Mainland writing new chapter in golf history

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2007, 12:00am

Tournament to act as springboard for game's growth

Twelve years ago, when Mission Hills hosted the World Cup, people around the globe tuned into the tournament, intrigued, curious, and unsure about what China's golf future would hold.

It was, in 1995, China's first major golf tournament and the organisers started to generate buzz early. Then-American president Bill Clinton was invited to stay in one of the presidential suites, people debated what this tournament would do for China's golf industry and, if looking strictly at the sport, whether Americans Fred Couples and Davis Love would win their fourth straight World Cup (which they did).

At the time, Yuan Weimin, the acting chairman for the organising committee, told the South China Morning Post: 'The World Cup will be Shenzhen's window to the world.' Implicit in that statement was that China, without a modern golf history, was a clean slate and open to all sorts of possibilities.

On Thursday, Mission Hills will once again play host to the World Cup of Golf and will do so until 2018, the first time that the tournament will stay in a single location since its inception (as the Canada Cup) in 1953. There have been many changes in China, in golf and in Mission Hills, but the original sentiment - of China's newness and opportunities - remains the same.

'I believe China is a white piece of paper and it just depends on what you put on that paper,' Mission Hills Group vice-president Valen Tan said. 'It is an attractive proposition to see what can be done with this event [the World Cup]. Unfortunately, it hasn't been promoted as such in the past.'

One of the group's primary goals is to promote golf, specifically to the masses that do not currently engage with golf.

In awarding Mission Hills the opportunity to host the tournament through 2018, the international bodies governing the different tours have given the World Cup a permanent home. Keith Waters, director of international policy for the European Tour, said that during the negotiations Mission Hills was keen on signing a long-term deal.

'China wanted something lasting and meaningful,' Waters said. 'There are a lot of golf tournaments in Asia around this time of year and it was a logical step to put the World Cup into that territory.'

China is where the sport is growing; Mission Hills is determined to be at the forefront. And for those who are golfers, it is, according to Tan, long overdue that the World Cup returns to China.

'A lot of people who have joined the golf fraternity [over the past 12 years] have gone a long time without an event, so I think there is interest,' Tan said.

After successfully hosting the World Cup in 1995, Tan said the group was interested in holding another one but wanted to make sure they were prepared to do it on a big scale. 'In the process of building the 216 holes, we managed to reach a position where the timing was right to host again,' Tan said.

This year, the US$5 million tournament follows a long line of other big-money Asian tournaments, including the US$4 million Singapore Open and the US$5 million HSBC Champions in Shanghai. The schedule and the other prominent Asian tournaments are another reason why Waters said Mission Hills was granted the long-term deal.

'The scheduling of world events has become increasingly difficult in the past few years [and there is] a lot of competition for players and dates,' Waters said.

Some liken the tournament to golf's version of the Olympics - the top 18 countries participate in the tournament along with 10 other nations who gain entry through qualifying tournaments. Waters said more countries were being urged to participate and this year's field of 28 was up from last year's 24.

'This is genuinely the only world team event, with all the countries over the world [participating],' Waters said.

That Mission Hills has been granted the opportunity to host 12 consecutive World Cups is quite a big challenge, but the organisers feel their property has the scale and the grandeur to put forward such a tournament.

The course for this week's tournament was designed by Jose Maria Olazabal (who will be absent from the tournament due to injury) and, according to Tan, was selected for many reasons, including that the finish is at the back of the clubhouse.

Though they are unwilling to announce spectator goals or predictions, organisers have said that, in addition to the 310 hotel rooms on site, 700 rooms have been booked at two other locations. There will be 1,000 staff and volunteers, including 500 volunteers from two nearby colleges. Executive stands have been built to accommodate 2,500 people.

Since 1995 the prize money has increased from US$200,000 for each of the winners to US$800,000. On Sunday, whoever ends up finishing last will walk away with US$20,000 as opposed to US$3,000 in 1995.

If prize money is any indicator, then, in 12 years, golf in China has grown more than perhaps most, at the time, could have anticipated. However, for Tan the goal remains the same. 'We want to use this [tournament] as a vehicle to grow golf and expand it,' he said.