Liang races deadline to win Olympic glory
The mainland's brightest young star wants to shine for his country in Beijing, writes Alvin Sallay
LIANG WENCHONG SAYS he has six years to work on his game. Six years to step out of the shadow of Zhang Lianwei, China's most recognisable golfing face, and spearhead his country's bid for a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Liang, 24, is China's number two golfer, heir to the throne occupied by Zhang.
'I have six years to improve my game. I'm sure that I can develop as a player in this time,' says Liang.
The world will soon know if golf will once again become an Olympic sport. Played at the 1900 (Paris) and 1904 (St Louis) Olympics, golf was discontinued as a medal sport. But after a century, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants the sport, Tiger Woods and all, back in its fold.
The 114th IOC Session, which ends tomorrow in Mexico City, is expected to make a final decision on the recommendations made by the Olympics Programmes Commission, which favours the return of golf.
It can almost be taken for granted, then, that Liang had better get cracking on improving his swing and fine-tuning his putting.
'It would be a great honour for me to play for my country at the Olympics. If golf were to get into the Olympics, it would help the sport tremendously in China,' he says.
At present there are more than 120 golf courses on the mainland with another 60 under construction or in the development stage. According to Liang, if golf gets the Olympian nod, the popularity of the sport would dramatically mushroom in China.
'The immediate benefit could see green fees becoming cheaper. At the moment all golf clubs in China are for members only. But if golf became an Olympic sport, I can see the government getting involved and building public courses,' says Liang, who will be seen in action this week at the Omega Hong Kong Open.
Liang knows first-hand the difficulty for youngsters who wish to take up the game in China. As a teenager, he sort of stumbled on to the game.
'I was 15. We lived near Zhongshan Hot Springs Club and one school holiday I went to the club, where I got the chance to hit a few balls. The first time I hit the ball and it went airborne I felt very excited. I felt I wanted to play this game.'
His parents were farmers who lived in a nearby village. Unlike most families in China who had to live by the one-child policy, his mum and dad had three children, all boys.
Liang, in the middle, has been hooked on golf since that fateful day. He was also fortunate that the club was looking to help develop the game amongst promising juniors.
'I am grateful for the opportunities I got from Alwin Tai, the general manager of the club. They were keen to select youngsters and groom them,' Liang says.
Having finished his schooling in 1997, Liang decided that he wanted to make golf a career.
'I used to go to the club every time I could and play. There were no restrictions even though it was a private club.'
He turned professional in 1999, by then a three-time China Amateur Open champion, and has played the past three years on the Asian PGA circuit, following in the footsteps of his illustrious predecessor Zhang, whom he acknowledges as the pioneer of the professional game in China and the player who first broke through the bamboo curtain.
'Before Zhang there was no one. We did not have any direction. He is the one who has opened the door for the rest of us golfers in China.
'When he started out, it was all new to him. It was not easy to go out those days. Now things have changed and we are very fortunate to have someone to follow,' says Liang.
'Zhang is my idol. He is very popular in China and I want to be like him.'
It will take some time before Liang can emulate his mentor, who, as the most successful Chinese golfer, is the face of golf in China. Zhang, who is self-taught, will be playing in Hong Kong this week, encouraged by his successful defence last month of his Macau Open title, beating Zimbabwe's Nick Price in sudden death on the fifth play-off hole.
Zhang turned professional in 1994 and has played most of the year on the Japan Tour. He has recorded a win on the Canadian Tour, the first by an Asian, at the Ontario Open Heritage Classic in 2000. He has also recorded wins over Scot Colin Montgomerie and Price in the Alfred Dunhill Cup.
So what will prevent Zhang from leading China's challenge if golf is played at the Beijing Olympics? Age.
At present 37, Zhang will be 43 when the 29th Olympiad rolls up and may have to be content with providing moral support to his younger acolyte.
They have already struck up a strong partnership on the field. Last year they teamed up to win the Davidoff Nations Cup, the EMC2 World Cup qualifier. At the World Cup they went on to finish joint-17th - China's best finish at a World Cup - to share US$36,000 in prize money.
Liang has won just under US$100,000 this season and he is 10th in the Asian PGA Tour Order of Merit. He catapulted into the top 10 on a superb performance at the TCL Classic a fortnight ago where he finished with a career best third after closing with a 69, to finish the tournament on 10-under-par. It was a remarkable comeback for Liang, whose score ballooned to a 78 on the first day but then broke the course records on consecutive days with rounds of 66 and 65.
Life is decidedly more comfortable for him these days.
'When I was young we used to worry about the next meal. Today, I am proud to say my parents don't have to worry. I even have a Honda car back home,' laughs Liang.