Hong Kong golfer Jonathan Lai found his niche on the greens instead of the soccer pitch his dad once dominated
Yale graduate is the son of one of Hong Kong’s powerful centre-backs of the 80s and 90s but the 22-year-old is glad he took up golf instead of soccer
He was one of Hong Kong’s most powerful centre-backs, playing for local powerhouses Seiko and South China, but retired footballer Lai Law-kau’s son, Jonathan, has taken a different career path which he hopes will lead him to more glory on the greens.
Lai senior played at the top-level in Hong Kong for almost two decades from the 1980s. He turned out for the defunct Seiko and Lai Sun teams as well as giants Eastern and was a member of the Hong Kong team for years.
So you would expect young Jonathan to lace up his boots and follow suit as a professional footballer?
As fate has it, Jonathan fell in love with golf clubs, greens and the intricacies of golf and it has put him in good stead: His golfing skills helped him earn a place at Yale University.
And in February after graduating from Yale with a mechanical engineering degree last summer, Jonathan won the Hong Kong Close Amateur Championship in Fanling in February.
His proud father is delighted his son has excelled in a different sport albeit not the sport that made Lai senior a central figure on the football pitch.
“We did not intend to use sports to get him a place in Yale University but it was an opportunity to study in the Ivy League thanks to golf,” said the 57-year-old father. “It is just wonderful to see my son win a Hong Kong championship in another sport.”
After finishing his soccer career with Sing Tao in the mid 90s, Lai moved to Los Angeles in 1997 where he ran a trading business with Jonathan, who was then two years old and elder sister, Jennifer, a PhD graduate this summer from the University of California, Berkeley, in tow.
“As a sportsman, I know kids can learn a lot from sports such as discipline and fighting spirit and that’s why I encouraged Jonathan to take part in sports when he was youngster,” said the father. “He played a number of sports, but unfortunately soccer didn’t seem to be his cup of tea and then he showed great promise in golf. He started competing at the age of nine.
“While playing amateur golf in the US which is hugely competitive, it was taking up a lot of his time, but Jonathan managed to strike the balance between school and play. He did well in his studies.
In fact, he had sufficient academic qualifications to enter [good] colleges such as UCLA or UC Berkeley after high school, but two exceptionally good performances [on the golf course] in the last two weeks when he was in grade 11 caught the eyes of a coach from Yale and the university offered him a place. Indeed, he wasn’t doing well enough in golf throughout grade 11, which was pivotal to attract offers from universities, but his last two results really gave him a boost.”
A second place and a fifth-place finish in two consecutive weeks gave Jonathan a 64th ranking in the American Junior Golf Association in 2012. Overall, Jonathan has had six AJGA top-10 finishes. In 2013, he came through the sectional qualifying in the US Public Links Amateur Championships only to lose in the final.
When he studied at Yale, he helped the team finish second in the All-Ivy in 2015 and in his last year at university, he finished third at the Cornell Invitational and eighth at the Princeton Invitational.
“I didn’t play golf when I returned to Hong Kong after graduating from Yale last summer as I landed a job here,” said 22-year-old Jonathan. “But then when I attended the Hong Kong Open in November, I realised some professionals such as Sean Crocker were playing in the AJGA during the same time as me. It suddenly struck me. That’s why I took part in the Hong Kong Close, which I hope will help me go on to scoring bigger titles.”
Following his first success in Hong Kong, Jonathan has sets sights on this summer’s Asian Games in Jakarta if he is picked by the Golf Association. However, he stressed he has no plans of turning professional – at least for the moment.
“Playing in the professional tour is a totally different matter and I don’t think I am ready for that,” he said. “I need to think carefully on consider the future of the sport in Hong Kong, especially after the recent debate on the land use issue with the Hong Kong Golf Club.
“The Club offers golfers major training facilities in Hong Kong and if it is not going to exist any more, it will be detrimental to the sport and the future prospect of our young players. After all, you can’t send them all to the US for training.”