Golf’s Asian pivot

Bubba Watson’s second Masters title last weekend may have strengthened his challenge as a potential successor to Tiger Woods, but some compelling signs about the future direction of golf were seen at Augusta a few days earlier. Below is a real picture of the leaderboard at Augusta National, with the names Xu, Huang, Li and Cheng at the top, listed – correctly – as champions.

An unusual leaderboard at Augusta
An unusual leaderboard at Augusta

No Watson, Scott, Mickelson or Els? Well, these were the age group winners at the first ever “Drive, Chip and Putt” Championship, the finals of which were televised by the Golf Channel. 9-year-olds Kelly Xu and Treed Huang, and 11-year-olds Lucy Li and Leo Cheng are all based in the US, but it is significant that all four winners of the youngest age groups are from Chinese-American families, given that Asian-Americans account for a little over 5% of the entire US population, and Chinese-Americans make up approximately a quarter of that small group.

Front row (L-R): Lucy Li, 11, Leo Cheng, 11, Kelly Xu, 9, Treed Huang, 9.
Front row (L-R): Lucy Li, 11, Leo Cheng, 11, Kelly Xu, 9, Treed Huang, 9.

Let’s throw in a few qualifiers:

  • 9-year-old champions are far more likely to burn out in their teens than win major titles
  • There is more to winning golf tournaments than a drive, a chip and a putt
  • Tiger parents (as opposed to Tiger’s parents)
Kelly Xu 4'8" and 61 pounds “dripping wet,” according to her father.
Kelly Xu, fluent in Mandarin, is 4’8″ and 61 pounds “dripping wet,” her Dad says. She plans to go to a top university, then play on the LPGA Tour.

You could make an argument – albeit a tenuous one – that there are greater numbers of Asian/Chinese-Americans in warm weather states (these kids are from CA and TX), so it’s less surprising to see them playing golf, but the clean sweep at ages 7-11 appears more than coincidental.

Cheng, whose family hails from Beijing and Hong Kong, was, in true Augusta fashion, given a green jacket that his parents had bought on a recent trip to China; Li’s family is from Hong Kong; Xu’s grandparents live in China; Huang’s parents lived in Guangdong before emigrating in 1998.

Christine Wang finished 2nd in the girls 12-13 category
Christine Wang finished 2nd in the girls 12-13 category

These kids all have relatively close links to (greater) China and certainly fit the trend of a small, but growing, band of mainland parents putting their children through “home golf school“. Some kids, like these, hail from China but dream of playing golf in the US; others, like Chinese teens Andy Zhang and Guan Tianlang, already play much of their golf in the States; and others, like this quartet of Augustan champs, have grown up playing golf in the States.

But the point is that more young Chinese – whether by nationality or ethnicity – are playing golf than ever before, and they seem to be pretty damn good at it. You could make the case that golf’s cerebral, individualistic and non-contact elements all contribute to its popularity among Chinese parents. Add in the PGA Tour China Series that kicked off this week, and it seems clear that the so-called Asian pivot applies to the game of golf at least as much as it does to any US foreign policy initiative.

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