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Green golf students prepare to join the club

By Hu Yongqi and Pei Pei | China Daily | Updated: 2012-09-14 09:49

Green golf students prepare to join the club

Students receive coaching at the Hebei Institute of Physical Education in Shijiazhuang, capital of Hebei province. The institute is one of a small number of schools providing golf degrees in China. Liu Xiang / China Daily

The growing popularity of golf in China has seen an increase in the number of students opting to study the sport at degree level in colleges

While some of his high school classmates are still experiencing difficulty finding a job, Feng Jian has just been promoted. He now manages 100 caddies at a golf club in Beijing, just 12 months after graduation, thanks to his four-year study of the sport.

Two months before the national college entrance exam in 2007, Feng realized that his academic performance was unlikely to secure him entry to a high-ranking university. So the young man reasoned that his athletic abilities might give him a better chance at a sports college, where less emphasis is placed on academic ability.

The native of Xianghe county in Hebei province set about applying to become a golf major. He was accepted to study at Hebei Institute of Physical Education in Shijiazhuang, the provincial capital.

"I had no idea of the potential market for golf, but I fell in love with the sport almost as soon as I started learning," says Feng. "Later, two years of internship at various clubs convinced me that golf would be my career."

Last year, Feng was hired by Beijing Sigesen Golf Club, earning 5,000 yuan ($790, 613 euros) a month, plus free accommodation and other daily necessities.

He says he's content, especially as many classmates who chose other majors are much worse off than him. "I have to say my choice was right and my training has provided a lot more opportunities than other sports majors," says the 26-year-old.

Currently, about 100 universities and sports colleges offer courses in coaching, course maintenance and club management. The Hebei Institute has the largest number of students, 1,370, and since 2007, 470 of its graduates have moved on to work in the industry. Meanwhile, the golf college at Shenzhen University has produced more than 300 golf professionals since 1995.

As the sport becomes more acceptable and accessible in China, a growing demand for professionals has ensured that almost all golf graduates can opt to work at a club after university.

Although there are no official statistics on the value of the industry in China, a 2010 report published by the Huidian market research website calculated that the market was worth more than 60 billion yuan in 2009, an increase on the 47.9 billion yuan registered in 2006.

China's cradle of golf

The Hebei Institute was China's pioneer in golf studies. In 1985, the Hebei Committee of Sports - now Hebei Provincial Bureau of Sports - sponsored 11 promising players to study in Japan for three years, with the aim of producing seasoned instructors and players. Cui Zhiqiang, who led the trainee group, began teaching golf on his return to China in 1989.

Meanwhile, Cui's fellow trainees also started their careers as professional players or coaches, and one of them, Cheng Jun, won the Chinese Amateur Championship in 1990.

However, Shijiazhuang had no golf clubs at the end of the 1990s, and most of the trainees moved to Guangdong province to work at clubs there. Once they'd gained enough experience and money, a number of them started running their own clubs.

Meanwhile, Cheng and his classmates maintained close contact with the Hebei Institute and expressed their ambition to establish a degree course. In 2003, the school obtained approval to create a major in sports, specializing in golf. The first year saw an intake of 24 students.

In 2008, the school enrolled 118 students for a bachelor's degree. That number doubled in 2010 and this year there are 370 freshmen golf majors, accounting for almost 28 percent of the newcomers to the institute's seven sports majors.

As the Chinese idiom says, the first step is the hardest. In the first four years, the school had to invite coaches from golf clubs and a number of graduates, such as Cheng Jun, to give lectures. A lack of textbooks was another major obstacle, and the department had to arrange for non-specialist teachers to study foreign golf books and then teach the subject.

The department also had to rent practice facilities at a club in Shijiazhuang at a cost of at least 500 yuan per hour per person. To provide students with more opportunity to practice, the school invested 1.8 million yuan to build a driving range with 54 practice bays. Students currently have eight hours of formal practice per week, but the range is open every day so they can practice in their leisure time too.

In 2008, the first group of golf graduates stayed on at the Hebei Institute as teachers, helping to develop the major through their own experience.

Each golf student pays annual tuition fees of 12,000 yuan, almost twice as much as other majors. Still, many students apply for the study because of the employment prospects. Every year, about 50 to 60 students from other sporting disciplines transfer to study golf.

All graduates from the Hebei Institute have found good jobs, and that has encouraged more to apply for the study. A sharp increase in the number of freshmen in 2008 saw the school attach greater importance to the booming major.

The school's president, Zhang Zhuo'an, endorsed a plan to spend 6 million yuan to construct a new driving range, with 400 practice bays spread over 20 hectares.

Li Yuesheng, director of the social sports department at the Hebei Institute, is always eager to show visitors around the facility. "I am proud to say that our school will soon have the largest driving range in Asia. For me, that's the future," he says.

Elite, expensive

Since its introduction to China 28 years ago, golf has been regarded as an elite, expensive sport. At the Sigesen club, non-members pay 1,080 yuan per person per round and caddies expect a tip of at least 100 yuan. Even with a permanent membership, which costs 188,000 yuan per person, the price of a round is still 260 yuan.

The fees are likely to remain high since the central government restricted construction of new golf courses because of concerns about land and water resources.

So far, China has produced few top-class professional golfers. Liang Wenchong and Feng Shanshan are probably the only homegrown players capable of competing with foreign players. In June, Feng, 22, became the first Chinese golfer to win the LPGA Championship in the US.

However, the golfing authorities are attempting to boost the sport following the decision of the International Olympic Committee in 2010 to reintroduce golf at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, says Zhang Zhuo'an.

In 2010, about 3 million people in China played golf, but that number could soar to 50 million by 2020, according to the Huidian report.

"It's a good chance for golf in China, and the industry will require an enormous number of pros to manage clubs," says Li Yuesheng.

At present, there are only 600 golf courses nationwide, but the number of new courses is rising by 20 to 30 percent annually, according to the Hebei Institute's data.

Each 18-hole course has at least 400 employees, from managers to caddies and greenskeepers, says Li, and his calculations suggest that the industry requires at least 240,000 workers. However, more than 60 percent of current workers studied at middle or high schools and lack the necessary knowledge of the sport, so many clubs are planning to replace their current staff with golf graduates.

The tough nature of the work means that some clubs in Shanghai have an annual employee turnover of 70 percent, while the lowest staff turnover rate was still more than 10 percent, says Wu Ming, director of the Institute of Golf Management at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

In their first two years at the Hebei Institute, students learn golfing theory, etiquette and the rules of the game. To gain practical experience at running a club, they are assigned two-year internship at clubs nationwide, including the Sigesen club in Beijing.

In 2009, Zhang Zhigang, Beijing Sigesen's deputy general manager, was impressed with the performance of two interns of the Hebei Institute, so he contacted the school and promised to employ more of its graduates.

"The golf industry is fundamentally about service. Many jobs such as turf maintenance and caddying are hard work, and require not only a knowledge of the game, but also a good service attitude," says Zhang.

Contact the reporters at huyongqi@chinadaily.com.cn and peipei@chinadaily.com.cn.

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