Is China Coming?
Addressing China’s emergence into the golfing world is not a question of “if”; it’s a question of “how fast?” At the WGC-HSBC Champions European Ryder Cup captain Colin Montgomerie and reigning US Masters champions Phil Mickelson discovered that the answer is faster, so much faster, than they had thought. Tim Maitland reports.
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.
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.”
“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.” Said Crane, winner of the PGA Tour’s 2010 Farmers Insurance Open.
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.
“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.” the winner of the 2009 Buick Invitational, explained.
That the number of golf courses in China will continue to grow as well is also beyond doubt. Many of the world’s top golf course designers are there and they’re not there on holiday. New Mission Hills project on Hainan Island and Nanshan International Golf Club in Shandong province have been builting. 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, the next question – where China’s stars are going to come from – is made redundant by Korea’s example. 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.
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.
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 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.
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. But, 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 10 tournaments annually and Zhang Na’s four wins on the Japan LPGA in 2007 have established an alternative roadmap to the American route.
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.
“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.” exclaimed Masters champion Phil Mickelson.
When the question “Is China Coming” are being asked , we may answer with Colin Montgomerie’s words which 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?”