Red Tide Burning


In golf, like much of the world’s industry, a red tide is taking over. China’s Reignwood Group promises to be a force to be reckoned with and more.

BY Justine Moss

There is also a very ambitious project to build the world’s first indoor golf course in Beijing and discussions are already under way with legendary golfer and design maestro, Jack Nicklaus.

It has no reciprocal rights with other courses in China but does have a ‘sister relationship’ with Nine Bridges Country Club in South Korea and Tanah Merah Country Club in Singapore.

It’s been a busy year for the Reignwood Group, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year.  Headquartered in Beijing, the conglomerate is headed by Chairman Dr. Chanchai Ruayrungruang who is also Chairman of Redbull Group, and is active in four major growth sectors including consumer products, lifestyle, industrial and financing.

With Dr. Chanchai being a avid golfer, the game of golf has played a major part in the lifestyle division of the group which has already seen the acquisition of the iconic Wentworth Golf Club in Surrey, England this year and the return of the US$2.1 million Reignwood LPGA Classic that recently concluded with South Korean Mirim Lee edging out Caroline Hedwall and Stacy Lewis for only her second professional win in her career.

There is also a very ambitious project to build the world’s first indoor golf course in Beijing and discussions are already under way with legendary golfer and design maestro, Jack Nicklaus.

At the heart of all this, where all dreams began, is the private and members only facility called Reignwood Pine Valley Golf Club. Home to a Polo Club, golf villas, a five-star hotel and a health management and fitness centre, its two 18-hole golf courses designed also by Nicklaus, in addition to a nine-hole tract is a focal part of the social fabric of the well-heeled in the capital city.  That is perhaps the reason why they hold enough clout to stage a buyout over one of England’s most exclusive golfing treasures, the Wentworth Golf Club, for £135 million pounds from restaurant entrepreneur Richard Caring.

The acquisition was part of a plan which was mapped out five years ago by the Reignwood Group to develop modern services, businesses including golf courses, hotels and high-end real estate projects. The Group stresses that while it will keep the original team in place at the club, it will gradually introduce some of its own culture into Wentworth. 

“We are different from many other Chinese enterprises which are also going global. We have a different approach. Localisation is our top priority,” explains Yasmin Lu, President of Beijing Reignwood Classic Culture & Sports Development Ltd Co., who is also part of the takeover team. “We always advocate exchanges between the east and west so appropriately we will introduce elements of our own culture, Asian or eastern business culture and even economic culture. Gradually we will also introduce our members to play there,” she says.

However, this is not a one-off purchase, and the Reignwood Group is currently involved in the possible acquisition of other high-end iconic golf courses across Europe and North America.

“For our group there are two fronts of equal importance - one is golf related businesses or modern health service businesses and the other is the thirst consumer products such as Vita Coco and Red Bull and health-related products introduced from abroad,” offers Lu, continuing, “I can confirm when it comes to golf, international acquisition is very high on our agenda. We’re not only looking for iconic brands which fit into our strategy and culture, we are also looking at the possibility of building our own courses overseas using international designers. That will depend on the market status and our judgment on how well we can fit into that local environment.”

While that remains a strategy for the future, the present holds a much more interesting prospect with the impending construction on the world’s first indoor golf course.

“Jack Nicklaus is working with us in terms of designing the indoor golf course and we are trying to build it within the area of nine holes but for players able to play 18 holes. Maybe there will be two tees and two greens and golfers can play back and forth,” explains Galba Zheng, President of Reignwood Pine Valley Golf Club for the past decade.

As Beijing is a city with very sharp seasonal differences and changes, he states that with this project, golfers will be able to play all year round. “Dr Chanchai has always had this vision for Beijing players to still enjoy golfing even during winter. The plan has been on our minds for four years,” he reveals.  

“We actually had previously looked at kicking off construction before the end of 2014, but we are now going through some new approval procedures with the government so possibly and hopefully we’ll be able to do it next year.”  A microclimate will be created in the indoor golf course and the club will grow organic turf with a minimum or zero use of chemicals and fertilizers.

Over the years the club has hosted the Volkswagen Golf Cup, Johnnie Walker Classic and the Pine Valley Beijing Open. This year saw the second Reignwood LPGA Classic on the Nicklaus course, which attracted the top women professionals in the world including Stacy Lewis, Inbee Park, defending champion Shanshan Feng, Suzann Pettersen, Na Yeon Choi, Yani Tseng, So Yeon Ryu and of course, eventual winner Mirim Lee. 

They were joined by other LPGA members in addition to 15 China LPGA players including Yanhong Pan and 16-year-old Yuting Shi who turned professional just before this event. She finished a credible 14th, taking home her first prize pot of just over $32,000. The club has a three-year contract with the LPGA so the highly prized event will return in 2015.

The 400-member golf club, where individual membership costs US$400,000 and corporate membership is $880,000, is ranked as one of the top golf courses in China and has won numerous accolades and awards. It has no reciprocal rights with other courses in China but does have a ‘sister relationship’ with Nine Bridges Country Club in South Korea and Tanah Merah Country Club in Singapore. So what makes it so exclusive?  

According to Zheng, one aspect is the unique combination of scenery (the club is surrounded by mountains) and proximity to the city. He adds, “It is also important to have a big name like Jack Nicklaus which makes it well known and recognised. Regarding the maintenance of the courses, we have the best people with very rich professional and strong maintenance experience and all have been with the club at least five years and some up to 12 years. Also our hardware for the maintenance is incomparable with any other course in China. We also listen to people’s feedback through various tournaments and how they evaluate and comment on our services.”

Zheng has been president since 2004, and is keenly aware of what works and does not with the club and its membership. “We are also taking this (LPGA) tournament as a branding opportunity and also to introduce golf to people in China by bringing in a high level international tournament to their door. It’s our corporate social responsibility to do this instead of just calculating how much we can get in return. In addition, such a high level tournament will help Chinese players play alongside some of the worlds best so they can accumulate more experience in their efforts to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.”

Part of that commitment is the continued development of junior golf. In 2010, the Reignwood Group donated RMB100 million towards the cause. Says Zheng, “We have been very committed to the development of junior golf in China. We have a nine-hole course exclusively for these young kids who can practice on it and play for free. We also host tournaments for junior golfers and have a Team Reignwood for young players.” He adds, “We invite children of our members to learn golf and invite other young kids who have performed well in other junior events to our golf course. We have weekly lessons and invite international coaches to teach the young kids to play golf.” 

As for future development and growth of this relatively young game in the world’s most populous country, the longstanding president shares that the group has its plans already well in place.

“We have a global perspective and we hope by integrating golf into our overall strategy of helping to introduce it to the public about our vision for a positive and healthy green lifestyle, golf should be a very important part of it.  It is not exclusive because the Reignwood Group has other businesses to focus on and we want to show the Chinese that by introducing golf, a positive lifestyle can be like this. The game is not only a sport but also a lifestyle,” he reiterates.

Eco-friendly investments and the development of green communities are at the heart of the Reignwood Group’s ethos – their logo features two pine trees and starting from the first event last year, a tree will be planted at Pine Valley Golf Club in honour of the reigning champion of the LPGA Reignwood Classic.   

Commenting on this, Zeng says, “The Reignwood Group believes strongly in the benefits of a healthy and active lifestyle, and in respecting our natural surroundings. We are also acutely aware of the environmental challenges that we face both here in China and around the world and feel that planting trees is a simple but very positive message that the tournament can deliver.”

And as to whether a similar LPGA event will one day played at Wentworth Golf Club (it did play host to the Curtis Cup back in 1932, a women’s amateur event started by amateurs Harriot and Margaret Curtis), Ms. Lu answers, “Primarily the acquisition was the product of our group’s global strategy.  Wentworth Golf Club was the venue for a few very important tournaments including the BMW PGA tournaments. There is a possibility that we may bring a ladies tournament there someday.”

Of course, now that they own it, they get to call the shots.