In China, a new golf hazard: killer smog

Adam Minter / Bloomberg News /


This weekend, the Ladies Professional Golf Association demonstrated its willingness to sacrifice player safety for its own long-term financial health.

The occasion was the conclusion of the Reignwood LPGA Classic — the LPGA’s first tournament in China. The importance of this event for the association’s desired future in China’s rapidly expanding golf market cannot be underestimated. At the top of the leaderboard going into Sunday’s final round was Guangzhou-born Shanshan Feng. As the LPGA website announced, “This week is all about ... Shanshan Feng.”

Unfortunately for the LPGA, last week has also been all about air pollution. Since last weekend, Beijing has been swamped in polluted air that intermittently breaches “hazardous” levels, as determined by the U.S. embassy in Beijing’s air-quality monitor (the Beijing government’s air-quality stations have measured similar levels). The situation has been ugly enough that according to guidelines posted by the State Department, “active” adults and children “should avoid all outdoor exertion.”

A professional golf tournament may not require the physical exertion of a soccer game, but it does require quite a significant amount of time outdoors. At the Reignwood LPGA Classic, days traversing golf courses have taken their toll.

“The smog that’s coming in right now, it’s making it heavy, and it’s harder to breathe out there,” American Jessica Korda said on Friday. “You cough a lot.”

Players and caddies have been photographed wearing face masks against a smoggy backdrop (notably, none of those images appear on the LPGA website).

On Saturday, the LPGA delayed third-round tee times for 90 minutes, but then allowed the tournament to go on — despite the fact that the U.S. embassy air-quality readings remained at “hazardous” levels for much of the day. These dangerous air-pollution levels persisted into the night and led the U.S. embassy to issue an emergency alert for American citizens early Sunday morning. It read, in part:

“The Embassy would like to notify you that the Beijing Embassy air monitor Air Quality Index (AQI) readings have averaged over 300 in the 24-hour period beginning at 8:00 pm on October 4, and were over 400 overnight.

“According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommendations, AQI levels above 301 are considered hazardous. The EPA recommends that, at AQI levels above 301, everyone should avoid all physical activities outdoors.”

The final round of the Reignwood tournament was scheduled to tee off at 8:25 a.m. Sunday. The LPGA, perhaps realizing the magnitude of the public-relations hit it might endure if it allowed golfers to play a highly publicized final round in such hazardous conditions, but unwilling to offend the Chinese hosts of its new tournament, posted an announcement to its website:

“REIGNWOOD LPGA CLASSIC FINAL ROUND DELAYED FOR HEAVY FOG,” it read. “Due to low visibility, the start of the final round has been delayed by 90 minutes to 9:55.”

Fog — real fog — has delayed LPGA events in the past (as recently as in June at the U.S. Women’s Open in Southampton, N.Y.), and thus it’s entirely possible that the LPGA was making a sincere effort to deal with low visibility, rather than the negative health effects of the air. Yet the fact that the LPGA resorted to using the state-owned Chinese news media’s long-time favorite means of downplaying the dangers of smog — simply label it “fog” — suggests the association may have known the scope of the problem and decided to minimize it. That doesn’t exactly show a commitment to player and spectator health and safety. As detailed on the U.S. embassy’s website, the effects of breathing what by 9:55 a.m. had been officially downgraded to “very unhealthy” air include:

“Significant aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly; significant increase in respiratory effects in general population.”

That’s an improvement over the “hazardous” air that players and spectators would have been breathing at 8 a.m. But it still doesn’t reflect favorably on the LPGA, which has shown that nothing — not even the health of its star players — is so important as the financial benefits of establishing itself in China’s golf market. Toward that end, it certainly didn’t hurt that early Sunday evening Shanshan Feng won the tournament.