Thursday, November 11, 2010

How Fast Is China Coming?

The LPGA's Asian swing is over and there are no Chinese golfers in the field at Lorena's invitational (although the PRC government would disagree), but I can't help but wonder whether we'll be seeing a documentary about China's emergence as a golfing power in 2020 like we did on South Korea in 2010. Tim Maitland wonders whether that day might come even sooner than I anticipated around this time last year.


There are few definitive truths one can utter about a nation of China's massive scale. There are however some useful generalisations about the "Middle Kingdom," especially in the last 10 or 20 years. Firstly, it tends to develop, in whatever it is doing, far quicker than almost all outside predications. Secondly, China, just as it did with its "socialist market economy," tends to find its own way. The same broad brush strokes apply for golf.

Just as surpassing Japan's gross domestic product in the second quarter of 2010 confirmed China's status as an economic power, China's position as a global tournament host has also been confirmed. It took just one edition of the HSBC Champions as a World Golf Championships event to complete a process started by the Volvo China Open, the first truly international Chinese professional event in 1995, to convince most of the naysayers that Shanghai was going to work.

That it happened faster than anyone imagined is beyond issue. As world number one Lee Westwood exclaimed recently: "It's achieved a high-profile status very quickly, amazingly quickly when you look at other tournaments and how much history they have before they achieve that kind of fame."

Westwood also neatly plucked out three factors that indicate that Shanghai's growing importance on the global golf calendar--this is after all the event that Tiger describes as "the crowning jewel of all of Asian golf"--is unlikely to do anything but continue its upward trend

"The Chinese economy is probably the strongest economy in the world right now, it's a good tournament, a great tournament, and it's a great golf course; that's really all you can ask for," Westwood said.

The point seems to have been taken on board across the board in America, where the credit crunch closed courses and the stagnation in terms of the numbers of golfers is increasingly being seen as a decline. A very American golfer like Ben Crane had, until going to Shanghai, never ventured further than the (British) Open Championship. Significantly, Crane now wears the logo of Swiss financial services company Zurich and German fashion brand Hugo Boss on his cap and chest, whereas a couple of years ago it was a windows and doors company from his home state of Oregon and the American ball brand Titleist.

"We want it to be a worldwide game and that’s why this event is so great for golf," said Crane, winner of the PGA Tour's 2010 Farmers Insurance Open, revealing an important shift in his mindset in common with many of his fellow countrymen.

"For us Americans it's a minimum of a 22-hour trip, so I was surprised to see this good of a field this late in the year. You know what? When the best players show up it makes the other players want to show up. It's a really well done event on a great site. The hotel and the accommodation here is fantastic, the food is good; all the things add up for it to really be one of the world's best tournaments and it has proved to be."

A roll of honour that working backwards from 2010 goes Francesco Molinari-Mickelson-Garcia-Mickelson-Yang adds to Crane's point rather well. When the best players show up and win, everybody wants to be on the guest list.

The addition of the PGA Tour's first foray into South East Asia (the limited field CIMB Asia Pacific Classic took place at The Mines Resort in Malaysia the week before Shanghai) is further indication that China's place on the world-class calendar is cemented. It also signals that the battle for position either side of the first week of November is truly on with the Barclays Singapore Open competing with the JB Were (Australian) Masters as the quality of field across the region skyrockets.

"To go over there for one week is kinda silly, so I don't see why guys won't go over there and play more," another American, Nick Watney, the winner of the 2009 Buick Invitational, explained.

"There'll be more than one or two events. You have a huge market over there and if it's growing and wants golf you'd be a fool to not do it. I think it will only grow."

That the number of golf courses in China will continue to grow as well is also beyond doubt. Despite a long-standing moratorium at central government level making permission for new layouts harder to get, China has found a Chinese solution and, loathe as one is to make broad sweeping statements, many of the world's top golf course designers are there and they're not there on holiday.

The question now is how? To understand the way golf is evolving there it helps to think of golf as a feature, like an elaborate marble fountain; a centerpiece to a real estate lifestyle business. That will only continue; Imperial Springs near Guangzhou, which is close to completion, will make all the palatial developments that have preceded it look, in comparison, for want of a better word...a bit Caddyshack.

Among the more promising developments for those of us who can't let go of our western concepts of "sport" being something more in a Corinthian way isn't the massive new Mission Hills project on Hainan Island, although that points the way to where the world's next big tourist magnet will be, but the low-grade locally-designed tracks that form a part of the equally enormous but little-known Nanshan International Golf Club in Shandong province. It is also worth remembering that virtually all of the members clubs allow daily-fee golf and that as China's middle class grows wealthier the sport is going to become more affordable to them.

However, arguing that golf in China needs to trickle down the societal layers to reach the masses before we can address the next question--where China's stars are going to come from--is made redundant by Korea's example.

The Land of the Morning Calm has produced if not one of the greatest generations, certainly the single greatest year group of women golfers the world has ever seen--without them ever seeing golf courses regularly. Shin Ji-Yai, Kim In-Kyung, Choi Na-Yeon--the so-called "Dragon Ladies"--honed their games on the top tier of Korea's multi-story urban driving ranges, not on the drastically expensive, tee-off-at-5 a.m.-oversubscribed golf courses.

As well as proving that access to courses isn't critical, Korea also provides possibly the greatest wisdom when it comes to answering where China's Woods, Mickelson, Wie or Miyazato is going to emerge from. For the sake of finding a fancy name for it, we could call it the "Shin-Park paradigm" after two of Korea's most recent women's Major winners, Shin Ji-Yai and Park In-Bee. Ji-Yai grew up as a golfer in Korea, winning on the KLPGA as a high-school student in 2005. In-Bee went to the States at the age of 12 to do her growing there.

The answer to the Shin-Park puzzle in China is probably both. The clues, when it comes to looking into the future, ironically, weren't to be found during the WGC-HSBC Champions but just before: on the day of the Pro-Am on the previous weekend when the year-long HSBC National Junior Championship had its own version of the Champions: a winners-only finale at the Sino-Bay Country Sports Club located in the Shanghai Chemical Industry Park outside Shanghai.

In its fourth year, the HSBC National Junior Championship passed a notable landmark: the entry list at Sino-Bay took the number of children to have benefited from an early taste of tournament golf past one thousand.

"A thousand children may not sound like a lot over the four years that we have been investing in the China Golf Association's programme, but that's the top of the pyramid," said Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

"Below the top of that pyramid, we have had 8,000 children who have come through our summer and winter camps, learning the great game of golf, and below that, at the foundation of the pyramid, we have had 200,000 children touching golf for the first time in their schools' PE lessons through the HSBC Education Programme," added Morgan, whose investments in Chinese golf have been aimed at being the catalyst for the growth of the sport there.

If you're asking yourself whether China's fledgling golf industry--remembering that the first modern course only opened in 1984--is mature enough to grow future champions yet, the raving enthusiasm of European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie answers that question emphatically.

After holding a clinic for some of the younger juniors before the WGC-HSBC Champions, Monty was effusive in his praise of what he saw.

"These are the Olympic champions and world champions of the future. They're fantastic! Fantastic!" Monty bubbled.

"They're proper golfers. They're not just kids that can hit a golf ball on the range. These are complete golfers at nine years old: driver, putting, and short game! I think in the next 10 years you'll see a tremendous growth into competitive golf; I'm talking about into the world's top 100. That's inevitable. It's going to happen. We have to accept that. The competition is coming from this part of the world: Korea, China especially. Golf is booming!" the Scotsman said.

A more cautionary note was sounded recently by Asian Tour Executive Chairman Kyi Hla Han who questioned whether the tournament structure was in place to grow China's male professionals. Han might have a point, but reports of his comments also failed to acknowledge the existence of the China PGA Tour as a successor to the Omega China Tour, which is far less visible than its predecessor outside of the Chinese language, and that at the time of writing the number of professional men's tournaments in China in 2010 looked likely to match those of the previous two seasons.

The probability is that the women will come before the men, or, remembering how Jenny Feng Shanshan came from nowhere as a teenager to earn her LPGA card, the girls will come before the boys. The reality is for every Matteo Manassero, Rory McIlroy and Ryo Ishikawa there are many more young female golfers who have proved competitive at an early age at the pinnacle of the women's game. The domestic tour--the China LPGA--is in its second year and aims at staging 10 tournaments annually and Zhang Na’s four wins on the Japan LPGA in 2007 have established an alternative roadmap to the American route.

It's already been suggested that the girls' work ethic exceeds that of the Chinese boys by one high-profile overseas coach. And while one makes generalisations with trepidation, perhaps also the Asian serenity, what long-time LPGA caddie Shaun Clews refers to as a "certain calmness" that the Korean stars benefit from, will also serve the Chinese girls too.

How ready are they? Well the stars at the WGC-HSBC Champions didn't see the girls closest to joining the professional ranks, players like 15-year-olds Lu Yue and Apple Yang Jiaxin, because 12-year-old Lucy Shi Yuting won the rights to play the 17th hole on Pro-Am day. What they saw wasn't just the potential to get onto the LPGA; they saw the potential to star, in much the same way that Koreans were saying Shin Ji-Yai would have a Hall of Fame LPGA career when she was still a teenager.

"She hit a 6‑iron to about 15 feet from the hole, lipped out the putt and made par. She was an incredible player!" exclaimed Masters champion Phil Mickelson.

"You could tell right away that she's got a lot of potential to be a great golfer. She has a wonderful swing, a great short game, great putting stroke. And at only 12, it's amazing how talented she is at such a young age. I hope that she continues to develop and continues to play well and improve and become a force on the LPGA."

Seven-time PGA Tour winner Adam Scott of Australia was just as fulsome with his praise, which was generous, considering Lucy beat him on the hole, kindling unwelcome reminders of the only other time he lost to a girl: the 2004 Sony Open in Hawaii when he was beaten by two shots by a 14-year-old called Michelle Wie.

"Phenomenal! Everything, for 12 years old, looks great! A natural golf swing and hands look good on the club; hopefully she kicks on. No doubt we'll be seeing her on the tour in the next five or six years on the tour, popping up at the US Open or something...and she’ll be leading!" said the 2010 Valero Texas Open winner.

"She looks like all the potential in the world. You can only encourage her because she's 12 years old and just let her game develop naturally. As long as she still enjoys practicing, she'll be on a path to the LPGA, Majors; all that sort of stuff."

Whether it will be the regular winners on the HSBC National Junior Championship (girls like Apple Yang, Lu Yue or Lucy Shi and boys like Zhang Jin or Zhou Tian) or those following the Park In-Bee route (Cindy Feng Yueer and the unrelated Feng Simin are both prominent on the American junior circuit) or one of the young men going through the US Colleges (Hu Mu, Wang Minghao or Han Ren) who will arrive first, only time will tell. Simin, originally from Beijing, is already an AJGA Rolex All-American while Yueer, from the city of Shenzhen in China's golfing heartland Guangdong province, rates in the top on Golfweek's junior ranking despite being a couple of years younger than her rivals, but then as a counterpoint Feng Shanshan was hardly on anyone's radar outside Guangzhou when she went to the LPGA's Q School.

The reality is that all these players are going to get even greater opportunities because of golf's entry to the Olympics in 2016. Olympic status has moved the China Golf Association from a cul-de-sac (it was until a couple of years ago lumped in with and effectively financially supporting sports like cricket and snooker in the so-called "small ball" section) onto the six-lane superhighway of China's sports ministry, The State General Administration of Sports.

However, after the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions the questions being asked might need to change. Before it was "are they going to be good enough to compete with us?" Now perhaps it should be "are we going to be able to compete with them?" because Monty reckons China's kids are streets ahead of any others he's seen in the US or Europe.

"Oh, of course they are! Way ahead! And of course the work ethic here is different. These kids are prepared to put in the hours it takes nowadays to become very, very good. You can see how they love it. They're all involved. It's fantastic and the work ethic here is different to ours," Monty said, adding that the focus of the kids he saw put him to shame.

"I was a lazy player myself; two or three hours and I was getting a little bit bored. These kids? Six, seven hours a day and just golf! Then they're studying as well. This is where the future is. Now golf has become an Olympic sport, in this country it can only add to the opportunities given to them and the incentives given to them. They're well ahead of our youngsters. If it's a numbers game China wins every time hands down. I've had a successful career I suppose and I started at six and I couldn't even get the ball airborne when I was ten, never mind hit the ball like this. These are golfers!"

So the answer when you ask whether China is coming is an emphatic yes. The question that remains is just exactly how good, where from, how many and how fast?

China's Firsts

1984 First modern golf course: Chung Shan Hot Spring, opens in Zhongshan, Guangdong province.

1985 May 24th. First governing body: the China Golf Association is established.

1986 January. First "international" tournament: Chung Shan hosts the Chung Shan Cup, featuring foreign players but not recognised by any outside sanctioning bodies; the Pro-Am event is hailed in China as the first international tournament.

1990 September/October. First big event: The Asian Games golf tournament is held at Beijing Golf Club, Shunyi District. The Asian Games itself was the first large-scale international sports event to be held in the People's Republic of China.

1994 October. First medals: At the Asian Games in Hiroshima Zhang Lianwei wins an individual silver medal behind Kaname Yokoo, while China's women's team claims bronze.

1994 April. First professionals: Zheng Wengen and John Xiao Chenghan are among a handful of golfers to become the first Chinese professionals when they pass a newly-introduced CGA exam.

1995. First Domestic Tour: The Volvo China Tour, China's first domestic circuit, consisted of four 36-hole tournaments.

1995 April. First Official International Pro tournament: The Volvo China Open in Beijing (Beijing International Golf Club) is won by Raul Fretes of Paraguay. Total prize money was US$400,000.

1997 April. First Chinese Winner of an International Tournament: Cheng Jun is victorious at the Volvo China Open in Beijing.

2001 November. First Visit by a World Number One: Tiger Woods makes his first trip to China, an exhibition at Mission Hills near Shenzhen in Guangdong.

2003 January. First Chinese win in a European Tour event: Zhang Lianwei wins the co-sanctioned Caltex Masters in Singapore.

2004. First Chinese Player in a Major championship: Zhang Lianwei receives an invitation to the Masters.

2004 May. First Chinese Golf World Record: Mission Hills entered into Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest golf club after its expansion to 180 holes.

2005 November. First Time to Host Asia's Leading Tournament: With US$5M prize money, the HSBC Champions, then Asia's richest tournament, debuts in Shanghai. The inaugural tournament is won by English Ryder Cup star David Howell.

2007 First Fully-Integrated Junior Development Scheme: The HSBC China Junior Golf Program and HSBC National Junior Championships are launched.

2007 First Chinese to win Asian Tour's Order of Merit: Liang Wenchong clinches the title with nine top-ten finishes including a win at the Singapore Masters.

2007 First Chinese to join American college circuit: Han Ren enrolls on a golf scholarship at Indiana University.

2008 July. First Weekend Play in a Major: Liang Wenchong makes the cut at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

2008 November. First Impact on the Official World Golf Ranking: Sergio Garcia moves up to number two after winning the HSBC Champions. It's the first time an Asian event has had such a profound effect on the global standings.

2009 April. First Women's Tour: The China Golf Association announces the birth of the China LPGA Tour. The circuit will have strong links with the Orient Golf chain, playing the majority of the events on their courses.

2009 Asia's First WGC event: WGC status is awarded to the HSBC Champions in April, making it indisputably Asia's single-most important tournament. The event in November features Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson playing in the same tournament for the first time in Asia. Paired together in the leading group on the final day, Mickelson triumphs.

2010 First Impact on World Number One: Four players--Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer and Phil Mickelson--arrived in Shanghai for the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions, knowing a good week would make the number one in the world. No Asian tournament had ever impacted the very top of the Official World Golf Ranking.

20??: China's First World Number One....


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courtgolf said...

all of this is swell, Con - but you are also banking on the rest of the world remaining happily ignorant...or worse...complicite in the true nature of China's government. The world has conveniently let things like Tiananmen Square slip from their memories.

They are still a military dictatorship that has no problem snatching people out of their lives and conscripting them into whatever the government wants. It was broadcast on NBC before the Olympics, even mentioned, but in such a nice way, it was ignored.

NBC also signed away their ability to comment honestly about things during the Olympics. The most glaring example for me was in the Opening Ceremonies when a group of children started at one end of the arena with a flag over their heads, and halfway across, it was taken over by...MILITARY personnel. Not a word from the NBC mooks who wanted to talk "symbolism" about every movement...except that one.

Then you have totalitarian control over information, including the internet. The government controls every bit of information over the internet - anything vaguely connected to liberty or freedom is simply blocked.

Con - you go ahead and sing the praises of China and how wonderful it will be to have golf there - but you will also be ignoring the truth of the country.

1.3 billion people - a few dozen golf courses - MOSTLY in one small area of the country - none are there for the people to use. These are courses for tourists, citizens with a lot of money, and of course, the government.

Con - this is a scary place. Don't kid yourself. Listen to the people of Taiwan - not the flashy marketing of China. Taiwan is fearing for it's existence, knowing that if the free countries of this world blink, they will be gone.

The Constructivist said...

Um, court, this is a guest spot by Tim Maitland, so I'll let him answer your critiques of the Chinese government!

sports said...

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courtgolf said...

Regardless - it is short sighted and dangerous to sing the praises of China and ignore the bigger picture.