Businessman Hsiao-Chen Chuang gives a glimpse of the kinds of pressures facing Na Zhang on the JLPGA and Shanshan Feng on the LPGA. How would you like to be trying to become the Yao Ming of women's golf?
"If we had someone like Se Ri Pak the game would take off here," says Chuang.
Hong-Mei Yang made the attempt a few years back. The lesson she takes from her 2 months on the Futures Tour back in 2004 is worth pondering:
One week after Yang got her California driver's license she was on the road to El Paso, Texas, for her first tournament on the Duramed Futures Tour, which she won.
In two months Yang played nine tournaments, including the 2004 U.S. Women's Open at The Orchards, where she missed the cut after rounds of 76-75. Because of the language barrier, however, it was a lonely life of isolation. One night, hopelessly lost in Michigan where not even her GPS could help, crying in frustration, she decided to return to China.
"If I could do it again, I would have gone to Japan instead of the United States," she says.
When you consider that the Japanese media regularly reports critically (and often sensationalistically) on the Chinese government and the prevalence of Japanese suspicions toward immigrants from China (due to those who are involved in organized crime in the region), this is an amazing statement. On the other hand, about a third of the students in the Japanese language class I took while I was teaching in Fukuoka were from mainland China, so I can see how a regional leap might make more sense for a young Chinese female professional than packing up for the U.S. At the same time, though, with English speakers galore in Hong Kong, there's no reason the junior players with the most potential can't start learning English, as well. But the fact remains that due to kanji's coming from Chinese characters, certain kinds of literacy will be easier to attain in Japanese than English for most Chinese golfers.
Still, whether it comes all at once or through regional leaps, world-class women golfers will be coming from China in the coming decade:
The Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy in Hilton Head, which produced Shanshan Feng, the only LPGA player from China, currently has Xin Wang, a 13-year-old girl, and Yifan Liu, 15, who has played 12 IJGT boys' events this year and placed in the top 10 every time, with one victory. There are also about a half-dozen Chinese players at the IMG David Leadbetter Academy in Florida....
As has been the case with Korean players, the first impact will be on the women's game, Haney predicts. "There is a big gap between the best Chinese men's players and the PGA Tour. On the women's side, it's a smaller gap," he says, his comment buttressed by Feng's fourth-place finish at last week's Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic.
In light of this, there's another nuance to Chuang's "Chinese Se Ri Pak" comment to consider. As Sirak puts it,
Insiders whisper that the Chinese government has noticed the success of Korean women and that, wounded by regional pride, it will step up its commitment to golf after the Olympics.
Given how recent winners on the LPGA from Korea have been treated like national heroines upon their return visits this month, the politics of regional reputation and the opportunity for the Chinese regime to capitalize on popular nationalism could lead to a shift in official government attitudes toward golf. Chuang gives a taste of what the current perceptions are:
"The government perception of golf will determine how fast the game will grow. Basically, they are not supporting it. They see it as an elitist sport and that it takes land away [from farmers]. If not for the moratorium, we could have 5,000 golf courses--maybe 10,000."
Ziding Han, CEO of Guangdong Golf Channel, offers this telling detail:
one obstacle is the 24 percent tax imposed on golf clubs, the same as nightclubs, an indication some still see the game as a symbol of "Western decadence."
Their views are echoed by the general manager of the first public golf course in China, but his example suggests the tide may be turning:
"It all starts from the top," says Haibing He, general manager of Longgang, about the future. "If the leader does not like the game, it cannot grow." He explained that 10 years ago the Communist Party secretary for Shenzhen retired and with some other politically connected avid golfers wanted to build the first municipal course in China.
"This was all wasteland," says He, a former bank vice president who was hired in 2000 to ease friction among the groups working with the city government. According to He, the project did not take "even one square meter" of farmland for the facility, which opened in November 2002. "Now the district government is proud of being the first and only public course," he says.
As Han puts it,
"The government says it is against [the game], but there are billions of dollars in private money invested in golf right now. No other sport in China has that [level of private investment]."
Sirak gives the overview of the pace of change even in the era of government disapproval:
Twenty-five years ago there were no golf courses in China. The first was Chung Shan Hot Springs, an Arnold Palmer design opened in Zhongshan in 1984.
Now there are 400 courses, including a dozen 18-hole layouts at the sprawling Mission Hills Resort in Shenzhen, the crown jewel of Chinese golf. And more courses are on the way, especially on Hainan Island in southern China, off the Vietnam coast, which the government is trying to turn into the Hawaii of China--a tropical tourist haven. "There are 18 courses on Hainan Island," Han says. "In five years there will be 100."
One guess where that new LPGA event in China will be.
In October the LPGA will play the first Grand China Air LPGA at West Coast GC in Haikou on Hainan Island. International corporations eager to tap into the Chinese market see golf as an important tool toward that end.
Here's Sirak's overall assessment of golf in China.
The unanswered question is how far golf can go in China....
There is so much money in Asia right now that golf can continue to grow significantly strictly as a private-club sport for years to come. But for the game to take a great leap forward both in numbers of players and in terms of tapping into the country's enormous talent pool, it will need more affordable public courses. The vast underclass of China--factory workers and farmers--likely will be shut out of the game for financial reasons for many years, however. Caddies at Longgang Public GC make $400 to $500 a month--about twice what a factory worker gets.
And still to be worked out is the tricky political situation in which the government publicly opposes golf, but at the same time sees its value as a tourist revenue stream and privately yearns to produce players who can compete with the Japanese, Koreans and even Americans.
China's success in other sports has been impressive, but it could very well be surpassed by golf. There is something about the nature of the game that connects with the Chinese mindset--a solitary pursuit of perfection in which gambling plays an important part. Those who play are extremely passionate. "I really love golf so I am a happy person," says Haibing He of Longgang Public GC. Then he adds wistfully: "In China, golf needs friends in high places."
Imagine if golf were truly embraced as a path of economic development in parts of China. Sounds like converting waste land and employing the working classes' children as caddies and grounds crew could pay big dividends, not just in tourism revenue, but also in terms of opening up an elite sport to everyday people. At least that seems to be the message that Sirak's sources are trying to send to those willing to hear it in the Chinese government.
Is Sirak being overly optimistic here? Take a look at Golf Digest International's editor John Barton's longer piece when you get a chance and let me know what you think. (For instance, he points out that caddies in Asia are overwhelmingly female and are not encouraged to take up the game themselves.) Personally, I think it's going to take longer than anticipated for Zhang and Feng to find company from their country on the JLPGA and LPGA. The quality of the women's game around the world is rising faster than most people think and with longer-established developmental paths for girls in North America, Europe, Japan, and Korea, it's going to take a lot for Chinese junior golfers to be able to compete at an elite level and make the even more difficult transition to the top of the professional world. I'm thinking it's going to take a decade for there to be more than 10 Chinese golfers on the LPGA. How about you?
[Update 1 (7:42 pm): Golfgal just interviewed a Canadian collegiate golfer and asked the kinds of questions that show how difficult it is to get started in professional golf for women. If it's that hard for Canada to develop and invest in its world-class golfers, imagine how difficult it's going to be in China the next 10 years.]
[Update 2 (10:50 am): Wondering if the Olympics has changed anyone's mind about the possibilities for Chinese women's golf. Also want to pass along this amazing story on the craze for English in China....]
[Update 3 (9/4/08, 1:48 pm): Came across this article on China-Korea golf exchanges while looking for something else.]