piece de resistance is its mineral springs facility.

Its stunning entrance hall is made of lava rock and bamboo and leads you to 168 hot and cold mineral springs divided into five world zones - Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and, the most popular, America.

Workers bored 800m into the bedrock to unlock the springs. The water is replenished daily and lets you soak amid the aromas of patchouli, fennel, cumin, ginseng and fig, though not all at once.

Details at missionhillsgroup.com.

The West Australian

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