Making Up For Lost Time
Though Chuiwan, a stick and ball game with some similarities to golf was played in China as early as 1000 AD, it is only in the last thirty-five or so years, that the game has started for real. The Chun Shan Hot Springs course in Zhongshan opened in 1984 and, since that day, golf in the Land of the Dragon has developed at a fearsome pace.
What they did was to call in the experts first, with the BMW Asian Open, the Volvo China Open and the HSBC Champions following hard on each other’s heels at the start of the new century. Would-be golfers got the hang of how there was rather more to the sport than knocking the ball this way and that at a driving range and, in no time at all, the China Golf Association had stepped in with an endless supply of junior programmes and tournaments.
HSBC were quick to play their part. They hosted junior sessions during their tournament weeks, with such as Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie among the first of the overseas stars to take the well-disciplined Chinese girls and boys under their wing.”They’re not just hitting shots,” marvelled Montgomerie. “They’re playing proper golf and, in almost every case, there is nothing you would change in their techniques. They all have these lovely turns and follow-throughs.”
The next significant move came in October 2009 when golf was reinstated in the Olympics after a gap of112 years. This pronouncement was one which, it has to be said, initially meant rather more out East than it did in the West…
It was Scotland’s Michael Dickie, for long a head coach for the China Golf Association and someone who has been following China’s golfing progress for the last 15 years and more, who made the best fist of explaining the different views.
“The reason Olympic medals have the edge for the Asian fraternity,” said Dickie, “is because the Olympics are only held every four years. Since a player’s career is unlikely to last more than 20 years, he is only going to have five opportunities at best to win an Olympic gold whereas the same period will offer as many as a hundred opportunities to win a major.
“I know,” he continued, “that people in the West think more about the history and traditions attached to the majors but, here in China, at least for the moment, I don’t think the emphasis on the Olympics is about to change.”
Dickie could not have been more right. With the Olympics in mind, a fresh rush of juniors have been queuing up to begin on their golfing journeys – a state of affairs for which the China Golf Development wing of the CGA was well prepared.
“There are 3 tiers of the system,” says Dickie. “Juniors / transition from amateur to professional and professional…Based on their rankings and tournament performances tournaments, players get picked and then provided with support, coaching and further opportunities and will often progress to representing China overseas. There is no other country in the world providing that level of backing.”
Talking over overseas trips, China’s young had their appetites whetted further when Shanshan Feng, the first Chinese golfer to win a major, collected a bronze medal at the ’16 Olympics in Rio while Ashun Wu, among the men, finished in the top thirty. They will be looking for more medals in Tokyo next year but, in the meantime, the Chinese players – or the amateurs in this instance – have been putting up a great show in the annual Asia-Pacific Amateur. (Intriguingly, the eleventh version of this event is being held at Sheshan in the week ahead the WGC-HSBC Champions, thereby giving Chinese golfing connoisseurs the chance to study the scoring difference between the amateurs and the professionals.)
China’s Guan Tianlang made history by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur in 2012 at the age of 14 – a feat which qualified him to play in the following year’s Masters at Augusta. Jin Cheng came out on top in 2015, with Lin Yuxin making it a Chinese hat-trick when he won in New Zealand in 2017 with Andy Zhang, one of his compatriots, finishing second.
“In the last few years,” said Zhang, after collecting his medal, “Chinese players have done really well. We have felt like we are the favourites whichever event we go to…”
That kind of attitude can only serve them well.