contributor perspectives

The 'Fairway Theory of History' Appears to Hit the Mark

Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
5 MINS READOct 15, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
This photo shows a Chinese tourist photographing the derelict golf course at the shuttered Mount Kumgang resort in North Korea.

This photo taken on September 1, 2011 shows a Chinese tourist taking photos of a golf course which has been closed for over three years at the Mount Kumgang international tourist zone in North Korea. Once a thriving resort and a symbol of cooperation between Seoul and Pyongyang, shops in North Korea's Mount Kumgang are now shut, hotels vacant and the golf course empty, as the lush region opened in 1998 as a jointly-run scenic spot for South Koreans, but tours there were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a visitor from the South who had strayed into a restricted zone in July 2008.

(GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)
  • In 2009, Richard Haass, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, put forward the 'fairway theory of history,' an observation that the number of golf courses in a country roughly parallels its openness.
  • He used golf course distribution on the Korean Peninsula, with hundreds of courses in South Korea compared with just one in the North, to bolster the idea.
  • The theory appears to hold true for China, where the number of courses declined after President Xi Jinping began his power consolidation efforts.

Whether taking a turn on the local course or watching the pros ply their trade, golf has long held a fascination for me. It has a reputation as a sport for the well-off, but it has made strides to attract players of all income levels. And its magical moments are available to anyone who has access to a television. Watching coverage of the recent Tour Championship and hearing the roar of thousands of spectators greeting former phenom Tiger Woods on the 18th green as he put the exclamation point on his first victory since 2013 is something I will never forget.

Beyond its value as entertainment and exercise, however, golf can provide geopolitical insight, at least according to a theory advanced by Richard Haass, the long-serving president of the venerable Council on Foreign Relations. In an article titled "What Golf Teaches Us About Geopolitics" and published in Newsweek magazine in September 2009, Haass argued that the links game offered a useful lens through which to think about the world. His thesis was that a country's relationship with the game to a large degree matched the degree of its economic and political openness. Growth in the former, he asserted, usually occurred alongside growth in the latter; and the reverse was also true. As for what lay behind this relationship, Haass wrote: "It is not just that the game tends to flourish in countries that welcome tourists, who can bring new ideas along with their bags of clubs. Large numbers of golf courses reflect the emergence of a domestic middle class, the traditional foundation of democracy. And they suggest a society where citizens not only enjoy leisure time but take basic security for granted."

This possessed important implications for those looking to understand the United States' challenges abroad. "Countries that have numerous golf courses tend to be friendlier toward the United States," Haass wrote. "Governments closing golf courses tend to be the most anti-American of all. Think of it as the fairway theory of history."

Haass used the geographic dispersion of golf courses on the Korean Peninsula to bolster his argument, noting that the situation in South Korea, a staunch U.S. ally of many years, stands in strong contrast to that of its rival to the north. Following the fairway theory, it would come as no surprise that 444 golf facilities exist south of the Demilitarized Zone, at least according to a 2017 report by the R&A, the organization that puts on the British Open. In contrast, golfers have only one choice if they want to play a round in the Hermit Kingdom — the Pyongyang Golf Course.

'Governments closing golf courses tend to be the most anti-American of all.' — Richard Haass

Although it went unmentioned by Haass, the situation in Japan also supports his theory. Indeed, the place of the game in the country seems especially revealing about the state of the national economy. During the 1980s economic boom, golf course construction entered a state of frenzy. Thousands of new facilities opened and fairways became important places of business networking and negotiation. But the bust years that followed led to stagnation from which the game has never recovered. National Public Radio reported in November 2017 that the sport's popularity was down some 40 percent since 1996. Even so, this long-standing friend to the United States remains a major market for golf and is home to the third-largest number of courses in the world, with 2,290, according to the R&A. (The United States, which has more than 15,000 courses, far and away ranks first in the R&A census; second-place Canada was not far ahead of Japan with 2,295.)

One cannot assess Asia without including China, of course. Like many observers at the time, Haass believed back in 2009 that China was slowly evolving into a more free and open society. The fruits of its economic reforms had by then demonstrated remarkable results. That expansion continued in the years that followed, and the country is today a true giant on the world scene. Even so, few still believe in the optimistic narrative of progressive change. As Stratfor readers well know, China's economic dynamism remains unquestioned. But the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping has taken an authoritarian turn. Its relationship with the United States is increasingly tense in a number of spheres. Immense effort has been made to deploy capabilities to counter U.S. military power in the area. It has also used economic leverage to undermine U.S. influence in the region. For its part, the United States is shifting its military focus toward the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to counter China and has slapped import tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese goods.

So does the fairway theory apply here, as well? A piece written by my colleague Tolga Ozyurtcu examined the Chinese leadership's oscillating attitude toward golf. Beginning in 2004, the sport in the country entered a period of sustained development; five years later, nearly 600 courses could be found there. At one point, golf was even included as a sport deserving of greater promotion in national policy guidance on the country's fitness and leisure industries.

But, as Ozyurtcu noted, the sport has fallen out of favor under Xi. A 2015 decree placed restrictions on golf that applied to China's Communist Party members. While governmental sensitivity on the subject cooled for a time, Xi ordered in January 2017 that over 100 golf courses be closed. This was followed by an announcement a few months later that all Communist Party officials were banned from the game. By the R&A's count, there were 383 golf facilities in China in 2017, almost 100 fewer than the organization noted in 2015.

The fairway theory, it seems, might still have relevance.

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