World Cup Countdown

PUBLISHED : Friday, 16 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 16 October, 2009, 12:00am

It has taken 112 years, but when the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro come round in 2016, golf will finally have been restored to the world's greatest sporting gala.

While much of the focus has been on whether the current crop of stars can add Olympic gold to their haul of major titles, it is being seen in a completely different light in China.

Since the sport's introduction on the mainland in the mid-1980s, golf has been seen as elitist, flying in the face of the Communist Party's values.

Until now, the game has had little or no government support and its development has been hampered as a result. The mainland may be home to more than 1.3 billion people, but the numbers playing golf are miniscule by comparison.

Golf at the Olympics, though, will almost certainly change all of that and Zhang Xiaoning, the secretary general of the China Golf Association, is excited by the anticipated seismic shift that lies ahead.

'Golf is still young in China, but it has a great future,' said Zhang at this week's Midea China Classic in Guangzhou.

'We have more than six years to go to the 2016 Olympics and devise a plan on how to develop golf so we can provide more chances for Chinese professional golfers. Having golf at the Olympics provides a platform for golfers to discuss how to promote the game.

'It will be a challenge because investment in human resources, government policies and finance is weak, but with golf included in the Olympic Games, the effect will be positive.

'The move will push the development of world golf and the development of the game here. For countries like China, it means golf will get the support from the government and will encourage the average man in the street to play.'

Zhang believes the sport can play an important role in Chinese society, but also appreciates there needs to be a major overhaul of the game's structure.

Although China already hosts events of significance - including next month's Omega Mission Hills World Cup - Zhang believes the Olympic inclusion will lead to more support from the government and local industry.

'Golf is a sport with high standards and with a perfect system of rules and, because of the etiquette associated with the game, it can help play a role in making Chinese society more harmonious,' he said. 'That's the biggest difference between golf and other sports.

'We all know that the Olympic Games will be for professional players, but we still do not have a perfect tournament system.

'At elementary school, you have grades one through to five, but in golf in China we have the first and second grades - then we jump to the fifth grade.

'There is no third and fourth grade. So we hope to build a consistent and perfect system to allow that kind of progress.

'Also, with golf being included in the Olympics, we can get better financial support from businesses and help from state-owned enterprises. We can already confirm there will be more golf events next year, especially professional events.'

The appearance of golf at the 2016 Olympics is likely to come too late in the career of Zhang Lianwei, the man seen as a pioneer in Chinese golf.

Having been the first Chinese player to be invited to play at the Masters, in 2004, as well as being the first from the nation to win an event on the European Tour, Zhang has achieved much.

The Zhuhai native, who turned professional after the 1994 Asian Games, almost single-handed spearheaded the first generation of Chinese golfers, while the second generation - led by the likes of Liang Wenchong - have consolidated Zhang's success.

Yet for the Olympic Games, the 44-year-old is looking to a new, emerging batch of players to take the game to the next level before, ultimately, the mainland becomes a major golfing power.

'I have high hopes for the 'third generation' of Chinese golfers, like James Su Dong, Benny Ye Jianfeng and He Zheyu,' Zhang says.

'Their families have the money to introduce them to golf and to pay for their education and golf tuition, often overseas.

'Chinese golf really started only in 1984. As a rough estimate, I believe China will only start producing some world-class golfers in the fourth decade [2014 onwards].

'By the time the Olympics comes around in 2016, the 'third generation' will be in their mid or late 20s, which is a great age for a golfer. However, in the fifth decade, I think China as a country could be the leading golf nation in the world.'

Zhang, though, is under no illusions that much has to change for the nation to harness its vast potential and become a world power.

'There are so many aspects we need to improve,' he says. 'We need to encourage and attract more sponsorship of golf events. This is the most important factor in improving our playing standards quickly, as it will provide the current group of pros with the opportunity to improve.

'We also need to publicise the game to younger people. The younger they start, the better they will be. This is why the 'third generation' will be stronger than the 'first generation'.

'Also, I think China needs its own brands for producing clubs, clothes and equipment. We need people to identify with golf as a Chinese game, rather than something imported from overseas.'

With golf's appearance at the Olympics still some years away, Zhang is confident the Omega Mission Hills World Cup will continue to play a major role in promoting and improving the game in the run-up to Rio.

'I played in the first World Cup held in China in 1995, when it was hosted by Mission Hills and this was the first event that really put Chinese golf on the world map,' Zhang says.

'This let the world know that China had world-class courses and could put on a great tournament, and it attracts the best players from the leading nations across the world.

'It has become an event firmly identified with China, and Mission Hills hosting it for the next eight years will ensure the World Cup has an even stronger identification with China.'

There can be little doubt there is a long way to go before mainland players can lay claim to a place in the upper reaches of the golfing fraternity, but the game's return to the Olympics - and China's continued hosting of the World Cup - will prove to be a step in the right direction.

Late bloomer

The year golf on the mainland really swung into action: 1984