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Gone Afar: A Beautiful Day Building Shanqin Bay

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Bo’ao, Hainan, China.

The tropical frontier island of Hainan has long been overlooked by the Chinese mainland, except as the country’s legendary place of exile. In addition to the island’s remoteness, hot, humid, cyclone-laden summers must have provided great motivation to bring centuries upon centuries’ of disgraced Chinese leaders here. Even now, in the temperate dry season, the morning air is hazy and every surface on this island province beads with sweat. Those of us building the new golf course at Shanqin Bay on the south shore of the island are relishing these mild, typhoon-free days for the comfort and productivity they afford. Soon, the oppressive heat will return to ignite the humidity off the South China Sea.

Astounding growth on the mainland, a motivated government and capital-style speculation are beginning to turn the tide on Hainan. Despite a government moratorium on building golf courses in China, golf’s nearly implicit relationship with tourism is allowing the game to establish a foothold in real estate development on the tropical island. Last year, golf architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw were invited to design the new Shanqin Bay Golf Club on Hainan. Construction is now in full force. As an associate of Coore & Crenshaw, I am contributing shaping work to the project and find working in one of China’s least developed regions to be as challenging as it is rewarding.

With the winter solstice firmly in our rearview mirror, daybreak has crept back into our morning ride to work. Ever-adventurous, the trip stretches over rivers and through primitive villages on its way to the site. Defensive driving and liberal use of the horn are our appointed driver’s best weapons. Lu manages to avoid the slaughter of dogs and chickens once again. More importantly, he negotiates the oncoming trucks and motorbikes that use our lane as freely as their own. We like Lu. The van turns into the construction yard where our Chinese counterparts are spilling out of bunkhouses, their normally well-coiffed hair smashed like bristles from the cots.

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The ride to and from work is littered with obstacles, the fall rice harvest, in this case.

Nothing can compare, though, with Q.T.’s hair. Quinn Thompson, Coore & Crenshaw’s latest musician-turned-bunker-craftsman, is sporting a Mohawk. Despite the ever-present language barrier, he managed to sort it out with a couple of descriptive sketches at a salon in Bo’ao, the small town where we are staying. I have to say, it looks damn good and is a welcome change from the Bob Dylan bouffant he’s been sporting since Tahoe. Driving out from the yard, we drop Quinn off atop the clubhouse site, where he warms up his excavator. Bill Coore is back for the first time since a visit with Crenshaw. Bill has been walking the site for a couple of days catching up on the work. Today he will walk the course again, consulting with each of us about our recent endeavors. All but two of the holes are in some stage of construction, so Quinn will be tracking around Shanqin all day modifying some of his latest creations, while adding a few new “pits and surprises” along the way.

Jim Craig jumps out of the truck next, after a short ride down from the clubhouse site. He grabs his backpack, treks across the eighteenth and down a steep slope toward his dozer on sixteen green. Jim was the first shaper to arrive at Shanqin Bay. Since this ground around the clubhouse was the first to become available, he already has the course’s finishing stretch roughed-in; the stretch contains some of Shanqin’s most dramatic golf holes––and views.

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The fifteenth hole

The finish begins with the 460-yard fifteenth, where the eastbound fairway tilts and twists up to a precipice, which juts out towards the sea on the right and beyond. Fifteen’s cliff top green rests just below the broad swath of ground Shanqin’s clubhouse will take over. A military compound once extended onto this promontory, defending the island from invasion; not surprising since it offers a 210-degree vantage of the South China Sea. Golden beaches extend into the hazy horizon on either side. The sand is generously studded with black rocky outcroppings lathered constantly in foaming surf.

Lest we forget, the photogenic clubhouse location is surrounded by more golf holes. Bill and Ben’s routing includes sandy, seaside terrain that just screams golf. In contrast, an extinct volcano rests nearby, the cauldron is now a deep, slumbering basin beautifully quilted with pineapple fields. Ancient volcanic activity has provided tumultuous ground into which golf is beginning to meld exceptionally well. The holes borrow from and enhance their charming surrounds in equal measure.

The sixteenth hole

The sixteenth hole

Like the fifteenth, sixteen continues eastward with the sea to the right, a tempting distance of just over 300 yards. Drives will soon plunge from the lofty tee out for one last little jaunt from the clubhouse. An old stone wall crumbles to its end along the seaside start of the fairway below, with the drivable green set beyond, nearly encircled by bunkers. An equally dramatic cliff top perch begins the two-shot seventeenth. Its fairway hunches down toward the water, so that turf nearly meets surf along the entire right edge of the hole.

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The seventeenth hole

An unusually short eighteenth pops up from the shore to a ridgeline tee to play back west across a forbidding ravine. Fragments of another stone wall ramble across the start of the fairway beyond the chasm. Although much of the wall has been perforated by time, it continues around the steep left edge of the hole as the fairway sweeps left, back towards the sea. A sturdy segment remains at the green, encroaching closely upon its left edge. Good drives will merely need a pitch to the green, which runs along a ridge across the line of play. The putting surface is saddled between the wall and a slope up to the clubhouse promontory on the right. Cut into the face of the upslope is a mortared stone embankment just below where the clubhouse will sit. This ominous retaining wall, complete with a hefty concrete door and shattered Mandarin characters announcing the entry, looms all the way back down the eighteenth hole out onto open seas to the east. Behind the door are a series of tunnels leading to at least one other exit further inland and who knows where else. These tunnels and surrounding walls are remnants from days when the coastal promontory lent its advantage to military strategy rather than golf.

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The eighteenth green, viewed from atop the wall down the left edge of the fairway.

On the way to drop me off, the truck rambles inland down a hill toward a broad, verdant valley. The fifth hole, where my dozer awaits, rests in the center of the valley, surrounded by the fourth, sixth, seventh, and a pair of large irrigation lakes. All of the holes are easily accommodated by this big green salad bowl I have been working in for weeks. The valley was obtained much more recently than the clubhouse parcel. Obtaining land here is a tedious process. The client provides payments to the government, which in turn distributes a portion of the compensation to villagers for the loss of their pineapple fields. Any remaining property–from palm trees to shingles—must also be compensated for, unless removed by the villagers themselves.

Graves are scattered around each and every hole on the course. Most are distinguishable by their conical earthen mounds. The vast majority of graves include a headstone of some size. Similar to the West, the monument’s ornamentation reflects the deceased’s social status and the financial capabilities of their family. Burial sites for village leaders are generally marked with a broad concrete step on which the headstone is placed. Behind the headstone, a considerable mound is often decadently encircled by waist-high curvilinear walls.

We have taken great care to leave each gravesite respectfully intact until the families are compensated and have time to perform the relocation. The entire family of the deceased often gathers to exhume the body, burning incense and lighting firecrackers in ceremony. The bones are cleaned and secured in a narrow wooden box that is wrapped in a red cloth. Afterward, a picnic is commonly held. Proper relocation is integral to the ceremony. An appropriate site was recently obtained by the client to aid relatives and help ensure peace among the spirits of the deceased.

A prominent, well-tended headstone helped us to avoid this old grave during clearing, even though the mound was hidden beneath tropical vegetation.

A prominent, well-tended headstone helped us to avoid this old grave during clearing, even though the mound was hidden beneath tropical vegetation.

A few of the village elders have been employed by the client to help locate graves during clearing and shaping. They have been immensely helpful, particularly with the local politics and negotiations; however, finding all of the graves ahead of construction has proven difficult. The mounds atop many of the oldest graves have simply eroded away and their headstones can be deeply submerged beneath tropical vines, or are simply gone. Stone or masonry caps are occasionally found by the bucket of an excavator or the blade of a dozer. These unfortunate incidents are quickly re-mounded and flagged for identification. The process is made all the more difficult by a proliferation of fake graves, built in search of compensation. Distinguishing the difference can be murky, since the mounds of real graves are, in some instances, revamped by family members to ensure they are not overlooked. The distinction can be a comical affair. Fake graves have been known to pop up like dandelions overnight as if we will not notice the handiwork put into these fresh little peaks.

Entering the valley, we travel across four fairway, pitched against an edge of the basin, to the middle of five, where I shut down last night. Once my dozer warms up, I will track up a dune to the end of the hole and add support along the back edge of the green, a request Bill made as he walked by last evening. With some help moving sand, the work should be finished by lunch. My dozer cranks and the truck rolls away with its remaining passengers: Klink, Christian and Peter-–a translator fresh out of school, who is our savior at times. Klink, or John Klinkerman, is our American contractor, Landscapes Unlimited’s construction superintendent here at Shanqin Bay. He has filled this role before for Coore & Crenshaw, most recently at Clear Creek in Tahoe. Christian Hale is another ‘super’ for Landscapes. He and Australian John Hawker are project assistants. Both arrived last summer as early fixtures after work on Tiger Woods Dubai began to wane. There are days when the discussion and paperwork inherent to China’s business culture pile overwhelmingly high. Charged with many of these affairs, Klink admirably juggles them with his responsibilities in the field, including our earthwork and shaping needs. Meanwhile, Christian and John Hawker provide the reliable boost of coordination necessary for a foreign project such as this to keep moving. The three have now been joined by Chris White, Landscapes’ irrigation superintendent, who is busy making the transition from his Harley in Nebraska to a 125cc Honda in Hainan.

Hawker arrives on his own motorbike to meet up with a pair of Hainanese operators who speak absolutely no English and are helping out here on five. He supervises them in their excavator and loader as if conducting traffic. Together they cut sand from the approach and deliver it around the back edge of five green.

Walking back to the tee, I consider the earthwork taking place ahead. The trek is anything but quiet contemplation. A pair of lakes around which the fifth and sixth holes play are rapidly taking shape on my left. The subcontractor in charge of constructing these enormous lakes has a fleet of honking blue trucks. Unlike the variety of cars and motorbikes on Hainan’s roads, these trucks are the only brand on the job and, it would seem, the entire island. It is just another daily reminder of the strange political landscape in which we are guests. The blue dumps raise dust, dump slop, and return recklessly downhill onto haul roads that double as dikes where they hover above the expanding lake floors at the eventual water level.

Lake construction has halted for the evening in this view down to the valley. The fourth hole plays at us on the far right edge of the picture (following the haul road). Five heads diagonally out to the sea in the upper-middle of the photograph. Six plays back towards us down the left side of the lakes (through the yellow excavator). Seven’s dogleg right fairway lies just out of view on the left with the green returning to the red soil on the extreme left edge.

Lake construction has halted for the evening in this view down to the valley. The fourth hole plays at us on the far right edge of the picture (following the haul road). Five heads diagonally out to the sea in the upper-middle of the photograph. Six plays back towards us down the left side of the lakes (through the yellow excavator). Seven’s dogleg right fairway lies just out of view on the left with the green returning to the red soil on the extreme left edge.

Pond muck and dump trucks aside, the par-four fifth skirts around the right edge of the larger lake in front of me. Fairway will rise up a broad sandy dune ahead, with the sea sprawling beyond on either side. The ideal line of play from the tee hedges onto a puff of ground near the lake.  Nonetheless, this preferred lie, set above generous fairway to the right and ‘the drink’ on the left, offers no glimpse of the flag up ahead. Golfers will learn everything they need to know about the pin location back on the tee. For now, a bamboo pole with some neon green fabric stands in as the flagstick near the left edge of the green. Pins on either side are visible from the tee. The only cups hidden from view will be cut in the middle of the ‘dance floor’ behind the great mass of sand. When turf finally clings to the dune face ahead, what will hopefully follow our drives is a short, bold iron over the apex of the dune to a green stretching beyond towards the sea. For the faint of heart, and the rest of us who’ve already found trouble, a gentler stroke can be played onto the saddled approach left of the dune. With the right touch, the ball will roll on down to the left half of the green. Atop the crested approach golfers will finally see the putting surface, and consequently, the results of their second shots. It is a receptive green, though at first glance the surface appears to slope away to the water. Just like a negative edge pool on the coast, it would seem there is nothing beyond but the sea.

The fifth green and approach

The fifth green and approach

By lunchtime, I have received enough sand at the back of the green to help hold a shot, yet still leave the sea view intact. I also managed to work in a few extra nuances on the green floor itself. A site truck arrives and Peter the Great (you didn’t think our Chinese interpreter’s chosen name was a coincidence?) is ready to drive us back for lunch for the first, and hopefully not the last, time. With a manual shift, treacherous site, and Peter’s three weeks of on-the-job ‘driver’s ed’–three weeks more than most college graduates here—the ride ought to be interesting. Peter is savvy, though, and a good example of the spongy, nimble learners our translators have proven to be, certainly more absorbent than my own ability to pick up Mandarin has proven. Aside from his mentor Christian’s occasional urging to downshift before the hills, our ride back to the yard is surprisingly smooth. Our three lovely cooks from the nearest village have prepared greens, hot cucumber, cooked sprouts and, of course, rice. Fish and chicken, chopped up bone and all, are accompanied by a soup of unknown origins. Try as the girls may to drown every dish in oil, a Missouri native, who owns the sole B&B in Bo’ao, keeps us stocked with enough Tabasco to cut through anything, except bones.

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Noodles, anyone?

My immediate concern after lunch is fulfilling Bill’s other wish on five. He talked yesterday about creating some sort of contour left of the green to help turn the hole right. In the morning, Hawker and company bulked enough extra sand up there to create a dune that compliments the ‘broad guy’ in front of the green. It will help turn the approach, as Bill requested, and should add some beneficial depth to our view toward the top. As a result, the knobby dune will hint at the green tucked beyond to the right. I grade up and over the pile of sand and walk back down to the tee several times for a look at the progress. With each trip I gather up more sand and the new dune on the left becomes steeper and more prominent from the tee.

Convinced, on my latest walk back to the tee, that I’ve about wrapped it up, I start walking toward my dozer. I am met in the landing area by an old, familiar villager. He is the head cook’s dad and is here to ‘talk’ graves, even if we can’t speak a lick of the other’s language. ‘Pop’ smiles as I offer sunflower seeds, exposing a broad, glittering grill with enough gold to make a gangsta’ jealous. Tossing the seeds into his mouth one by one, he motions with the other hand to five mounds I have been working around in the fairway. A dip in the knees and one broad sweep of his hand encourage me to doze them away. Graves are like trees-–a whole lot easier to take down with a dozer than to put back up. I cautiously point out each supposed grave individually, to which he returns five sweeps of the hand and a pat on the back. He rides away on his motorbike up the fourth hole’s compacted haul road and up out of the valley, the street tires on his bike skipping along the ruts.

I return to the top of the hill and, one last time, push sand up onto the companion dune left of the green. Confident it will do the trick, I track down the hill to erase the fake graves. While knocking the small peaks down, it occurs just how much faith I have in the old man. We have built a good relationship with the local villagers. They respect our work and know the Americans are simply here to build a golf course. As long as we respect their graves and do not track onto land or plants under dispute, issues surrounding compensation are understood to be outside our scope of responsibility. We have come a long way from the riots and paddy wagons that delayed work early on in the project. There will, however, be more protests and new hurdles to come.

Police (on the left) and protesters taking a break from the action.

Police (on the left) and protesters taking a break from the action.

Our respective business interests aside, the old man and I have become genuine friends. Seeing him is a bright spot in my day and the advice he offers is easily relied upon. The same can be said for most of our relationships with the locals, who still travel through the worksite as if it were entirely their own. However, we have seen enough to know that trust is a difficult thing to garner. Our favors to the villagers have been well received. My own gestures have included grading a pad for one villager’s new home along an edge of the development and clearing a patch of overgrown land near another village. But goodwill can easily be forgotten upon even trivial misfortunes. We cannot assume trust or good faith will be granted by the next smiling face to come along. The Chinese are a non-violent culture, much more so than our own, and compensation is the customary means for dealing with the disparity of wealth and power and curbing injustices. When it comes to developmental impacts on the local population, as is also the case in the States, hardship goes hand-in-hand with opportunity. The massive amount of development expected here on the island of Hainan, which China intends to rapidly establish as a Hawaii of its own, will bring even more sacrifice to our new friends and temporary neighbors. But the growth will also bring a great deal of prosperity and domestic attention they are eager to embrace.

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The view up to five green from the landing area.

Happy with the new dune on five, I grade Hawker’s cut from the approach into a soft bench in the hill.  I track in the new work from the back of the green, over the new dune and out into the fairway. The grousers on a dozer do not always make for a smooth ride. However, across this sand they practically float, leaving a smooth corduroy finish to the contours Bill will review in the morning. With the last forty minutes of the day, I begin grading the back tees on six as a head start on tomorrow. Twelve hours a day, six days a week take their toll. Yet, the chaotic blue dump trucks criss-crossing six haven’t slowed a bit, and they’ll be here again on Sunday. But even they are about to call it a day. Dust rises up the haul road signaling Christian and Peter’s approach. While the dozer cools down, I snap my towel across the windows to knock the dust off the cab and defend against tomorrow morning’s dew. Hopping in the truck with the guys, we head for the yard. Peter has clearly mastered English better than ourselves, so Christian and I have been tutoring him on the fine art of American slang. Pete asks “Well, Dave, have you called your ‘shorty’ back in the States today?”  “I did, and she’s good,” I reply. But we are both eagerly looking forward to my flight home next week.

We arrive at the yard to find James Duncan, another Coore & Crenshaw associate, walking back up to the gate from 7-Eleven, our nickname for the opportunistic convenience store that appeared one day as work began to take off at Shanqin Bay. James is carrying back a box full of Tsingtao bottles to unwind our day with. Some of the surveyors and foremen play a pick-up basketball game in the middle of the yard, while the rest of the Chinese crew, worn from another seven day work week, clean up for dinner. We crack open our beers. James, who is helping coordinate planning issues between the development infrastructure and our course, recounts his latest effort to blend our minimalist design with the towering expectations of modern Chinese development. I sip my beer and listen to the enlightening reminder –even in China, where there are so few faces with whom to communicate, there is Zen to be found in the solitude of one’s dozer.

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The ‘better half’ of the family who owns the convenience store gives the peace sign while coaxing these village girls to smile for the camera, despite my foreign appearance.

Once again, Lu is ready to impress us with his skill at evading the touring coaches and water buffalo we share the roads with on the way to Bo’ao. It is twenty minutes back to the villas. We will take a quick shower and head to The Lagoon, a restaurant among the resort’s villas underutilized by everyone but ourselves. With so many visits under our belt, the quiet hall feels like our own private dining room. “Frankie” and the ‘Lagoon Ladies’ display constant graciousness as they deliver handmade dumplings and spring rolls, along with sweet-and-sour pork and teppanyaki veal to our long central table. Tomorrow’s battles are sometimes part of tonight’s conversation. Still, at the end of our most trying days, Frankie and the girls always manage to remind us of the kind and friendly manner at the core of Hainan’s people.

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One Sunday, in the nearby city of Qionghai, I walked into a music store only to have the shopkeeper rush unexpectedly up the street through a tropical rainstorm with her two children in tow. They returned with her uncle who took time to demonstrate an erhu (the “Chinese violin”) and show me how to play it. The uncle left. I paid and then walked up the street, only to have him run out of his dentist/barber shop as I passed to invite me in for a concert on his medley of instruments. Meanwhile, a customer was patiently waiting, from even before my lesson, to have his haircut finished.

Today was one more day. Like the others on Hainan, it can blend easily with the rest. Time is not measured by the day of the week here, but by some point further down the calendar. The next trip home is always farther away than one would hope. However, the island of Hainan and its people ensure us a valuable experience. The remarkable terrain on Coore & Crenshaw’s sole Asian course rewards us with unique design challenges, and the opportunity to enhance Bill & Ben’s thoughtful routing with our own creative layers restores us every day, no matter how much they blend together. We hope the course at Shanqin Bay will endure for the inspiration that could be, and was, drawn from such a dramatic canvas.

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The eighteenth from the tee

Edit: Per David’s comment below, here’s a photo of the happy couple:

The Happy Couple

Discussion

14 comments for “Gone Afar: A Beautiful Day Building Shanqin Bay”

  1. Dave — really enjoyed the detailed account of what it’s like to work over there. Pretty strange where golf has taken you — and the land is sensational. Steve

    Posted by Steve Goodwin | March 22, 2010, 4:02 pm
  2. Dave, I am impressed with this information and will read all, later on today.

    Lehman has finished with reconstruction of all 36 holes here and members are pleased. Never had quality turf before. Now we have to develop a plan to handle our debt service, as membership has dropped.

    Dave is coming here this week to play with me in Anasazi. We have received our annual precipitation as February was very wet. Should be a colorful spring in Tonto Natioal Forest. We Ko Pa contiues to receive good reviews.

    Best regards, Ted

    Posted by ted axland | March 23, 2010, 5:41 am
  3. “Nothing can compare, though, with Q.T.’s hair. Quinn Thompson, Coore & Crenshaw’s latest musician-turned-bunker-craftsman, is sporting a Mohawk. Despite the ever-present language barrier, he managed to sort it out with a couple of descriptive sketches at a salon in Bo’ao, the small town where we are staying. I have to say, it looks damn good and is a welcome change from the Bob Dylan bouffant he’s been sporting since Tahoe.”

    I love this part. Great writing as usual. Get Q to send a pic of that Hawk. That has to be great!

    Bang a Drumm

    jeff

    Posted by Jeff Bradley | March 23, 2010, 7:23 am
  4. Great stuff Dave. Very entertaining! Course is looking very intriguing and look forward to seeing it finish.

    Keep it coming, and please say hello to Bill for me.

    Todd

    Posted by Todd Eckenrode | March 23, 2010, 9:32 am
  5. JB,

    I couldn’t agree more. Nothing brightens a day like a good mohawk sighting.

    Our operators are standing by, ready to post documentary evidence of said ‘hawk–mo, faux or otherwise.

    [email protected]

    td

    Posted by td | March 23, 2010, 9:36 am
  6. Great eye for detail and vivid imagery in your writing. I really enjoyed your insights on local culture and their reaction to this foreign–in so many ways–project in their midst. Hope you can keep sending photos too. Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences.

    Posted by mike tanner | March 23, 2010, 5:47 pm
  7. Why would John Klinkerman trade Vail Colorado, for a God forsaken place like this? Is it really worth money, that he would trade it for quality of life?

    Posted by Terry Busch | March 24, 2010, 4:20 pm
  8. Thanks for the comments! Sorry JB & TD, documentation on Quinn’s Mohawk will have to wait. He’s shaved it off! But, by popular demand, he vows it shall return! The ladies are back and protesting as well as ever. We have almost nowhere to shape until the current compensation disputes are resolved. On a high note, we learned yesterday the convenience store owners’ only son is getting married. When’s the wedding? Today! He is delivering a dowry (of sorts) to the bride’s parents as I am typing this. We’ll all be attending the ceremony in a few minutes!

    Posted by David | March 24, 2010, 8:54 pm
  9. well written, anxious to see the project develop. Would love to assist with operations as a consultant. Check me out with CJ McDaniel. Also clubhouse flow and fixture design.

    Continued success.

    Posted by Craig Williamson | March 25, 2010, 10:32 am
  10. The entire time I’m thinking, if I was out there with you guys building this thinking, how much weight I could lose by not eating!

    Seriously, this place looks fascinating. What a great experience!

    Posted by Tommy Naccarato | March 28, 2010, 11:55 am
  11. Dave, all I can say is “wow”. Great writing and what a sensational piece of property. I very much look forward to reading and seeing more. Thanks

    Posted by Jeff Riggs | April 16, 2010, 5:00 am
  12. David, this is an interesting career you have. We have a plant in Ghuangzhou and maybe someday I will come play your new creation. Thanks for sharing the pics and experience.

    Posted by Mike Thibideau | April 17, 2010, 1:13 pm
  13. Thanks Dave super interesting stuff

    Glad to see you have kept together the whole Tahoe Crew! Say hi for me and tell them it is spring here with no humidity! (but it is supposed to snow next week)

    Rich

    Posted by Rich Baines | April 18, 2010, 7:17 am
  14. David,
    As a PGA of America member living and working in Dalian, China it’s nice to read about another American’s take of living and working in China, yes the driving is something you will never understand until you live here. I do believe the first thing that they teach you in driving school is how to use the horn and crossing the street here in a city of six million is a new and challenging sport. I have always enjoyed reading anything about Coore & Crenshaw design golf courses. Have grown up in Nebraska I was able to have Dan Proctor take me around the Sand Hills in 1994 and able to play it in 1998, what a course. I look forward to getting to Hainan Island to play Shanqin Bay once it opens.
    Be sure to give my best to Bill & Ben as I was able to get to know both of them when I lived in Texas.

    Vic Carder

    Posted by Vic Carder | February 15, 2011, 12:46 pm

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