TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- The LPGA will miss China for a fourth year on its Asia swing that is on its way from South Korea to Taiwan this week and en route to Japan.The official line: Problems with the golf course scuttled events proposed in China over the past two years. China has hardly missed out on golf, however, and the LPGA expects to get the problem fixed soon, Commissioner Michael Whan told me this week in Taipei. Still, the exclusion leads a list of rough patches along the course marking China's rise from a nation that once banned golf as bourgeois. Now some of the world's top club developers and equipment makers are watching China's growing golf markets. Over the past few years, eager, experimental Chinese consumers have followed their Western counterparts and their own country's elite by relaxing on the green. But golf development in China, also supported by the country's land mass, has skulked its way from the ban 28 years ago to a quasi-legal and controversial sport today. Meaning, there's huge investment potential but watch it. With golf gingerly morphing from a rich-only sport to a middle-class one, so many courses have been built that government officials fret that fairways will displace farms. More than 600 courses operate in China today, up from 170 in 2004. Some are technically illegal according to the country's increasingly rigid laws protecting the environment and the small villages that can be wiped out by greens spanning just a few holes. But it's China. When rich people and developers want something, they tend to get it. The best-known course is Mission Hills, which has built two complexes in China with a third in the works. Its 216-hole course in Shenzhen is the world's biggest. An exclusive peer, the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, hosts the HSBC Championships. More typical are smaller, private courses that function as outdoor rec rooms for swanky gated communities. For example, a 27-hole project (with a five-star hotel) called the Taiyuan Luxuriance International Golf Club is under construction in Shanxi Province.
Neil Haworth, a chief architect with Singapore-based golf course developer Nelson & Haworth, has been quoted saying 2012 is a comeback year for golf development in China after it shakes off the crush of regulations. One golf-related firm that might already be in an American investor's stock portfolio is Hyatt ( H), which runs hotels at country clubs in China. It operates a hotel at the 27-hole Regal Riviera Golf Club in Jing Jin City and sells packages to the Westlake International Golf & Country Club in Hangzhou, for example. Hyatt share prices are edging up as income grows on hospitality demand since the 2008-2009 global financial crisis. Back in the equipment shack, American gear seller Callaway ( ELY) is flirting with some of its lowest share prices since the early 1990s, before tumbling almost for good in 1998. A chief executive who took over in March is trying to turn the company around. Could China help? The company that started its China division four years ago now has about 100 outlets and annual turnover of 100 million yuan, the official China Daily newspaper reported last year. China's overall golf market was worth 3 billion yuan per year in 2010, the newspaper says. China Daily also calls Titleist the most popular golf ball brand in China. When sports clothier Fila Korea (081660.KS) agreed last year to buy the brand, its share prices jumped (they have come way down since then). A positive spin on golf should also lift business for the likes of Rio Tinto (RIO.L) or Sumitomo Titanium (SUMA.MU). Both make titanium for the heads of golf clubs and have seen steady share prices post 2009. Add to these the standard big-name makers of shoes, shirts and bags. Sports equipment is already expected to enjoy a boost from China's No. 2 performance in the London summer Olympics. But traps loom in the way of China's golf development. The country has produced no globally known legends to serve as role models -- as Taiwan's 23-year-old Yani Tseng does for younger athletes in her homeland or as ex-NBA star and Chinese national Yao Ming does for basketball fans in China.
Another trap, common Chinese tend to see golf as an exclusive sport for people who illegally earned the money and free time to play. Concerns about ill-gotten country club dues may lurk behind some of the rules on new golf course construction. When I interviewed a golfer in Beijing about 10 years ago about how the sport was starting to catch on, he asked me as many questions as I asked him and resisted giving his full name. This hush-hush climate could frustrate branding efforts by overseas firms linked to golf. "My take on golf in China is that it's growing rapidly, much like women's ice hockey in the U.S.," says Larry DeGaris, academic sports marketing program director at the University of Indianapolis in the United States. "It's going from very little to something but we're still talking about a speculative venture here. There's a lot of speculation about a burgeoning Chinese middle class but it's going to take a very long time before golf is a viable mass market leisure activity there." Investors, hold your swing until China produces humble world golf champion who appeals to China's middle-class. That breakthrough will give the sport the legitimacy it needs for foreign brands to flourish. Follow @ChinaWatchRalph This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.