Cheng's been to hell and back but he won't give up his first love

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am

If Cheng Jun could hit the rewind button on his career, he would transport himself back to May 18, 1997, at Beijing International Golf Club. On that day Cheng proved he could score as well as he could swing by becoming the first homegrown winner of the Volvo China Open.

The fairway to fame and fortune opened up invitingly for a player with the sweetest swing in Asia at the time.

But it all went horribly wrong for the hugely gifted Cheng as, in a collapse of Ian Baker-Finch proportions, he missed cut after cut and his promising career went into freefall.

Just how far he plummeted was apparent at last year's Volvo China Open when Cheng made a guest-playing appearance a decade on from his famous win. His winning score 10 years earlier was eight-under-par 280 but Cheng struggled badly in the European Tour field at Shanghai Silport and finished bottom of the pile with a 26-over-par total of 168, following horror rounds of 82 and 86.

Cheng, now co-owner and general manager of Tianan Golf Club in Beijing, visibly flinches to this day when recalling the dark months and years that followed his brightest moment in the game.

Cheng's story of how his blossoming career withered and died is both sobering and cautionary, although he stresses if he had his time again, golf would still be his sport of choice.

'Winning a tournament is a professional's dream. Winning the Volvo China Open was definitely, at that time, a dream come true for me,' said Cheng.

'With that kind of glory I think I should have improved and played better, done more in my career.

'People in my management company started to encourage me to go and get lessons from the David Leadbetter Academy in Orlando - they wanted me to change my swing, to do better things, to do things right.

'Unfortunately, probably because of technical problems or another coaching method that I was not used to, I became very depressed. It did not work out how I expected it to.

'I went to Orlando three times in a year. In between I was playing on the Asian PGA Tour and I found it hard to put the changes into practice during tournament play.

'There were times I forgot what they had taught me in the United States.

'Finally I gave up training and came back to China. I did not have faith in my swing any more. It was a failure, I suppose, but I do not really want to use that word.'

Cheng was among the first generation of golfers in modern China having been identified by a government-initiated talent-spotting scheme and sent to train in Japan for three years.

He represented China in the 1990 Asian Games in Beijing, along with the now-celebrated Zhang Lianwei, and after turning professional teamed up with his close friend in several World Cups.

There were mixed emotions for Cheng last October when Zhang won the Omega Championship, the final leg of the 2007 Omega China Tour, at Tianan Golf Club. While he was pleased to see his former teammate win the title, the presence of arguably China's most successful player reminded him of what might have been if the dice had fallen differently.

'From the winning moment until now every time people see me they will start asking - you are still young, why are you not playing any more?' said Cheng. 'Everybody is talking about this, no matter where they see me, my friends, people who see me on the golf course, they ask why I am not playing any more.

'It comes to a head at events like the Omega Championship when so many people involved in China golf are about the club.

'For myself I always want to play golf, golf is my first priority. I am a pro golfer and I will always be a professional. I always want to play golf. I did not stop playing - managing and investing in a golf course is a great chance, and when this chance showed up I thought I should grab it and make it part of my life.

'That is why I am managing a golf course right now but playing golf will always be a big part of my life.'

For the past two years Cheng has run a golf academy at Tianan with Kel Llewellyn, the renowned coach who helped China's Liang Wenchong, Myanmar's Kyi Hla Han and India's Jyoti Randhawa to become Asian number ones, and through his influence a fresh desire to play competitive golf has gripped the still-ambitious 39-year-old.

'I am more clear about the golf swing now. Kel has been a great help - he is a very good coach and explains things so clearly,' said Cheng with a smile. 'Hopefully I can play some Omega China Tour and Asian Tour events this year - that is my plan.'

Llewellyn is in no doubt that Cheng can make an impact. 'As a player, the best is yet to come for Cheng, I am convinced of that,' he said. 'I am at him all the time to come back. It is important he comes back - important for him, important for golf in China and important for the young people who look up to him.

'He is finding the game a lot easier - there are no more mysteries.'