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On a recent morning in the southern Chinese city of Dongguan, Cindy Reid—expat golf pro, aspiring brand icon—is working closely with a pupil. "Chin out, buddy!" she yells. "You are only as good as your grip, buddy! Your grip is too strong, buddy!" After each comment, Reid's student, Jackson, a mystified 10-year-old boy in custom-made golf clothes, turns to the young Chinese interpreter employed by Reid. The boy, the son of a local industrialist, speaks no English, and Reid, who was born in New Jersey, speaks no Mandarin. But that doesn't stop her from charging $600 per hour to help 10-year-olds swing like pros. After Jackson hits a good shot, Reid rewards him with a new nickname. "Nice job, Rocky!" she yells, as the interpreter translates. "Whenever you hit a good shot, I call you Rocky!" (The interpreter translates that, too.) Then an even more mystified Jackson gets a high five from Reid, who has a team of instructors ready to keep him busy for several more expensive hours after she's done.
Reid, the force behind the Cindy Reid Golf Academy, is a pioneer of the American golf-pro diaspora. Her school, which opened three years ago at the exclusive Mission Hills golf club, 45 minutes from Hong Kong, has 2,000 part-time students, more than half of whom are kids. The former Ladies Professional Golf Assn. player is now focused on opening two more schools and transforming herself into the first expat golf pro brand. Reid appears regularly on the Golf Channel China and contributes golf insight to state-owned China Central Television. She's published several golf-based articles and books in Chinese and has a team of translators working on more. Reid is also preparing to star in a new reality series, Beautiful Golf, that begins this week. She hopes it will help her launch Cindy Reid-branded clothing, sunscreen, DVDs, and iPhone apps. "I've got a lot to do," she says.
The ambition of China's nouveaux riches to live like American nouveaux riches has launched an irrepressible golf economy: There are now more than two dozen Chinese golf magazines; Golf Channel China broadcasts 24/7; and Shenzhen University is one of several institutions of higher learning offering degrees in golf management. Not to be outdone, Hunan International Economics University recently began a graduate program. According to the official China Daily newspaper, the number of golf courses in the country has more than tripled since 2004—which happens to be the same year the government officially banned the construction of new courses. (Clever developers have found loopholes in the law—such as building "country clubs" rather than "golf courses.") Mission Hills alone has a dozen courses, designed by stars such as Ernie Els and Greg Norman. Says Reid: "It's amazing what they have here."
This is very good news for the golf instruction business, which, until recently, seemed to be in decline. "The golf market in the States is hurting," says Shay Smart, an American pro who teaches in Hong Kong and China, especially "if you're at Joe Blow Municipal." This was the harsh reality facing Mike Schield, a 25-year-old from Wisconsin who studied golf management at Methodist University in North Carolina. Schield struggled to find a teaching job after graduating, and settled for a gig at a Palm Springs (Calif.) club where he worked in the pro shop and herded carts. "This wasn't how I saw my life going," says Schield, who dreamed of being a real club pro. So in late 2009 he ventured to China and landed a job at Reid's academy. "A lot of young professionals are out there, and it's very difficult for them to find a job right now," he says. "But China is just booming."
To keep up with the momentum, Reid recruits American pros through the PGA's online job listings and travels to the States to interview candidates. Still, many pros emigrate on their own. "There's a net decrease in golf courses in the U.S.," says Jeff Olyniec, a 36-year-old Alabama native who works at China's Palm Island Resort, referring to the 107 courses that closed in the U.S. last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. "That's creating the desire to go where the money is." Olyniec, who estimates there are 50 to 75 PGA pros teaching in China, expects more to follow. "Golf is still very young [here]," says Chris Marrs, 32, a British pro who is the golf director at Palm Island. "The demand will always be here for us."
And the money is pretty good—at least for a golf pro. Reid employs four Chinese teachers, but the work ethic among her local staff sometimes bothers her. "They're a little lazy once in a while," says Reid. "They get comfortable with the amount of money that they're making." Foreign pros are a better bet, she says, since Chinese students are generally willing to pay more for lessons from them. Cleveland native Harry Boyd, 26, started at Reid's academy in 2009 and made a breakthrough when some Mission Hills members decided he looked like Tiger Woods. "That helped," says Boyd, an African-American. "It honestly got people to pay attention to me." He now has an overflowing list of students and is enjoying the eminence and wealth rarely proffered on golf pros back home. Most Chinese "want to suck all the golf knowledge out of you: How do you hit so far? Why do you hit it like that?" he says. "They want to get as much information as possible."
Reid hopes that sort of curiosity is the foundation of a golf-instruction empire. "In America, people sign up for six weeks [of lessons] and that's it. Here, they want 52 weeks. It's so new, they want to learn as much as they can from foreigners," she says. "They're open-minded and willing. They know they don't know it. They want your knowledge, your talent—and they're willing to pay anything for it." In China, her clients pay her about $150 more per hour than she was charging in the States. Reid knows that for some students, having a foreign teacher is a crucial mark of affluence. "They want to be able to tell their friends who they had lessons with," she says.
However, few émigré pros should expect to emulate Reid's success in the near future. Smart estimates that outsourced instructors might net $35,000 in their first year. Yet that figure can rise rapidly once they develop a stable of clients. In the golf-pro trade's version of the oldest profession, many instructors often hang out by the clubhouse, putting green, or driving range waiting to solicit wealthy Chinese—or at least their 10-year-old children—who have finished a round or another lesson. Yet not every pro has such patience. Reid, who currently employs four Western instructors, has seen 22 others come and go in three years. "A lot of the young guys I hire, they don't have the vision," she explains. "They're in it for the money."