Tens of thousands get in the swing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2006, 12:00am

Beijing has been eagerly awaiting the return of the China Open after an eight-year absence, during which time the game has boomed in the city.

The tournament first teed off in the capital in 1995 with a three-year run at Beijing International, back in the days when there were only a handful of clubs in the city catering largely to expatriate golfers.

Since then the game's popularity has soared among the local business community and more than 20 courses have opened up around the city.

These days more than 50,000 Beijingers play golf on a regular basis, according to Li Hao, the owner of Beijing Honghua International Golf Club, the venue for the 12th China Open.

'There are huge differences from eight years ago,' Li said. 'The number of people playing golf is jumping by 20 to 30 per cent each year. And spectators are far more knowledgeable about the game now than before.' Sponsors were also excited about the game's rocketing popularity, he said, a point illustrated by the record US$1.8 million up for grabs at this year's Open, an increase of US$500,000 from last year, when it was held in November at the Shenzhen Golf Club.

Bringing the open back to Beijing was 'highly significant', he said.

'It will give us an opportunity to show the golf industry, the players and the world just how far Beijing has come in a few short years. We want to emphasise that, and at the same time we hope that hosting the Open can help us push that development even further,' he said.

Honghua is in a prime location, about 1km from the 2008 Beijing Olympic Green and only a 15 or 20-minute drive to the city centre if traffic is light.

Li bought the 135-hectare plot in 2001 and spent three years developing the Nick Faldo-designed course. More than 2.5 million square metres of earth was brought in to create an undulating landscape on what was flat terrain, and about 30,000 trees were planted around the course.

'I think it is certainly unique to have created a championship course in the heart of a major city. It took a big effort but now people appreciate it and it is paying off,' he said.

'Hosting the Open will help boost the profile of the course, and will also be good experience for the course's 300 staff members, and help them understand what running a championship is all about.'

Being so accessible, he hopes at least 5,000 spectators will come out on each of the final days of the tournament. 'But if Zhang Lianwei, or any other Chinese player, is in the running we will no doubt have twice that number, maybe more.'

What made the Open truly special was the fact it offered the nation's young golfing hopefuls an opportunity to play side-by-side with the stars, Li said.

Last year 22 mainland Chinese gained entry to the main field in Shenzhen after working their way through the pre-qualifying round, but only one - Zhang - made the cut.

'Any young player who plays well enough in the preliminary event can get to compete with the big names. It's a dream for many of these young guys,' Li said.

Another aspect of the Open was the fans connect with its reassuringly constant presence, he added.

'The Open has been played in China for 11 years already, and we'll have it for the next 100 years too, I'm sure,' he said.

'Other tournaments will come and go but I believe this brand will be forever.'