Definitely maybe: where now for Chinese golf?

Golf is on the up in China: 14-year-old Guan Tianlang made global headlines when he made the cut at the Masters last month; now it’s the turn of 12-year-old Ye Wocheng, who tees off in the European Tour’s China Open on Thursday in Tianjin. And Nike is due to announce the signing of two Chinese golfers in the coming days, just one more sign that the sport stands on the verge of a breakthrough in China…perhaps. Here’s my Sports Talk column on the perils of overhyping teen (and pre-teen) phenoms:

Potential, promise, upside… These are just some of the buzzwords used to describe how good something or someone could become. Whether the terms are applied to a financial investment or a budding sports star, it’s a large part of creating excitement about the future.

Ye Wocheng, 12, will go into the record books on Thursday

But lost in the hype of what may be lies the other alternative: that the investment may actually lose money, or that the sporting phenom burns out before he or she becomes a teenager.

China, though, is often viewed as different, purely on a numbers basis. You only have to capture a fraction of the market, so the thinking goes, for the millions to start rolling in. Similarly, out of 1.3 billion people, surely someone will be the next Yao Ming, right? The truth, of course, is not that simple.

On Thursday in Tianjin, 12-year-old Chinese golfer Ye Wocheng will make history when he tees off at the Volvo China Open. This isn’t a local competition to which he’s been invited; it’s a sanctioned European Tour event, featuring a host of Ryder Cup stars, and Ye qualified by right.

Coming hot on the heels of Guan Tianlang’s remarkable success in the US – making the cut at both the Masters and the Zurich Open at the ripe old age of 14 – it’s put the spotlight firmly on Chinese golf, and the predictions have been wild.

Guan makes a cut, and he’s destined to be the next Tiger Woods. Ye qualifies for the China Open, and we can expect to see the Chinese dominate the world rankings for years to come.

Of course, both those things could happen, but the likelihood of them happening is still very small. Don’t expect the media to temper its hype, but all sports are littered with countless stories of former prodigies now consigned to the “Whatever happened to…?” category.

Andy Zhang hopes to qualify for the US Open again this year

The one factor that may help Guan and Ye realize their undoubted potential is that they are not alone. Beyond them, there is Andy Zhang who played in the 2012 US Open aged 14, and many others besides: At least five other Chinese teenagers are playing in Tianjin.

The expectations for these youngsters are – individually – suffocating, but the hope is that, together, they can both spur each other on, and share the pressure equally. After all, as Yao Ming showed, only one of them needs to make it at the highest level to revolutionize the sport in China.