World / Golf

Last hole is in sight for top golfer

By Lei Lei (China Daily) Updated: 2012-10-14 10:36

Zhang Lianwei is China's top golfer. Will he still become Olympics time? Lei Lei reports in Macao.

For Chinese golf star Zhang Lianwei, playing in the Olympic Games has always been the dream. But now, with the sport finally on the Olympic program for 2016, he'll focus on something more important - nurturing the younger generation as it prepares to face the world's best in four years.

The 47-year-old Zhang is still playing, but he considers himself a coach, too. Promoting the sport and helping other golfers improve on the world stage is his focus.

"Playing at the Olympic Games has always been my dream," he told China Daily during the ongoing Venetian Macao Open. "It would be good if I can play at the 2016 Olympics myself, but if some young players go, they might represent the country better.

"I will be 51 years old at that time, so I always push young players to work hard toward it. I always say to them: 'If you can beat me, go to the Olympics. If not, I will go myself.' There are four years to go until the Games, and I want to encourage them to play better en route to them."

A trailblazer in Chinese golf, he is considered the country's most successful golfer.

He was the first from China to achieve substantial success on the international professional circuit. In January 2003, he became the first Chinese golfer to win on the European Tour, edging Ernie Els of South Africa with a birdie on the final hole to win the Caltex Singapore Masters. The victory made him the first Chinese golfer to crack the top 100 in the world rankings.

The next year, he became the first to compete in the Masters.

He is a five-time Asian Tour winner, and ended the 2003 season second in the Order of Merit. He has also won six times on the China Tour, where he topped the Order of Merit in 2006. Even if it looked easy, it hasn't been for a man who gave up javelin for golf in 1985.

"When I started to play golf, there was no ball for me to practice with, so I had to find them in water hazards," said Zhang, who was a caddie at China's first golf club, in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.

"The environment and facilities are much much better now. So I always encourage youngsters to work hard and play well."

To involve more young people, Zhang has put on the Zhang Lianwei Junior Golf Championship for the past 12 years.

"I've got more than 170 players coming to Shenzhen every year to play in my junior tournament, from the ages of 5 to 18 years old. Hopefully these players will grow," Zhang said.

Young players and their parents seen Zhang as a mentor.

"Zhang started golfing in a very difficult situation, but he stuck with it," said Wang Hankun, whose son, Wang Youxin, has won the event twice. "He is our guide and our mentor. His spirit encouraged us a lot."

Zhang opened a golf training center in Haigeng, Kunming, in China's southwestern Yunnan province in 2010, which is the first national Olympic training base. He also started the Zhang Lianwei Sports Foundation earlier this year

"Our junior golfers are way behind the other countries in the boys division," Zhang said. "I started my Zhang Lianwei Sports Foundation earlier this year because I wanted to help develop the game in my country. I want to give our young golfers a direction, instead of just seeing them hit golf balls.

"The biggest gap between our young players and those from other countries is the mentality. They should play more tournaments to build up their confidence. I'm among the first generation to play golf, so I should take the responsibility to give them proper guidance."

Zhang got a lift from Feng Shanshan winning the 2012 LPGA Championship earlier this year.

The 23-year-old became the first player from the Chinese mainland to win an LPGA major. He expects to find her counterpart on the men's side.

"Feng is now ranked No 3 in the world and she can compete against any of the world's top women golfers," Zhang said. "Our big players still rank very low on the world stage and I haven't found one as talented as Feng on the men's side.

"What we are doing right now is trying to find such a talent and make him a star."

He doesn't think it will take long.

"I believe there will be elite Chinese golfers playing at the 2020 Olympic Games, since the 2016 Games will change people's view of the sport," he said. "More young people will join us after the Rio Olympics."

Last hole is in sight for top golfer

Zhang Lianwei tees off at the 2012 Venetian Macao Open on Thursday. As China's top golfer, Zhang is making every effort to promote the sport among young players across the country. [Photo/Provided to China Daily]

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