By Donny Kwok
HONG KONG (Reuters) - A year after China ordered public officials off the fairways in a crackdown on graft, the business of golf is betting hunger for the game among middle class fans and an Olympic medal for a home-grown star can drive the sport back to growth.
The PGA Tour, organizer of golf's flagship events, says it wants to more than double the number of events on the Chinese mainland as Beijing basks in the glow of a bronze medal in Rio for Feng Shanshan - also a multi-millionaire winner on the international Ladies PGA Tour.
Meanwhile Honma Golf Ltd, maker of the world's most expensive clubs, made its debut on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Thursday after a HK$1.26 billion ($162 million) listing, touting the chance of China growth as a key attraction in its prospectus. Feng, sponsored by Honma, also appears in the document - and helped out in roadshow presentations.
"Double-digit or triple-digit growth in the population (of golfers) is very achievable," said Gregory Gilligan, Beijing-based head of the PGA Tour's Chinese affiliate, speaking in a recent interview at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club in Hong Kong, where the China PGA Tour will hold its first event outside the mainland from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6.
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After years of being unofficially tolerated, golf was officially banned for members of the Chinese Communist Party in October last year during a draconian anti-corruption drive. The sport's popularity took a severe hit, and over a hundred courses closed.
China has since softened its position, arguing earlier this year that golf itself was "not a wrongdoing", according to a report in China Daily, as long as officials pay their way and stick to playing outside working hours, rather than stroll the fairways while during work time on the public dime.
RETAIL SALES SEEN JUMPING
In the meantime, according to Frost & Sullivan, China is primed to be one of the fastest-growing markets for golf products, driven by its growing middle class and rise in disposable income.
Frost & Sullivan estimates the China golf products markets will jump by more than a third to $646 million in retail sales value in 2019 from $469 million last year.
Still, Honma shares fell sharply on their first day of trading amid doubts about its ability to attract buyers for its high-end clubs on the mainland.
The hopes for growth in China come at a time when the sport has seen player numbers dropping globally, prompting some international sporting goods maker to cut back on golf and focus on other areas.
German sportswear maker Adidas said in May it aimed to sell most of its money-losing golf business including TaylorMade and Adams, while Nike in August said it was looking to the exit golf equipment business.
But for Honma, the time was right to prepare for expansion in China. Based in Japan but controlled by Chinese businessman and chairman Liu Jianguo, Honma's clubs can fetch as much as nearly $5,000 for a top-of-the-range set, with celebrities including Donald Trump reported to be fans.
"We have to prepare to capture the market in case the demand explodes one day," said Honma's Liu, speaking at a pre-IPO event.
But if Honma's market debut was any indication, that explosion in demand for its clubs could take some time. Its shares were down 8.5 percent in afternoon trade to give it a market capitalization of HK$5.5 billion ($710 million).
"I doubt if golfers are still going to want to be so showy with expensive clubs when concern over the crackdown on graft is still haunting every industry," said Alex Wong, Hong Kong-based director at Ample Finance Group.
(Reporting by Donny Kwok; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Edwina Gibbs)