The British brought the game to Asia along with their Empire in the 1800s. In fact, the earliest golf club to be built outside the Great Britain and Ireland was the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, which was established in 1829. Today nearly every country on the continent has at least one golf facility, and a few are becoming major world golf destinations while at the same time catering to growing interest among the locals. Now there are perhaps 5000 courses from Pakistan to Japan, and they cater to millions of players every year.
Japan is far and away the Asian country that is most deeply invested in the game. Nearly half of the continent's courses are to be found here, and the country is second only to the US in terms of the number of players, with some 10 million. Golf here is particularly indebted to the work of Charles Alison, who came to Japan in the 1920s and with a number of layouts, especially those at Hirono and Kawana, taught the natives how courses could blend with their environments. The game returned in the Postwar period, with 1957 being the pivotal year, when the Canada Cup was held in Japan and won by the Japanese team. Hirono and Kawana remain the top clubs in the country, catering to the vibrant region around Tokyo, but there is a wide variety of golf experiences to be had here, from the mountains to the sea, and from temperate to tropical. Japan has its own tour (The Japan Tour), one of three (along with The Asian and Australasia Tour) that promote professional golf in the fragmented Asian market. And while no Japanese player has yet emerged as a major force on the world stage, there are a number of fine players who dominate the game within the country, including Ryo Ishikawa, Hideki Matsuyama and Yuta Ikea.
The opening of China over the past few decades has paved the way for golf to flourish in a brand new environment, despite the hostility of the government toward the game. Arnold Palmer took the lead in 1984 with the first full-sized course here, and there are now more than 600. One of these, Mission Hills near Hong Kong, is the world's largest golf complex, with 12 courses featuring designs by such famous player/architects as Ernie Els and Greg Norman, though another, Shanquin Bay, is generally considered the best course in China. Championship play has also come to the country, beginning with the 1995 Volvo China Open at the Beijing International Golf Club, and in 2005 HSBC inaugurated the Champions Tournament, which became a World Golf Championship in 2009, currently played at Sheshan Golf Club and considered as the Asian Major. Taiwan, which remained outside of communist influence, has always been more hospitable to the game than the mainland, and today boasts some 74 courses.
In terms of passion for the game, no Asian nation surpasses South Korea, where golf got started in the 1920s but really took off in the 1980s, and today this much smaller country is home to nearly as many courses (some 450) as China. Indeed, growth of the game is limited mainly by the lack of suitable land. Thus the major Korean golf destination is Jeju Island in the Sea of Japan, with 40 courses open for play, including the outstanding Nine Bridges, and more under construction.
Golf took root in India and Sri Lanka during the British occupation, as mentioned, with the construction of a dozen or so courses before Home Rule was achieved in 1955. It is in the past few decades, however, that the game has come into its own here, with the construction of more than 200 courses and more slated to open. In terms of tournament play, the India Open Championship was established in 1964, and a Professional Golf Tour of India was inaugurated in 2006.
In Thailand, the royal family took to the game when it was introduced in the early 1900s, and beginning in the 1950s more and more courses were built, in large part to accommodate tourists from Japan and Europe. Currently around 250 courses cater to natives and visitors, with the seaside courses of Phuket being especially popular, as followers of the Johnny Walker Asian Classic have learned.
Malaysia and Singapore were also introduced to the game fairly early on. An early championship was established in 1894 (albeit the players were European), and the Malaysian Open that debuted in 1962 has gone on to become an important stop on the Asian Professional Golf Tour. The two countries now support 200 or more courses, many of which make the most of the jungle and beaches that characterize the region.
Jakarta was the site of the earliest golf in Indonesia, established, again by the English, in 1872; that club, now the Jakarta Golf Club, remains the premier establishment in the country, though it no longer has what it takes to put on major events like the Indonesia and the Jakarta Open Championships. Recent Indonesian courses include designs by such famed architects as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman for the Damai Indah Golf Club and Nirwana Bali Golf Club, respectively.
Mention should also be made of Vietnam, which, despite its past conflicts with the West and its continued domination by a communist government, has emerged in recent years as a real hotspot for golf development. There are now some 30 courses open in the country, with more on the way, and more than 5,000 Vietnamese belong to the Vietnam Golf Association headquartered at Kings' Island Golf Club. The center of the game here is in the capital, Ho Chi Minh City, which boasts some superb scenic courses. There are also 5 courses at the tourist destination of Bà Rịa, including Greg Norman's design at Bluffs Ho Tram Strip, where players can experience Asian links golf.
When it comes to players, Asia has produced many, though certainly not yet its fair share, of outstanding athletes. South Korea is certainly doing its part, particularly its female players, such as Se Ri Pak who won the 1998 Women's Open, and Inbee Park, who is only the seventh female golfer to win four different majors and achieve a career Grand Slam. In fact, today more than half of the top female players in the world are Korean, as are 40 of the The Rolex Ladies World Top 100. And among male Korean players, Y.E. Yang bested Tiger Woods to clinch the US PGA Championship in 2009. Given the vigor of the game, particularly in East Asia, it is only a matter of time before more Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai and other Asian golfers begin winning more top tournaments, especially since there are already 11 Asian players ranked in the world top 100, the leader being Korean Byeong Hun An, who closed out 2015 at World Number 29 after being the first Asian named European Tour Rookie of the Year.