New generation ready to pick up the mantle from stalwarts like Zhang

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 April, 2008, 12:00am

Considering the defending Volvo China Open champion is closing in on 40 and the average age of the previous 13 winners is 32, a bet on the two teenagers in the coming week's open championship may be about as sound as investing in the US mortgage market.

Shenzhen protege Ye Jianfeng has at least had some time to get used to the idea of playing at the Beijing CBD International Golf Club; he became the first man in the field when he won the senior boy's title at the Volvo China Junior Championship last October, securing a coveted place on the starting grid for the US$2.2 million showpiece.

'It has seemed a long time, but I'm getting even more excited and a little bit nervous,' he said. 'However I play, I will be living a dream of playing in my country's open championship and it will be a proud moment for me,' said Ye (pictured), now 17 and the youngest player in the field.

'It is a big occasion for me, another step on the ladder, the chance to test myself against the best and in my capital city, too.'

That dream becomes a reality for Ye as the 14th open gets under way on Thursday, one week after the US Masters. So will the kid from Shenzhen be watching the Augusta National showpiece looking for inspiration?

'I don't think I will need any inspiration as playing will be inspiring enough, but, just maybe, one day, I might be fortunate enough to play in the US Masters, like Zhang Lianwei and now Liang Wenchong. I will be watching and cheering our number one golfer [Liang] along,' says Ye. 'Maybe I might be lucky enough to be drawn with him in Beijing.'

Ye actually made his China Open debut last year in Shanghai; having battled his way through the regional qualifiers. He missed the cut by a country mile on 18 over par, but he was in good company, tied with Scotsman Marc Warren for whom the experience did him no harm; he went on to win the Johnnie Walker Championship in his native Scotland and then, with Colin Montgomerie, the Omega World Cup at Mission Hills in Shenzhen.

'Playing last year was both a good and a bad experience,' says Ye. 'Even though you do not play well and miss the cut, the experience of putting yourself in these situations is important and I expect it to be less nerve-racking this time.

'I will be playing to make the cut and anything beyond that will be a bonus, but getting through to the weekend will be important in order to show that I am making progress.'

Ye has one up on his fellow teenage amateur Hu Mu, who makes his China Open debut after battling through the wind at the Northern China qualifier at CBD's sister course, Beijing Hong Hua, last month.

But the Florida-based prodigy has big-time experience having been invited to last year's HSBC Champions in Shanghai, where he too was in good company missing the cut alongside the likes of Warren, Montgomerie and Trevor Immelman. Hu also missed the cut at last year's BMW Asian Open.

Coached by David Leadbetter in Florida, Hu, who like Ye is originally from Shenzhen, is looking forward to his national open championship.

'It looks like a very good field and it's an excellent golf course,' Hu said. 'Although it's my first open, I don't expect to be any more nervous that usual. I'm hoping the wind won't blow as hard as it did in the qualifier - I don't remember playing in such difficult conditions - and as long as I play to my potential I'll be happy. Making the cut is the first priority.'

It was not so long ago that the mainland was bemoaning the decline in form of national talisman Zhang Lianwei, the long-term national icon having turned 40, but up popped Liang, not only to take the national number one spot, but also winning the Asian Tour Order of Merit.

Zhang is watching with interest and repaying his dues to Chinese golf by mentoring the burgeoning band of kids looking to follow in his footsteps.

'I enjoy working with youngsters, putting something back into a sport that has been very good to me and if I can help identify and develop the next generation of Chinese champions and maybe help them break through on to the world stage, then nobody will be more proud and satisfied than me,' says the 2003 China Open champion.

Zhang Xiaoning, vice-chairman and secretary-general of the China Golf Association said: 'We now have a structure capable of developing talent from grass roots right up to the elite level of the sport, for both boys and girls.'

One area of concern, however, must be the growing trend of youngsters such as Hu, and another Shenzhen graduate, Han Ren, who made the cut at last year's China Open, heading to the US and Canada respectively.

'We have to be pragmatic,' insists Zhang Xiaoning. 'We have excellent opportunities for youngsters in China but, equally, North America has an excellent collegiate system.'

One talented teenager conspicuous by his absence from the open is Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who is quickly learning the ways of the golfing world by accepting an invitation, and with it a reported six-figure appearance fee, to play in the rival BMW Asian Open the following week in Shanghai.

So much for the innocence of youth.

Young guns

1 The youngest golfer to play on the Asian Tour was 14-year-old Malaysian Gavin Kyle Green - in the US$300,000 Iskandar Johor Open at the Royal Johor Country Club in August last year.

2 High school student Ryo Ishikawa became the youngest winner on the Japan Tour when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup in May 2007 aged 15.

3 The youngest player to win on the European Tour was Sergio Garcia at the Catalonian Open as a 17-year-old amateur.

4 Michelle Wie became, at age 12, the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event, the Takefuji Classic where she missed the cut. Her record was broken last year by Thai Ariya Jutanugarn, who made her LPGA debut aged 11 years, 11 months and two days.

5 Pan Cheng-tsung, 15, from Taiwan, became the youngest player to take part in the Volvo China Open when he qualified for the 2007 event at Shanghai Silport Golf Club.