China focus: The 19th hole

Golf is taking off in China to the point where it will soon have the largest golfing population on the planet. Vision reports

Rory McIlroy might have enjoyed all the plaudits at the top of golf’s rankings this year, but when Hennie Otto rolled in a putt in Turin early in September, it was just as crucial for the little-known South African as winning a major. He’d confirmed his place at the climax of golf’s prestigious European Tour season, the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai. To qualify, he had played everywhere from Ireland to South Africa, Malaysia to Spain. And, in April, Otto tied for 13th at the Genzon Golf Club, Shenzhen, and it was this minor result at the Volvo China Open that went a long way to giving Otto a shot at glory.

Increasingly, golf’s major players are calling in on China as interest in the sport builds in the country and the courses improve. The European Tour visits China three times over the course of its 48-week season, including two prestigious events in the Final Series – the tension-building three-week swing that decides the 60 players who will compete in the afore-mentioned Race to Dubai finale. And golf in China is not just making its mark on the world stage at a professional level. Interest is now percolating down to the grassroots.

“China is certainly going to be fascinating to watch in terms of its golf over the next decade,” says Shaun McGuckian, former editor of pioneering magazine GolfPunk. “Its intention is to try and get two per cent of the population playing golf – it doesn’t sound much, but it will of course make them the largest golfing population on the planet.”

Tianlang Guan
At just 14, Tianlang Guan became the youngest golfer to play in the US Masters

With golf development taking place at a phenomenally rapid rate, it’s no surprise that China is beginning to develop its own stars, too. McGuckian thinks the fact that golf is part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio has helped the profile of the sport both world-wide and in China. When the Olympic announcement was made, way back in 2009, Executive Director of Guangdong Province’s famous Mission Hills golf courses, Tenniel Chu, celebrated how far the sport had come, telling The Wall Street Journal “golf is no longer an elitist sport – it’s an official sport in the Chinese world”.

Chu was proved right. While Rio celebrated the award of the 31st Olympiad, Guangzhou’s Tianlang Guan was looking forward to his 11th birthday. Incredibly, just four years later, he became the youngest player ever to make the cut in a major championship – the US Masters. As with Rory McIlroy, Guan’s father had introduced him to the game as an infant, and if more children want to pick up clubs in China after seeing Guan’s early success, then they’ll certainly have the opportunities to do so.

“Absolutely,” agrees McGuckian. “With a bigger profile and more access to facilities, it will surprise no one if we soon have Chinese professionals winning golf’s top events. China is already producing prodigiously talented teenage golfers.”

There is a lot of development being undertaken in China, but it would do well to focus on the quality of golfing experience ahead of how nice the hotel is

Former editor , GolfPunk

These amateurs have been encouraged by grassroots programmes that build players from the ground up, regardless of their background. Greg Norman, a former World No 1, started off helping to build golf courses in China and giving clinics before becoming advisory coach to the Chinese National Golf Team.

Globally recognised names have got in on the act too; HSBC sponsors the HSBC China Junior Golf Programme - a sustain-able long-term structure and framework upon which the future of Chinese golf is being developed. This includes a year-long series of tournaments, designed to give China’s elite junior golfers the competitive platform they need to develop their game.

Tianlang Guan is still an amateur – albeit “a very talented golfer with a great future ahead”, as Mike Kerr, Chief Executive of the Asian Tour, notes. Kerr is just as encouraged, however, by the progression of the professional game in China. “Over the last decade, we have witnessed the emergence of great Chinese players such as Liang Wen-Chong, one of the country’s most well-known golfers on the international stage, and the winner of the coveted Asian Tour Of Merit in 2007,” he says. “Wu Ashun, who came through the ranks on the Asian Tour before going on to win on the Japan Golf Tour, is another top golfer to watch out for and has been consistently one of the world’s top 200 golfers over the past two years. It’s been very exciting to watch his development.

Alexander Levy
Alexander Levy celebrates winning the China Open, one of three European Tour events staged annually in China

“Then there are younger players coming up through the ranks, including Hu Mu and 23-year-old Ye Jian-feng, who plays on our Asian Development Tour. They have the potential to establish themselves as top players like Liang.”

The Asian Tour plays an important role in offering Chinese players opportunities in its tournaments, and part of its 10-year vision set out in 2013 is to turn all these exciting young players into winners.

“The Asian Tour will be represented by more than 10 of our members at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro, but we want the Tour to produce one medal winner by the 2020 Olympics,” he says. “By 2023, the idea is that Asians will make up three to four players of the world’s top 10, and we are optimistic of achieving these objectives.

“Look at Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee. He has progressed through the Asian Tour to become not just the highest-ranked Asian player but one of the top 50 golfers in the world.”

“There is a lot of development being undertaken in China, but it would do well to focus on the quality of golfing experience ahead of how nice the hotel is,” warns McGuckian. “That has always been the key driver in bringing both corporate professional tours and casual tourists to the course. Golfers will travel the earth to play brilliant golf courses.”

And China, increasingly, is beginning to build them.