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Three Generations Meet at Mission Hills Haikou
What happens when you combine golf's world No. 1 with his heir apparent, the heir apparent's heir apparent, solar-powered golf carts, 15,000 acres of lava fields, tropical climes, 120 junior golfers, 20,000 spectators, a bit of Chinese numerology and healthy doses of dragons, tigers and snakes? Oh my: You get, contested on Monday at Mission Hills Resort Haikou in Hainan, China, and won by Rory McIlroy by a stroke over Tiger Woods, 67-68.
Big Crowd on Hand for Rory and Tiger
The Match itself was the main event but only a portion of the spectacle.
Indeed, The Match at Mission Hills did more than bring together golf's two most compelling personalities in head-to-head competition. The inclusion of Guan Tianlang, the Chinese amateur phenom who famously made the cut at this year's Masters, brought together at Mission Hills three separate generations of golfers, each representing not just a different demographic but the three main epicenters of world golf.
• Tiger Woods is nearly 40 years old and North American, with 14 majors under his belt.
• Rory McIlroy is his Irish heir apparent, just 24 and representing the European sphere.
• Guan Tianlang is fully 10 years younger than Rory and represents not just the next generation of competitive golfer, but an all new source of talent: Asia, in general, and China in particular.
The inter-generational aspect was not lost on Woods or McIlroy.
"In the last 12, 13 years, I've seen the growth and development of these junior golfers," Woods said during his post-match press conference. "Guan making it to the Masters at age 14 just goes to show you what's going to happen - and what's going to come down the pipeline the next 15, 20 years. It's going to be quite amazing to see."
McIlroy saw another relevant factor that will affect player development in Asia and everywhere else: "I think the inclusion of golf in the Olympics is a great thing. You are going to see a lot of new people and new countries and junior golfers come into golf because it's an Olympic sport. It's great for the growth of the game."
Guan was on hand to take part in a Skills Challenge, staged prior to The Match before a crowd of some 120 junior golfers, most of whom were in town for an important junior tournament played at Mission Hills Haikou October 26-27. With this sort of spirited, local support, young Guan beat both Woods and McIlroy in the skills competition, besting his heroes 50 points to 30.
Speaking before the contest, a confident Guan said, "I'm playing well at the moment and am confident that I can beat them in this challenge."
And beat them he did.
"I was so lucky," Guan said afterward, sharing a laugh with Tiger and Rory before assembled media. "When I was in the States, I had a chance to, for example, view you guys practicing your short games and your technique. I consider myself very lucky to win this challenge skills today."
Prior to the Skills Challenge, Woods and McIlroy spent some practice-range time coaching and sharing advice with all the junior golfers on hand, including members of the China National Junior Team.
"They hit the ball very well, but golf is not all about that - it's about getting out on the course, shooting scores and knowing your way around the golf course," said Woods, a former prodigy in his own right. "I just hope they enjoy it, have fun doing it, have fun trying to do it a little bit better and enjoy the competition part."
Junior golf development remains at the heart of Mission Hills' golf strategy. Before 2013 is through, Mission Hills will host 36 junior tournaments featuring golfers from 30 different countries. In January 2013, in a move widely praised by the international golfing community, Mission Hills announced that three of its courses would be open to golfers under the age of 16 on a free-of-charge basis.
"This is a great initiative, having two golf courses for under-16s free. It's incredible," McIlroy said. "I wish, back when I was growing up, which wasn't that long ago, we had places like that - where we could come and play golf for free. To make golf more accessible, especially in a country like China where it's seen as a rich man's game, is just - it's phenomenal."
Woods agreed: "The fact that you have two golf courses where kids who are 16 and under can play for free - that's how it should be... The initiatives they have here at Mission Hills, I think they should be duplicated around the world - definitely is a model that people should be looking at.
Rory McIlroy at Mission Hills
"It's exciting to see the development and to see the growth of the game," Woods continued. "It's going to be really amazing to see it over the next 15, 20 years, what the landscape of golf is going to look like and how many people are going to be from China or Asia Pacific playing at the world-class level. A lot of it is due to what the Chus have done with both Mission Hills and their development programs."
The Mission Hills Group is owned and administered by two brothers, Chairman Ken Chu and Vice Chairman Tenniel Chu. Ken Chu was asked during the post-Match press conference what he made of the spectacle.
"Have you seen the movie, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? It's a very popular Chinese movie," Chu said, turning to Woods. "Your name is Tiger, I was born in the Year of Tiger, so we're Tigers.
"And then Rory, you're born in the Year of the Snake, so snake in Chinese is also known as the dragon - and Tenniel was born in the Year of the Dragon. So that's where we have something in common. It's the crouching Tiger and flying Dragon."
Ken Chu also noted that it's been 12 years since Tiger Woods' last visit to Mission Hills, which was his first-ever visit to China.
"Twelve is a very meaningful, very special number to Chinese," he explained. "There's 12 hours in a clock, 12 months in a year, 12 zodiacs, 12 animals in the Chinese calendar year, as well. So 12, it's a complete circle. We are very proud, very honored to play host to your very first visit to China, and after 12 years, also play host to your first visit to Hainan Island. So it's a wonderful relationship that we have created, and thank you for all your support of China golf development. We appreciate it."
Woods and McIlroy added a new element of power to their games, prior to The Match, when they test-drove some of Mission Hills' new solar-powered golf carts.
Mission Hills Resort Haikou has assembled a fleet of more than 200 solar-powered carts, 30 of which were utilized during The Match at Mission Hills, to transport the players, tournament officials and television crew around the resort.
"This is the latest initiative by Mission Hills to promote sustainable and environmentally responsible golf," Ken Chu explained. "We remain absolutely committed to sustainable golf development and over the years we have undertaken many sustainability initiatives in areas of course development, fertilization, water preservation, energy efficiency and heat management."
The Match at Mission Hills was contested over the Blackstone Course, one of 10 layouts at Mission Hills Resort Haikou (there are 12 more at Mission Hills Shenzhen, on the Chinese mainland). The Blackstone and neighboring Lava Fields courses, both designed by architect Brian Curley, sit atop a most unusual foundation: An estimated 10,000 years ago, the Qiongbei volcanic cluster in northern Hainan erupted, spewing jet-black lava across the northern part of this island province.
"I was insistent on weaving holes through the site with a huge emphasis on walking, not only for the tournament players but also for everyday players who, despite making use of carts, are able to tee off and walk the lava trails if desired," said Curley, a partner in Schmidt Curley Design. "Building on lava rock is not easy, but the [Blackstone] site is far from flat and offers a nice variety of elevation change. With a 320-acre core golf site, we were able to find holes and avoid unnecessary cuts and fills."
Curley noted that despite a volcanic rock bed some 20 meters deep, the development of Mission Hills Haikou's 10 courses managed to preserve 15,385 acres of pristine lava rock and conserve some 20,000 trees (more than 50,000 new trees were added to the ecosystem). Some 30 million cubic meters of sand were used to "cap" the areas where golf course turf was ultimately cultivated.
The Blackstone Course itself also winds its way through centuries-old houses, walls, shrines and graves, all of which were carved from the lava centuries ago - and all of which were painstakingly preserved during the development process. Many of these artifacts are the remnants of an ancient village, named Yong Wan in local language. National Geographic was recently on site to shoot a documentary on the local history here. The film is scheduled to be broadcast in the coming months.