Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Golf: Is China Coming?

Addressing China’s emergence into world of golf is not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “how fast?” Tim Maitland reports.

There are few definitive truths one can utter about a nation of China’s massive scale. There are, however, some useful generalizations about the “Middle Kingdom” especially in the last ten or twenty 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. One of the little asterisks – whether it should count as an official PGA Tour win - was quickly removed, and this year it did… for the tour’s existing members at least.

That it happened faster than anyone imagined is beyond issue. As world number one golfer 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 Woods 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...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. Couple that with the fact that a very American golfer like Nick Watney currently sports the logos of Japanese luxury carmaker Lexus and German fashion brand Hugo Boss and you’re dealing with a very different, worldly generation of American players.

“The markets here and in Europe aren’t growing and are maybe even shrinking. I kind of figured that the way that China was going economically and technologically I thought that golf would follow, but it seemed to happen very quickly,” said Watney, sounding convincingly like a CEO himself.

“A World Golf [Championships event] in China, I think, is great for the game," continued Watney. "Obviously, Asia is booming right now so we need to follow that. When the best players continue to show up that validates that it is a real event. When they win it shows that they are taking it seriously and it’s a good golf course if the top names do well.”

A roll of honour that working backwards from 2009 goes Mickelson-Garcia-Mickelson-Yang would seem to illustrate Watney’s point rather well.

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 beyond reproach. 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,” Watney explains. “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 in China 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 the future China’s Tiger 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 twelve 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, won’t be found during the week of the WGC-HSBC Champions but the week before. That’s 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! The HSBC China Junior Golf Program has now introduced over eight thousand children to the sport through its summer and winter camps and 200,000 children have swung a club for the first time through the schools scheme which introduces golf into the PE curriculum at primary and middle schools.
China's newest golfers
 Credit: Getty Images

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, it’s worth heeding the reaction of PGA Tour pro Jason Dufner after he’d given a clinic for some of the younger juniors before last year’s WGC-HSBC Champions.

“The basics were unbelievable.  Some of them were a little limited because of their size but I think where their age range is it was pretty incredible for what they were doing, from what I’ve seen,” Dufner said, comparing the 10-12-year-old kids he saw favourably with their American counterparts.

“I think they’re way ahead from what I’ve seen," Duffner related. " I think in ten years time there might be a lot of Chinese golfers on the PGA and LPGA Tours.  I think some of the better players that I saw would hold their own if they went to the US… they would be very, very competitive against their age bracket for sure.”

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, 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 Ishikwawa, 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 ten tournaments annually: 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 generalizations 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.

Whether it will be the regular winners on the HSBC National Junior Championship (girls like Apple Yang Jiaxin, Lu Yue or, of the younger ones, Lucy Shi Yuting 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) that 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. Lucy Shi, at the tender age of 12, looks like a carbon copy of Shin Ji-Yai when she was still a teenager, and although a lot can go wrong in the next six years, Shi looks more likely to star rather than just feature on the LPGA.

The reality is that all these players are going to get 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.

Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who might not claim to be a China “expert”, might have hit the nail on the head with his broad, sweeping statement about the future of Chinese golf.

“We’ve seen some strong players emerging. Once they put their mind to golf we’ll see more,” Stenson stated. “The focus now – because of the Olympics – it’s just going to keep on working away and it’s going to be interesting to follow these next ten years.”

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

China's Golf Timeline on Golf for Beginners

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