China unleashes its little golf Tigers

Golf proteges are the latest export from the "world's factory". But how is a country that got its first golf course in 1984 suddenly excelling?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 April, 2013, 5:17am

Golf writers, commentators, players and fans around the world are learning to pronounce new names and scrutinising Google Earth to find out where the cities of Guangzhou and Dongguan are on the map.

Hong Kong's neighbouring industrial cities have caught the attention of the sports world through the achievements of teenage prodigy Guan Tianlang. And the schoolboy who took on the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy will not be the last off the production line.

Most of the population of Australia partied all day and into the night when Adam Scott became the first player from his sports-mad country to don the Masters' famed green jacket, but some of the limelight was stolen from the charismatic Queenslander when 14-year-old Guan made it through all four rounds at Augusta National.

Guan began his historic golf journey not in the US state of Georgia but in Zhejiang province, when as a 13-year-old he qualified to play in his national open - the Volvo China Open in Tianjin - last year, becoming the youngest player to compete in a European Tour event.

He then went on to record a wire-to-wire victory in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand, a win that brought with it the ticket to the prestigious Masters tournament.

Beijing-born Andy Zhang was also 14 when he made history by qualifying as the second alternate for last year's US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco after Paul Casey withdrew with a sore shoulder and Brandt Snedeker scratched because of an injured rib.

Many golf writers and commentators shook their heads in wonderment after the Masters and simply put the teenager's remarkable achievement down to nothing more than a one-off, but then along came Ye Wocheng.

Ye's qualification at the China Open's western qualifier in Chengdu last month was all the more remarkable as the Dongguan schoolboy will next week break Guan's European Tour record when he appears in the 20 million yuan (HK$25 million) event in Tianjin, at age 12.

This being a numbers game, it is important to establish that the first modern-day golf course in China opened for play only in 1984. Since then some 600 courses have been constructed, and with that the number of players has grown from more or less zero to an estimated 360,000.

Guangzhou-born Guan is this week playing in his second PGA Tour event in New Orleans, while Ye, who goes by the English name of Aden, is practicing hard on the range in Dongguan for his historic European Tour debut.

A number of other Chinese youngsters are competing on both professional and amateur tours and doing very well as the China Golf Association invests in its youth with an eye on the 2016 Olympics in Rio, when golf returns to the Games.

World No8 Feng Shanshan became the first mainland Chinese player of either sex to capture a major title when she shot a final round 65 to win the Wegmans LPGA Championship in Pittsford, New York, last year.

Feng, like Guan and Ye, is a Guangdong native, and like a number of her male compatriots, Feng made significant progress after basing herself in the US.

Despite 23-year-old Feng's undisputed skills, she was overshadowed in last year's Ricoh Women's British Open by then 16-year-old compatriot Yan Jing.

Feng missed the halfway cut - as did American pin-up girl Michelle Wie - but Yan made it through to the weekend action at Royal Liverpool despite foul weather and gusting winds that one Australian commentator described as being "hard enough to blow a dog off a chain".

Yan is the highest ranked mainland Chinese player on the Royal & Ancient amateur rankings at No51. Guan moved up 61 places to 100 after his epic week at Augusta.

Yan's stellar play has continued this year and she tied for 14th at the New Zealand Women's Open in February, 13 places behind another Asian wonder kid, Lydia Ko, who is also still an amateur. Yan also made the cut in the Australian Women's Open, where she finished tied for 48th.

Despite the interest in the exploits of Chinese golfers, snippets of historic achievement have been filtering into the news for several years.

Benny Ye Jianfeng holds the distinction of being the youngest player - 13 years and 20 days - to play on the Asian Tour, which he achieved at the 2004 Sanya Open. Three years later, the Shenzhen-based teenager won the boy's group A category at the Volvo China Junior Match-Play Championship to earn his place in the 2008 China Open.

Zhejiang-born but Shenzhen-raised Hu Mu was widely tipped to be the Chinese Tiger Woods, but is still on the long road to stardom. Hu, 23, is now playing well on the Asian Tour and has also qualified for next week's China Open in Tianjin.

Hu and Ye Jianfeng, along with a number of other talented Chinese players, have received instruction from British PGA teaching pro Andrew Smith.

Smith, who moved to China in 1998, comes from a prominent golfing family, with his PGA pro father, Harold, being an early coach to two of Britain's finest players, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Smith's great uncle, Dick Burton, was a former Ryder Cup player and the winner of the British Open at St Andrews, Scotland, in 1939.

Smith said he was not at surprised to see Guan and Ye create a new slice of history for China, given the general level of talent.

"Chinese sporting culture is very different from that in the west," said Smith, who is a partner at the LanTu Golf Academy in Shenzhen, which works closely with Shenzhen University.

"The work ethic of most Chinese youngsters is really quite special, and of course many of them have very supportive parents to provide the necessary moral and financial backing."

Smith, 40, said that although there has been a succession of talented youngsters since the first modern-day course opened at Zhongshan in 1984, the sport enjoyed a huge boost in popularity when Woods first played in China in 2001.

"When parents saw the pictures of Tiger walking hand-in-hand down the fairway with young Cindy Fongyue, they all wanted their kid to be the next Tiger," Smith said. "Things definitely ramped up from there.

"It's both a blessing and a curse that most of the kids now playing golf in China do so with a silver spoon in their mouth, because for some of them it's less important to do well.

"Those that do perform well and then go on to benefit from overseas coaching experience will almost certainly do better than those that choose to remain at home. My job is really to prepare them to get to a level at where they can be considered good enough to be accepted by overseas colleges."

A large media presence is expected to record and report on every shot played by Ye Wocheng in Tianjin next week, and the Dongguan Middle School student will be trying hard to emulate Guan's impressive Augusta feat of avoiding the halfway cut.

"He might just do it," said Ye's British coach David Watson, when asked if Ye could play all four rounds. "He's very focused on what he has to do, and he has a great short game to recover from any missed greens."

Watson will caddie for Ye in next week's event, a role that his businessman father, Ye Huihong, took on in the Chengdu qualifier.

Watson has worked for the Dongguan Golf Association for the past three years but now spends most of his time working with Ye and Cao Sen, another talented junior player.

Ye Huihong said he hired Watson to work with his son "because he is a highly experienced tournament player, well-travelled and a responsible coach". The results speak for themselves .

"You need to invest a lot of time in a player to bring out the best in them," said Watson, whose holistic teaching methods include overall fitness, course management, etiquette and nutrition. "You also have to learn and understand Chinese culture - what might work well in the West will not necessarily work well in China.

"Aden's parents are incredibly supportive of his golf, but he must also complete all his schoolwork, which means taking textbooks with him when he travels to tournaments.

"He has a private tutor in addition to his normal schoolwork so most of his days are incredibly busy. His school day lasts from 7am to 4pm, after which he comes to the golf club to practice - on some weekdays for up to four hours. After golf practice he has private tutoring for school subjects, especially English, as his parents know that being good at golf means he also needs to be good at English."

Despite his youth, Ye, who weighs just 61kg and stands 173cm tall, is ambitious and sets himself lofty goals.

"I want to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games for my country and I want to win the grand slam [of all four major tournaments] in one year," said Ye, who has a Weibo page with 6,000 followers and says that mathematics is his favourite subject.

"But first of all I want to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in October."

Ye's father said that no decision would be made on whether to send his son to an overseas college for at least another two years. Watson says it would be the best thing for the boy and added that he would like to accompany him if this should happen.

It is quite likely that this talented preteen is the best golfer in the world for his age right now, but Ye says this is not something he thinks about.

"My coach and I have goals we must reach, so I don't think about this at all," Ye said. "I just love to play golf."