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Golf drives Chinese investors

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Chang Jian Zhang from Hangzhou, China, plays a round of golf at Dove Canyon Golf Club in Dove Creek, Calif. The course was bankrolled by Chinese investors. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Chang Jian Zhang from Hangzhou, China, plays a round of golf at Dove Canyon Golf Club in Dove Creek, Calif. The course was bankrolled by Chinese investors. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Eight years ago, Du Sha cashed out his chain of home-improvement centers – the first superstores of their kind in China – with a sale to Home Depot for $100 million.

Today, with a net worth of more than $600 million, the former economics professor has taken up the conventional pastime for those with money and time: golf.

Du has bigger plans than reducing his handicap. Teaming with a Canadian golf executive, he has bankrolled Pacific Links International, which now owns 10 high-end U.S. courses, including last year’s $20 million purchase of Dove Canyon Golf Club, in a private community abutting the Cleveland National Forest in south Orange County.

Du and other wealthy Chinese investors are quickly adding golf courses to their growing portfolios of U.S. holdings. In the last year, Chinese investors have bought prime properties including the 2,000-acre Sea Trail Golf Resort, built around three Sunset Beach, N.C., courses, along with smaller ones, such as Rancho Duarte Golf Club, a 9-hole, par-31 course built on a former dump in California’s San Gabriel Valley.

“We’re seeing a lot of tires getting kicked by the Chinese,” said broker Jeffrey Woolson in Carlsbad, Calif., managing director for golf and resorts at real-estate services giant CBRE Group Inc. “They only recently came forward and started buying. They do love golf, so it makes sense.”

The influx is restoring the fortunes of some unprofitable clubs such as Dove Canyon, where Pacific Links has committed $6.2 million to refurbishments.

The investments also mark the third wave of golf course purchases by Asian investors. Unlike the Japanese and the South Koreans before them, the Chinese are buying at the bottom of the market. But they are entering an overbuilt industry that has suffered from declining American interest in golf since well before the Great Recession drove many courses into bankruptcy.

The purchases of U.S. golf courses follows a long series of investments by wealthy Chinese in other areas – from California Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet housing project in Oakland to the AMC Theatres chain. Chinese investors also have purchased Sheraton hotels in Universal City and at Los Angeles International Airport and helped ignite such red-hot California housing markets as Arcadia and Irvine.

Major Chinese investments in U.S. businesses doubled to $14 billion last year – and added $8 billion more in the first three months this year, according to Rhodium Group, a New York economic consulting firm.

Thilo Hanemann, Rhodium’s research director, said wealthy Chinese individuals and companies are rushing to get money out of China, where the government is trying to gently deflate a property bubble, and into U.S. real estate and entertainment.

“Most Chinese have 90 percent of their assets in China, and most of that is in real estate,” Hanemann said. “It was a great place to be over the last 10 years. They made a lot of money. But the domestic Chinese market is now very fragile. And from an investment perspective, it’s not good to put all your assets in one basket.”

Banned as bourgeois excess under dictator Mao Zedong, golf started gaining appeal in China in the 1980s as courses began springing up, often designed by American firms as enticements for buyers of expensive adjacent housing.

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