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Inspired by Guan, more Chinese pick up golf

By Chen Jia in San Francisco | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-23 11:27

The recent Masters tournament success of 14-year-old golf prodigy Guan Tianlang has schools and clubs in the United States scrambling to find young talent among well-heeled Chinese families.

"Our academy has seen more Chinese golf players coming for training at younger ages, and most of them are financially supported by their families to seek success in this niche sport," said Huey Yu, president of Oak Valley Golf Academy in Beaumont, California.

Yu predicts Guan's stellar play "will have a butterfly effect" in China. "I am confident that dozens of young Chinese golfers will come to our academy with their parents this summer," he said.

Eleven days ago, the teenager from Guangzhou made the cut at the Masters in Augusta, Georgia, enabling him to play the final two rounds of one of the sport's premier events. Guan is the youngest player to accomplish that feat at a major championship on the PGA Tour.

He completed the Masters in 58th place, 12 strokes over par. Now, the eighth-grader is preparing for the PGA's Zurich Classic of New Orleans starting on Thursday.

Guan first picked up a golf club at age 4 and has been coming, sporadically, to the US to play since he was 6.

The sport, said Yu, "is ready to shine" in China. Though only 5 percent of Chinese families are in good financial situations to support their children to study golf, that's a big enough base from which the US golf industry could profit.

The Chinese part of its website describes Oak Valley as "the first US golf academy that caters to Chinese golfers". Founded in 1997, the club is located in Beaumont, about a half-hour drive through the Southern California desert from the resort community of Palm Springs.

Yu recently returned from a trip to China, where he encountered many parents eager to send their children to train at a US golf academy this summer in preparation for what they hope will someday be a spot on the golf team or a golf scholarship at a US university.

"Golf in the United States is not as popular as street sports like basketball or baseball; its development is based on the amateur system in high schools and universities," he said.

Golf in China isn't heavily funded by the central government, but the sports departments of some local administrations do provide support for budding stars, notably in Guangdong - Guan's home province - in the south and Liaoning province in the northeast. Many Chinese sports academies offer limited golf training.

Currently, golf tournaments in China are financed by foreign companies, but some domestic entrepreneurs have shown interest in getting involved, Yu said. He believes a fifth "major" for the PGA Tour, in China, isn't out of the question. The big four are the US Open, the British Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters.

"The next 10 to 20 years will still be a high-growth period" for Chinese golf, Ziding Han, CEO of Guangdong Golf Channel Co, was quoted as saying by Golf Digest.

Han told the magazine that the growth rate of players in China is 25 to 30 percent a year. Despite government protestations about the game, he said, "there are billions of dollars in private money invested in golf right now. No other sport in China has that" level of private investment.

Han said an obstacle is the 24 percent tax imposed on golf courses, similar to that on nightclubs, indicating that the sport is still seen by some as a symbol of "Western decadence".

The Chinese government, in a move to preserve land resources, has officially banned the construction of new golf courses since 2004. This hasn't slowed the industry, however.

Golf courses are seen as a way to increase tourism and promote the country's economy, said Li Jianqin, head of the Ministry of Land and Resources' law enforcement and supervision agency.

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