Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"In less than a third of the average human's lifespan, China has gone from golf-free to WGC"

Chinese Golf: A Long Way since 1984
Tim Maitland

It depends how old you were and where you were living as to what exactly rocked your world in 1984. 25 years ago Michael Jackson was at the height of his powers, winning a record eight Grammy awards including best record "Beat It" and Album of the Year Thriller, while Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean scored 12 perfect 6.0 marks for their interpretation of Ravel's Bolero in the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

In sports, China remembers 1984 as the year of their return to the Olympic family, shooter Xu Haifeng claiming their first-ever gold medal at the Los Angeles Games and the team returning to a heroes' welcome with a total of 15 gold medals that surpassed their wildest dreams. And anyone in the region at the time would certainly recall the United Kingdom and the People's Republic of China signing the initial agreement to return Hong Kong to China.

But, wherever you were, the opening of Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club roughly 80 kilometres across the Pearl River Estuary from Hong Kong would not have registered as an event of any great global importance.

Yet, when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson join the world's superstars teeing off in the WGC-HSBC Champions, the first World Golf Championships event to be staged in Asia, at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai on November 5th, the 25th anniversary of China's first modern golf club will take on a new significance.

In less than a third of the average human's lifespan, China has gone from golf-free to WGC.

It's hard to truly capture in words just how far and how fast Chinese golf has developed. The fact that Arnold Palmer--the designer of that first modern course and a man so famous in his playing days that, like Elvis Presley, he was known simply as "The King"--went completely unrecognized doesn't begin to tell the story.

However, Palmer's tale of one of his early visits to the site of Hong Kong billionaire Henry Fok's groundbreaking course goes some way to creating the contrast with today's step up to the WGC. In his memoirs the seven-time Major winner recalls offering a golf ball as a gift to one of the workers.

"He stared at it for a few moments, then tried to take a bite out of the cover," Palmer wrote.

"When I explained through an interpreter that this ball would be used to play the course [he' was building, his eyes lit up and he took the ball from me as if I’d just presented him with the crown jewels of China.

"To call the experience eye-opening would be a gross understatement," Palmer says.

"By our initial calculations we would move around four hundred thousand yards of dirt, not a huge amount by today's course design standards but still a healthy earth-moving project. What I didn't know at the time was that every ounce of dirt and rock would be moved by hand. The only bulldozer on that the project was a W.W.-I-vintage machine that belonged in the Smithsonian [museums]. The engine still worked, but nothing else moved, so for weeks thousands of Chinese workers moved the better half of a half-million yards of soil with shovels and burlap sacks."

China has moved metaphorical mountains to get from that point, the opening of the first golf course, to where Chinese golf is today with several hundred courses, estimates for the current number suggest over 500. Many, like the HSBC Champions host venue Sheshan and Spring City in Kunming, which were both judged to be in Golf Digest's "100 Greatest Courses Outside the U.S." this year, are of the highest quality imaginable.

The growth of tournaments and China's tournament professionals has also been remarkable, considering that the first pros weren't ordained until 1994 when a small handful of men, including Zheng Wengen and John Xiao Chenghan, became the first to pass the Chinese Golf Association's newly-created exam.

Xiao was a product of Henry Fok's programme to unearth the first generation of Chinese talent, which would later produce China's current number one Liang Wenchong. Invited to the as-yet-unopened course with his school, he struck his first balls on Chung Shan's driving range, but recalls by the time he took the historic exam in 1994 the idea that China would one day host a tournament with the status of a World Golf Championships event was unthinkable.

"It was unimaginable at that time. It was all so new to us. At that time we had little idea what it all was," he says.

Although the pro-am event staged at Chung Shan in January of 1986 is considered within China to be the first international golf tournament staged there, what most in the golf industry would consider to be true international golf didn't arrive until the first Volvo China Open was staged at the Beijing International Golf Club in 1995. That Cheng Jun should become the first winner of an international event by lifting (and infamously dropping) that crystal trophy just two years later is near-miraculous considering the embryonic state of golf coaching and teaching at that time.

"There was no coach, no magazines, no videos, no anything!" laughs Jackie Zhang Jun, now a 36-year-old teaching pro at the Jack Nicklaus designed Nanhu Golf and Country Club in Guangzhou.

Back then, like all of his contemporaries and many who have followed him since into making their living from the sport, Zhang had discovered the sport by accident when he took up a job selling memberships in his early twenties for the Golden Lake Golf Club in the capital of Guangdong province.

Long after Korea's "K.J." Choi Kyung-Ju had taught himself to play by copying a Korean translation of Jack Nicklaus's book Golf My Way, information or help to improve was hard to come by for China’s first generation of home-made golfers.

"Only in Shenzhen and other places close to Hong Kong could you learn things at golf clinics with Hong Kong golf coaches. If you were further away like me, or in places like Beijing, there were no foreigners coaching. We learned from watching TV in sports bars. We learned from watching Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Davis Love and anyone else we could see playing on TV. If our swing was wrong, there was no-one to tell us what was wrong or how to put it right. We were blind."

Zhang says it was only around nine years ago that Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysian coaches started appearing in the Guangzhou area. Now he has his tickets booked to spend the week at the WGC-HSBC Champions watching Tiger and Phil Mickelson lead the highest-quality field in Asia and gives a wonderful insight into just how unlikely this moment must have seemed as recently as 2001 when Tiger made his first visit to China--a challenge event at Mission Hills in Zhang's native province.

"When Tiger came to China I gave up a good job in Shanghai; a really good job as a golf director," Zhang explains.

"I said to my boss 'goodbye, sir!'. I went back to Guangzhou. I thought it would be my only chance to see Tiger in China. Until then I had thought I would only ever see him on TV and then I had what I felt was my only chance to see him in real life so I gave up my job! Tiger is my hero and golf is an important part of my life. It's going to be great to watch him again and learn at the same time."

When one considers how far China has evolved its golf industry in such a short period of time, the only thing that is more stunning is thinking what will happen in the next 25 years, especially now that Olympic status takes golf right into the mainstream of sport in the Middle Kingdom.

"What China will achieve in golf now that the sport is part of the Olympic movement is almost beyond imagination. We know it's going to have an exponential effect on the HSBC China Junior Golf Program and we feel privileged to be playing such a core role in developing and growing a sustainable grassroots structure and nurturing the future generations of China's golfers," explained Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

"Having said that, it still stuns me to consider how far China has come in such a small period of time. It's a testament, not only to the golf industry, but also to the overall growth and development of China as a nation. I wonder whether we will ever see golf explode in the same way, because I'm not sure we will ever see another country evolve in such a rapid and dramatic fashion."

[Arnold Palmer comments extracts from Arnold Palmer: Memories, Stories and Memorabilia from a Life On and Off the Course.]

China's Golf Milestones
Tim Maitland

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

1985 May 24th. China Golf Association established.

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

1990. The Asian Games golf tournament is held at Beijing Golf Club, Shunyi District.

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

1995. China's first domestic circuit is introduced. The Volvo China Tour consisted of four 36-hole tournaments.

1995 April. The first truly international golf tournament in China. Volvo China Open in Beijing (Beijing International Golf Club) is won by Raul Fretes of Paraguay. Total prize money was US$400,000.

1995 November. The World Cup is held at Mission Hills.

1997 April. Cheng Jun is victorious at the China Open to become the first Chinese player to win an international tournament

1999. The BAT China PGA League replaces the Volvo China Tour.

2001 November. Tiger Woods makes his first visit to China, an exhibition at Mission Hills near Shenzhen in Guangdong.

2003 January. Zhang Lianwei wins Caltex Masters in Singapore to become first Chinese to win a European Tour event.

2004. Zhang Lianwei receives an invitation to the Masters, becoming the first Chinese player to play in a Major championship.

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

2005 August. The China Tour, later to be sponsored by Omega, replaces the BAT China PGA League.

2005 November. HSBC Champions tournament debuts in Shanghai. The inaugural tournament is won by English Ryder Cup star David Howell.

2007. Launch of HSBC China Junior Golf Program and HSBC National Junior Championship.

2007. Liang Wenchong becomes first Chinese to win the Asian Tour Order of Merit.

2007. Han Ren enrolls on a golf scholarship at Indiana University.

2008 July. Liang Wenchong becomes first Chinese player to make the cut in a Major when he qualifies for weekend play at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.

2008. Hu Mu (University of Florida "Gators") and Wang Minghao (Georgia Tech) enroll on golf scholarships at U.S. Colleges.

2008 November. Sergio Garcia moves up to number two in the official golf world rankings 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. WGC status is awarded to the HSBC Champions, making it indisputably Asia's single-most important tournament.

2009 November. WGC-HSBC Champions to be held, featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson playing in the same tournament for the first time in Asia.

[Update 1 (11/3/09, 4:46 pm): Lisa Mickey emailed me to add her voice to those in comments who want a more gender-inclusive history of milestones in Chinese golf:

You might want to add to your timeline the fact that Hong Mei Yang of Si Chuan, China, became the first woman champion from the People's Republic of China to win a full-field professional golf tournament in the United States.

Yang fired a 4-under final-round score of 68 to win by four shots at 11-under-par 205 at the 2004 IOS FUTURES Golf Classic in El Paso, Texas. She beat South Koreans Kyeong Bae and Meena Lee, both current members of the LPGA Tour.

I looked in Hong Mei's bag that season and she was playing with an unmatched assortment of clubs. She was playing off raw ability, literally following her GPS across the country to play tournaments on what was then the FUTURES Golf Tour. Her English was minimal and the money in her pocket to follow this dream was even less. She used to stay in private housing with American families and I know of at least two families who absolutely fell in love with her and followed her to other tournaments. Everybody was amazed by her, but her life here was very difficult because she had no support from home. She was in it alone.

The last I heard of Hong Mei, she had returned to China, married, has a child and is still playing some tournament golf at home. She was a pioneer and probably received little or no attention for her accomplishments in golf. On a personal level, she was one of those "Wow players" whom I will always remember.

Thanks, Lisa!]


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Constructivist said...

Ah, that was the politest comment spam I ever had to delete!

IceCat said...

Another "mainstream" golf article completely ingnoring the fairer gender, or the ones Chairman Mao says are holding up half the sky? No mention whatsoever of Feng Shanshan, Zhang Na or any other female golfer China has so far produced. Should I be surprised anymore?

The Constructivist said...

Fair point, Kevin, although to be fair to Tim he just reported on girls as well as boys golf in China. But in the end you're right that even in a WGC-HSBC preview, there oughtta be space for mention of Hong Mei, Li Ying Ye, Na Zhang, and Shanshan Feng, at least.

The Constructivist said...

Tim isn't able to post a comment from across the Pacific, so I'm doing it for him:

"Great to hear Lisa's comments.

IceCat... the only reason I was able to write that article was because I spent the first year of my two years running the media on the Omega China Tour pulling together the life and golf histories of every player we ever came across and, teaching myself as I went learning to collect, collate and distribute that information in both English and Chinese.

Sadly no-one has done that for the women's game in China.

I do have a Shanshan article I can share from this year if it would make you happy... or two Ochoas an Inbee, multiple Ji-Yais... The Constructivist's favourite article of '09 (the one in Feb that predicted wins for Ai-chan this year), Stanford & Hull, Nocera, Yani... in fact, seeing as there are very few people who have driven more women's golf material into the Pan-Asian media I'm just going to sit back and assume I'm an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of a different battle ;-P"