Asia's women still have a mountain to climb
When Zhong Xiaolong fired a double bogey at the final hole of the 2006 Volvo China Open qualifier and missed the chance of becoming the first woman to qualify for a national open championship, little did she know the opportunity had probably disappeared forever.
'I got very, very close, messed up on the final hole and missed qualifying by a single shot,' Zhong says. It was difficult to judge who was more disappointed - the 31-year-old leading lady or VCO executive director Alistair Polson.
'It would have been awesome had Zhong made it,' the Hong Kong-based Scot laments to this day. 'Two years have passed now and maybe the chance has gone. The girls are certainly moving ahead, but the new generation of Chinese men are overtaking them.'
Of the class of 2008, eight women entered the qualifying process and all failed to make it. The closest was Hu Ling, who finished in 20th place in the southern China qualifier at Harbour Plaza in Guangdong with rounds of 80 and 79. She was 12 shots off the qualifying places.
Having spent time in the US under the tutelage of new coach Jim Flick and now in her 30s, Zhong issued a warning that she would be a force to be reckoned with when she returned to compete in the 2008 Ladies Asian Golf Tour (LAGT).
'Sure! I know I'll certainly be a better player in the near future. You'll see a new Zhong making waves in Asia. By then I'll be a reborn golfer with renewed confidence and highly motivated,' she said.
As the debate over women playing on the men's tours abates, the novelty value of Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam having - thankfully - worn off, the LAGT still offers the best chance for the fairer sex, if only as a feeder for the prestigious LPGA Tour.
Study Asian golf's growth and Chinese golf's development demographics and it is clear that more and more youngsters are taking up the game and not just for fun, but as a realistic career option.
Few will forget the emotive tale of then 18-year-old Yang Hongmei, a caddie at Beijing's International Golf Club at the very first China Open in 1995. Yang got lucky and picked up the bag of the winner, Raul Fretes, but, more importantly, she also became inspired and went on to win on the LPGA Futures Tour before returning to China and the LAGT.
'I lived the dream and have no regrets either about going to the US or coming back home,' said the 32-year-old from Haikow, whose best finish on the fledgling Asian ladies circuit is a fourth place in the 2006 Ladies Hong Kong Masters at Kau Sai Chau.
Now in her 10th season in the professional ranks, Yang says: 'The opportunities for Chinese girls are far better these days, from the Volvo China Junior Championship to the LAGT, but still, the LPGA Tour would be the pinnacle of any golfer's dream.'
With Chinese women now challenging the Koreans, Thais and Japanese at least in quantity if not in quality - Shanghai golfers Wang Chun and Ye Liying are seventh and eighth respectively in the Order of Merit - LAGT chief executive Aylwin Tai sees only growth and opportunity ahead for the embryonic circuit.
'I believe we are putting a structure in place to give Asian golfers a career path. The Ladies European Tour (LET) and the LPGA Tour in the US will always be an attraction, but that's the way of the men's game too and we can grow into the future with increased sponsorship and TV coverage,' he predicts.
Three-time Chinese amateur champion Zhang Na finished a creditable 26th on last year's world rankings, above Solheim Cup stars and former major winners Sophie Gustafson and Laura Davies, but the lack of early opportunities may have hampered her development.
'I did not get into golf until after high school where I competed in javelin and shot put. Then I met my golf teacher, Wei Jingsheng, who saw me play and decided to take me on as a student,' says China's first female golf millionaire. 'Had I started younger, maybe my progress might have been faster.'
Total prize money for the LAGT last year was US$590,000, up more than 30 per cent on 2006. But with the LPGA lurking, some might say 'cherry-picking' big-money events in Singapore, Japan and South Korea where the first prizes are not far short of the LAGT season total, double-digit growth could be hard to come by.
Meanwhile, the prospect of a female winner of the China Open remains as remote as ever. And when it comes to a female qualifier, Zhong's near-miss may prove as close as it gets.