Liang's long march to fame and fortune

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

Chung Shan Golf Club is famous for being the home of the first course in China - it could become even more famous for being the 'mother' of Chinese number one Liang Wenchong.

Liang has big dreams, like playing on the USPGA Tour and becoming the first Chinese to play in the Open Championship in Britain.

The 28-year-old has taken his destiny into his own hands by dispensing with his high-profile management company, and electing to manage his own affairs with the help of his wife, Xiao Jiahui, and a small group of close friends, including mentor Zhang Lianwei, whom he replaced as the mainland's number one player.

He has shown overwhelming generosity by donating his US$183,330 prize for winning the Singapore Open to the development of the game in China, never forgetting who plucked him from a rural village in Zhongshan and encouraged him to hit golf balls into the night.

'I look at Chung Shan Golf Club as like my mother, someone who has nurtured me and made me what I am today,' he told Agence France-Presse after winning in Singapore. 'When I joined the club, they paid all my expenses for travelling. I am what I am today because of my golf club.'

Born to a working-class family, Liang had the good fortune to be invited to learn the game at Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in Zhongshan, largely because he lived in a nearby village and went to a local school. The teenager was encouraged to go to practice after school. For the most part, he and his friends were left alone to develop their own skills.

Liang stood out from the others; not for his talent but rather for the number of hours he would spend hitting balls. He became well-known to club members, particularly his silhouette framed against the falling darkness as Liang continued to perfect his shots. He would then retrieve the balls and start all over again.

Two years later another group of youngsters, including Xiao, were also invited to learn the game. After school they would cycle or walk to a nearby turf farm where the owner had built tees, a putting green and a bunker.

Second-hand clubs were donated by club members and practice balls handed down from the inaugural Volvo China Open in 1995 and the Volvo China Tour.

Liang would not be drawn on when his friendship with Xiao developed into romance, but in 2005 they became husband and wife. Later that year Liang Hongfeng was born. And things have just got better - numerous top-10 finishes on the Japan Tour, victories on the Omega China Tour and the biggest breakthrough of all - his first win on the European Tour at the Singapore Masters.

Zhang also won the Singapore event - in 2003 - and went on to claim the Volvo China Open the same year.

Liang is hoping history can repeat itself next weekend when he lines up in the national open at the Shanghai Silport Golf Club.

'All Chinese players dream of winning the Volvo China Open but you can never force it to happen in this game,' said Liang, who finished fourth as an amateur in the 1999 edition at Shanghai Silport. 'If it's your time, then you'll win.

'I'm hard working and I will keep trying. The last two years I have accepted whatever happens and now I'm looking towards the future.'

In the 13-year history of the China Open, which will offer a record US$2 million in prize money, only two Chinese players - Cheng Jun (1997) and Zhang - have delivered victory on home soil. 'I remember the final round in 1999 when it was raining very hard and I started with a triple-bogey on the first hole,' said Liang. 'But I fought back to shoot a 71 and finished fourth. That was a good experience.'

Liang says Xiao is his good-luck charm, just as she was in Singapore. 'It meant everything for me to have my wife there when I won my first European Tour title,' he said. 'This was the biggest moment of my golfing career, and my wife was there to share it with me. It was fantastic.

'I hope my win in Singapore can now inspire the next generation of golfers in China. When I was chosen to learn the game, I didn't know what it was about but I stuck to it. I started playing on the Volvo China Tour during the mid-1990s and I got to know Zhang.

'Zhang has done so much for golf in China, not just for me,' said Liang, who is second on the Asian Tour's UBS Order of Merit with US$303,747 in winnings. 'Zhang has been a big brother to me. He helped my game when I first started out as a professional.

'I believe my game has improved over the years and playing on two tours [the Asian Tour and Japan Tour] has helped me gain a lot of experience. I've been in the final group for about five to six times now over the past year or so, and while it was frustrating not to have won [until Singapore], it was a good learning curve.'

Liang has no doubt he has the ability to improve and to achieve much more in professional golf, and his target is to qualify for the USPGA Tour.

When asked if he would be prepared to relocate his family to the US should he gain his tour card, Liang said he would have no problem in doing so.

'Basically if I win enough money to secure my card I'll be able to afford a house in the US,' he said. 'However, right now we're trying to plan my schedule for the rest of the year, but the one event I very much want to play in is the British Open at Carnoustie.'

Over the years, Liang has developed a unique but trusty golf swing where he has a baseball-like follow through. Observers have cringed over his unorthodox style but it has become better and, more importantly, reliable.

'I do not believe in seeing coaches,' said Liang. 'If you see someone like Butch Harmon, I do not see much point in it if you only work with him once every few months.

'I've relied a lot on my brother to look at my swing as he knows my game well and I also use a video camera to check out my own faults. It's worked out well so far.

'The swing is a lot better now, it used to be much worse. I had it for the past eight to 10 years, so it's hard to change, but I'm still working on it.'

Zhang, who will turn 42 next month, said his young compatriot deserved all the accolades.

'It's his own hard work which has finally paid off,' said Zhang.

'I think he is the hardest worker out there right now. You can see that this guy is always focusing on what he's doing. That is why he's won a big tournament at the age of 28.'

Liang Wenchong, 28, took over as China's leading player from 'elder statesman' Zhang Lianwei last year


He broke through for his first major victory at the Singapore Masters last month, donating his US$183,330 cheque to the development of the game on the mainland


He enjoyed a stellar season in 2006, including five top-10s on Japanese Tour and two wins on the Omega China Tour, where he handed US$19,000 in winnings back to the Tour


He won a 1kg gold bar at the end of last year's UBS Hong Kong Open after shooting a hole-in-one during the final round