left corner left corner
China Daily Website

China's golf evolution needs star power

Updated: 2012-01-10 08:13
( China Daily)

China's golf evolution needs star power

Everybody knows that China is a fast-growing economic powerhouse. What's not so widely known is that it is about to become a golfing powerhouse as well.

In recent months, I've seen it while playing at the HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai, followed by the World Cup at the Mission Hills course in Hainan.

How this Mission Hills course came into being is a reflection of what is happening all over China. The owner told me an astonishing story of how this complex of 10 courses came about.

All these courses were completed in 14 months. To put that feat in perspective, just one course in Europe or the United States takes on average of about five years to finish.

Thanks to the Chinese - ably assisted by the South Koreans and Japanese - golf is, I believe, finally going to join soccer as a truly global game. For instance, by the end of this decade, there will be more Chinese golfers than American golfers, unthinkable just a short while ago.

Six years ago, I played my first golf tournament in China, the Volvo China Open if my memory serves me correctly, there was only one Chinese golfer - Zhang Xinjun - in the tournament. The second one to appear was Liang Wenchong.

Back then, it certainly seemed golf had a future in China, but not a particularly dazzling one for local players. In addition, the outlook for expansion did not look too promising when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made it clear as recently as 2007 that building golf courses was not to be encouraged. It was "a waste of public money", he said.

How things have changed. And, from my perspective as a pro who plays around the globe, it is a welcome change.

At last month's HSBC tournament we saw Zhang Xinjun finish alongside Lee Westwood and ahead of Keegan Bradley (and me!). It would have been unthinkable two years ago, when the local players all finished near the bottom of the field. South Korea, India, Thailand and Japan were also represented in the top 30 by K.J. Choi, Jeev Milka Singh, Thongchai Jaidee and Yuta Ikeda. The message is clear - the Far East is threatening to become the new powerhouse of golf.

The players from China and South Korea are making my colleagues take notice. Liang is now established in the top 100 of the world rankings and finished eighth at the US PGA in September.

Chinese players seem to have the ideal temperament to compete at the top level of the game. They understand the importance of practice and have the patience to undertake all the work that makes a top player. That mentality separates winners from the rest.

I personally experienced this recently playing at a pro-am in China, where we played one hole with junior players. I was joined by a 12-year-old boy for a 230-yard par three. He hit a three-wood just short of the green, chipped on and then sank his putt. Fantastic temperament, I think at that age I would have been overawed by the situation.

I also sense we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg. There are about 300,000 golfers in China right now. That number is forecast to reach a staggering 20 million by 2020.

Some see women golfers at the vanguard of the Chinese surge to prominence. The 14-year-old prodigy, Yan Jing, is being talked about as a potential medalist in Rio, when she'll be 19. There's talk that the Chinese authorities will be channelling their resources towards the women's game in the hunt for gold. Yan is already under pressure from Lucy Shiyuting - and she's only 12!

And the women's game is where Asia dominates. Of the current top 25, a remarkable 15 are from South Korea, Japan, Chinese Taipei and Chinese mainland.

All sports need stars and I suspect that's the next step which will make the world sit up and take notice of China. China needs its own Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy to adorn the fantastic infrastructure it is developing. And I suspect the 2016 Olympics will produce just such a person. I predict that is when we will see the trickle of top Chinese golfers playing on the world stage suddenly become a wave.

Sweden's Robert Karlsson is ranked 22nd in the world and was Europe's top-ranked player in 2008. After moving to the US last year, he amassed a career-best winnings of nearly $1.8 million.

Hot Topics

The mudslide occurred at an iron ore mine in the Araltobe township of Xinyuan county, Ili Kazak autonomous prefecture, a spokesman for the prefecture's fire brigade said.