China’s teenage swingers

Here’s my article in this month’s That’s Beijing magazine, which is now online, but was written before Dou Zecheng’s heroics at the China Open 10 days ago. The key to being the next Chinese golfing superstar? Money.

Last month, China’s 14-year-old golf sensation Guan Tianlang became not only the youngest player ever to tee off at the Masters in Augusta, but the youngest to make the cut at any PGA Tour event.

sport-of-nation_5d833a1808-520x270It was a remarkable achievement and one that made international headlines, but Guan is just one of a number of teens – and in some cases pre-teens – poised to put China on the golfing map permanently.

This month’s Volvo China Open, a sanctioned European Tour event, will feature 12-year-old Ye Wocheng, who will break Guan’s record as the youngest player to tee it up on tour. Also playing are 15-year-olds Andy Zhang, the youngest competitor in the history of the US Open, and Bai Zhengkai, winner of the Volvo China Junior Match Play Championship, as well as 17-year-old Jim Liu – born in New York to Chinese parents – who is the youngest ever winner of the US Junior Amateur.

Guan is the brat pack’s current leader, having been on the golfing radar since finishing fourth at the Junior World Golf Championships. It’s safe to say, though, that the 6-and-under division is slightly less competitive than going head-to-head with the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.

But aside from their age – and not inconsiderable talent – there is another factor that has helped propel the next generation of Chinese golfers: money. Dan Washburn, who is working on a book about the development of golf in China, admits that for the foreseeable future, “it will be very difficult for a Chinese golfer to reach elite status without spending a large chunk of his or her time overseas.” In other words, if you’re not a rich kid, forget it.

The two teens to have played in majors already – Guan and Zhang – both had families wealthy enough to relocate their sons to the US at an early stage. “That’s where the competition is. That’s where the coaching is. There are just too many obstacles in today’s China for the country to become an incubator of golfing talent,” says Washburn.

China’s golfing history is neither long nor illustrious: as recently as 2009, a (now defunct) China Tour event in Chengdu was won by a man, Chen Jian, who first picked up a club at the age of 25. His winner’s check was $26,000, part of which he sent home to his parents, who had absolutely no idea what golf was.

Given that the first wave of so-called “professionals” often worked as caddies and had to sneak onto courses at night to practice, the game has come a long way. Even so, it remains outside the 15 most popular sports in China, according to sport research group Gemba.

But there is hope for the future. Golf in China received a huge boost when it was added to the program for the 2016 Rio Olympics. As a result, China’s famously Olympic-obsessed sport system now allocates far more money to golf than in the past. Never mind that golf will offer a grand total of six medals each Olympics (as opposed to more than 100 up for grabs in the pool); if it’s on the Olympic schedule, then China is interested.

Another of China’s sporting obsessions is with foreign coaches, and Greg Norman has been tasked with identifying and coaching China’s best players in the run-up to Rio. His remit includes nutrition, mental training and course management, but unless he can unearth a new superpowered supplement (legal, of course), don’t expect any Chinese men to come within sight of the podium.

The women, though, have a genuine contender: Feng Shanshan is far from a household name, but she is arguably as good at golf as Li Na is at tennis: both are ranked in the world’s top 10, and each has one major title on their resume.

Tennis provides the best blueprint for golf to follow if it wants a seat at China’s top sporting table. As Washburn says, “Tennis was once saddled with many of the same stigmas currently attached to golf in China. It was a game for the wealthy. It was elitist.” But thanks in large part to Li Na’s success, tennis is now a now a viable option here for youngsters dreaming of superstardom.

No one expects China to turn into a golfing factory overnight, but with the right backing, there is a framework from which a star could emerge. If Feng Shanshan can win a few more majors – and she’s still only 23 – then who knows? Guan’s heroics, while admirable, still leave China a long way from having a top 100 player, and plenty of young stars have burnt out before reaching the top.

But as with everything China, it’s a numbers game. At some point, some of these teens will turn pro and some of those will start winning tournaments. When they do, watch out.

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