October 2011

The long game

By Mark Godfrey

Diversification is the only way to prosperity for a foreign golf coach in China

Newspapers have been keen to print stories about foreign golf coaches pouring into China to make a fortune on interest in the game among the country’s nouveau riche. Certainly the numbers of foreign coaches here are up since the economic malaise gripped key golf markets like the US, but making money isn’t as easy as portrayed.

While anecdotal evidence suggests golf coaches in China make executive salaries – one-hour with a Professional Golf Association (PGA)-accredited coach costs RMB1000 (US$157) – finding the work can be a problem for many of the foreign coaches coming to China.

In Beijing for 12 months, Scottish golf pro Frank Flood described how “Locals are more willing to spend money on equipment and branded clothing than learning the skills of the game.” Indeed observing the foyer on a Saturday morning at a Beijing’s Tianzhu Golf Club, suggests the two golf equipment shops – offering individual irons for as much as RMB5000 (US$783) – provide a fair percentage of the club’s earnings.

Stiff competition

Another challenge is local competition. Foreign pros compete with Chinese coaches at local clubs who charge as little as RMB300 (US$47) an hour. After failing to agree terms with several local clubs – “they wanted half my fee” – Flood travels around the city to teach his students, most of whom are expatriates.

There may be a perception that locals have pots of money they’re willing to throw at foreign coaches to achieve a perfect swing. Yet one European coach says locals often exploit this view of the local corporate market: “before you know it you’ve given a dozen lessons and expect a big pay day or contacts and contracts but at least in my case it leads nowhere. They simply want to see what you can teach that local coaches can’t.”

With a busy roster of expatriate private clients and corporate training programs, Shanghai-based coach Michael Carson believes local attitudes are changing but remain very different from golfing culture in the US. “Locals are only slowly realizing how a real professional can help them improve their game instead of just asking a driving range employee to teach them how to play… That would rarely happen in the US.”

Qualifications – or rather, their absence – is another key gripe for foreign coaches. Those with valid qualifications complain of a lack of appreciation of certification schemes locally. “This puts genuinely qualified coaches at a disadvantage to quick-buck merchants with lesser or faked credentials,” says Cindy Reid, who runs her own academy at Mission Hills golf club in Shenzhen. Yet Reid also cautions that many foreign coaches come to China lacking basic coaching and pedagogical skills. Lax standards in China allow them and local coaches to teach unchecked says Reid, whose academy puts coaches through a two-year apprenticeship program. “Other certifying bodies here are qualifying coaches in four months...it's about money.”


Foreign golf professionals may find that turning to alternative revenue sources is the only way to prosper. Publishing, teaching and corporate speaking events are all ways to earn money in China judging by the approach of the ultimate golf enterprise in China, the Cindy Reid Golf Academy at the Mission Hills Club in Shenzhen. A busy September calendar includes a group lesson for Emerson Power Group employees, a ‘short game school’ and a caddie training day. Reid has also published Get Yourself in Golf Shape in Chinese.

Certainly the location in Shenzhen lends itself to corporate business from adjacent Hong Kong and Macau. Her academy averages 1,500 one-hour coaching sessions a year – not including clinics and corporate group classes – and that figure is climbing. Reid weeded through offers from potential business partners for 10 years – mostly private golf clubs – before setting up her academy at the Mission Hills club in 2007. The first three years “I busted my tail” says Reid, noting that while her business is profitable the money “isn’t what everyone thinks it is.”

Michael Carson has a similar long-term diversification plan for China. Formerly a management consultant, Carson became a coach as a way to tap into what he saw as a booming golf industry. Now he’s looking to partner with an “open-minded” Chinese golf club or business “that’s as committed to promoting golf as it is to turning a profit.”