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Star Man: Ken Chu hails “legendary” Freeman, Player Pro-Am pairing

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DR. KEN CHU, Chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group, flags up the legendary pairing of Oscar winner Morgan Freeman and nine-time major winner Gary Player as the worlds of sport, film and music marry at the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am in Hainan.

 

Can you talk about the pairing of Gary Player, 78, and Morgan Freeman, 77, this weekend as they both make their debuts in the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am?

There’s a lot of similarity. First of all, both men are super charismatic, very outgoing, extremely friendly. And, of course, they’re two superstars, two legends of different fields. The third connection is Morgan played Mandela in a movie (Invictus) and Gary Player is from South Africa, so that’s a very good tie. That’s why they were looking forward to playing together. They’ve never played golf together before.

 

And Gary Player has a long-time connection with Mission Hills.

Yes, but it’s his first time to Mission Hills Haikou. I remember Gary Player was the very first legendary golfing superstar to visit Mission Hills (in Shenzhen) back in 1994. My father hosted the first tournament for Mission Hills, a charity tournament, and Gary came as the guest of honour, so I’ve known Gary for exactly two decades.  Great man. He’s super fit. He can challenge anybody all ages in the gym. He still does like a thousand crunches every day. He’s super fit for his age – not just for his age, for all ages.

 

How does it come about that stars like Morgan Freeman, Jessica Alba, Nicole Kidman and Chris Evans are all attending? How do you choose your Hollywood stars?

Obviously they’ve got to be very well known in China to begin with, and second, they’ve got to love the sport, love golf. And then I think it’s a good thing that we come together collectively as a whole to promote international friendship through golf and collectively promote and popularise the game of golf. I think to begin with, we have got to have some core values that are connected, that we share. So with a shared core value, it makes everything much easier.

 

Morgan Freeman with Tenniel Chu (left), Vice Chairman of Mission Hills Group, and Dr. Ken Chu (right), Chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group, after arriving at Mission Hills Haikou. Photos: Power Sport Images for Mission Hills.

Morgan Freeman with Tenniel Chu (left), Vice Chairman of Mission Hills Group, and Dr. Ken Chu (right), Chairman and CEO of Mission Hills Group, after arriving at Mission Hills Haikou. Photo: Power Sport Images for Mission Hills.

Of the sports stars and celebrities who have come to Mission Hills Haikou, who has most impressed you?

Last year Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy came (for The Match at Mission Hills) and for sure, Tiger makes a huge impact. But if you follow the crowd in the next two days, you’ll see Yao Ming makes a huge crowd. And Morgan … a lot of people are signed up to watch Morgan. The toughest part is making sure that everybody gets to see their favourite stars on the golf course. Also, we have got to really educate the crowd on golf etiquette.

 

What’s the main objective of the World Celebrity Pro‑Am?

Three objectives. It’s creating a much bigger platform, East meets West, for culture and sports exchanges. As you know, China has many years of economic and social exchanges, but I want to enhance, to promote even further, the cultural and sporting arena for East meets West. That’s reason No. 1.

 

The second reason is to promote and popularise the game of golf for China. And the third reason is promote Hainan as an international tourism island, hopefully to attract many more foreign visitors and tourists to come to China’s only tropical island.

 

Has the tournament achieved its objectives?

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“We promote golf by using the evergy of the stars,” Chu says. Portraits; SportAsia.

Yes. Every year the coverage is growing and obviously I see the fans, the crowd, is increasing. I remember when we held the first edition (in 2010), the golf population was close to 4 million. Now, a few years later, it’s 6 million and it’s continuing to grow.

 

We promote golf, popularise the game of golf, by using the energy of the stars. It helps a lot, because if you’re a non‑golfer, you wouldn’t tune in to television to watch golf or even go to a golf course to see golfers play.

 

That’s what bringing the stars helps a lot with, popularising the game of golf, because you see a lot of fans who have never been to a golf course. This is like an open house for them, so you see girls walking around the golf course in heels and skirts, because golf in this part of the world is still very green, very young.

 

People do not understand golf that well. As a result, they come to see stars, so they think they have to really dress up for it. They put on their cocktail dress, but they don’t know they have to walk eight kilometres to see all the stars and be outdoors all the time. But it’s a good way to introduce the game of golf.

 

And the same thing is having a lot of people tuning in. This broadcast will be feeding into 400 million households in China this weekend and then we have 204 countries and regions covering this tournament live and delayed live, depending on the hours. It’s the biggest coverage we’ve ever had and obviously the stars helped a lot. It reaches all the countries and regions, similar to the Olympics. And that’s what we want to do, because golf has returned back to the Olympics for 2016, so we want to promote more juniors to participate in this game.

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“More direct flights between Korea and Hainan Island will further promote golf tourism.”

 

Mission Hills has enhanced its connections with Korea this year and several Korean superstars are attending this year’s Pro-Am. Is that a key market for tourism for Hainan and Mission Hills?

Completely. As you know, Korea has a lot of golfers; in fact, maybe the strongest golfers in all of Asia. And they love to travel, golf tourism, because it’s cold in the winter and as a result Hainan is a perfect match.

 

In the past, we – as in Hainan Island – have peaked in hosting 700,000 golfers in one winter. Now, more direct flights between Korea and Hainan Island will further promote golf tourism for both countries, because both our leaders have had very close ties and meetings recently, two months ago.

 

They are collectively promoting to enhance both countries’ tourism, outbound and inbound of China and Korea. They want to increase it from 4 million visitors a year to 10 million per year in the coming four to six years.

 

 

Do you see Hainan as potentially competing with the likes of Hawaii and Guam for golf tourism from Korea and Japan?

It’s a cheaper flight (laughs). It’s more affordable in this part of the world.

 

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“We’re making golf into a no-barrier, no-membership, pay-as-you-play, affordable sport.”

How is Mission Hills helping the game of golf in China?

You may feel that golf is still a very expensive sport in this part of the world, that it’s a rich man’s game. But that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, changing the forefront of golf – not just for Hainan but for China – by promoting this 10‑course facility we have here in Haikou, Hainan, as the largest public golf course in the world.

 

Largest means that golf is no longer a rich man’s game. It’s an affordable game. Plus, there are two courses that are designated for juniors under 16 to play golf for free year round.

 

So hopefully we’re able to bring up the next Tiger Woods of China by promoting junior golf, but also by breaking the barrier for membership system for the golf club.  This is the only public golf course in China, the largest collective volcanic rock golf courses, plus the largest collection of public golf course. So now we’re making golf into a no-barrier, no-membership, pay-as-you-play, affordable sport.

 

How does your business model at Mission Hills Haikou compare to the 12-course Mission Hills resort that spans Shenzhen and Dongguan in Guangdong province?

Shenzhen was built like 22 years ago, so it’s pretty much built out. And of course right now we are doing a commercial development as well as 500,000 square metres of HOPSCA, which is an international urban planning terminology that stands for hotel, office, park – as in a lot of greenery – shopping, club or convention and apartments.

 

We’re developing a mixed-use development in Shenzhen making golf the same thing, a family sport. It’s a very mature market. Instead of putting up a lot of apartments, we want to make golf a family sport and that’s why we’re introducing all these mixed‑use commercial developments, whereas here in Hainan, it’s a different market. It’s a tourism market, whereas Shenzhen is a business, economic market.  That’s why the product has to be different.

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