Li Haotong, the 21-year-old winner of the China Open in Beijing in May, 2016. Photo:  Liu Zhuang
Li Haotong, the 21-year-old winner of the China Open in Beijing in May, 2016. Photo: Liu Zhuang

The challenge of keeping Red China on the green

Despite a ban on Party members playing the game and the construction of new courses being blocked since 2004, golf has continued to develop in China

October 31, 2016 10:54 AM (UTC+8)

It’s never easy to operate when the boss is constantly looking over your shoulder. So imagine what life must be like if the person in question is Xi Jinping?

Such has been the case for golfers on the mainland since the Communist Party of China last October banned all party members from playing the game, a move that followed its 2004 decision to block construction of new courses across the country.

More than 60 golf courses have since been shut down by officials in China (out of an estimated 600+ nationwide), while various state-run publications started to link the game to corruption, picking up on the view held by Mao Zedong, who declared it only for the bourgeoisie.

But golf has regardless continued to develop, fueled by the exploits of the likes of women’s Rio Olympic bronze medalist and world number 11 Feng Shanshan and by rising men’s star Li Haotong, the 21-year-old winner in May of the China Open in Beijing — only the second time a Chinese player had won an event on the prestigious European Tour.

The nation’s amateur juniors have also been hitting the headlines, with 18-year-old Jin Cheng winning last year’ Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and Hong Kong’s Tiffany Chan Tsz-ching one of only three amateurs to qualify for the Rio Olympics in a field that attracted nine of the world’s top-10 women.

This week sees the professional Ping An Bank China Tour — PGA Tour China Series makes its first-ever foray off the mainland with the staging of the Clearwater Bay Open, at The Clearwater Bay Golf & Country Club in Hong Kong (November 3-6).

Now in its third season, and with the backing of America’s powerful PGA Tour, the China series sets itself as a breeding ground for the country’s rising stars, while it is increasingly attracting the attention of young pros from across the world.

While recent conditions on the ground might not have exactly been ideal, the tour’s executive director Greg Carlson said that the signs from on high have recently started to turn positive.

“I think having golf in the Olympics helped a lot, especially having Feng win the bronze medal,” said Carlson. “They have some initiatives that are trying to foster kids to pick up the sport and play. It is a relatively new sport in China. They are looking at how to open it up to the masses and make it affordable and attractive to the masses.”

Recent news from China seems to back his optimism. In April the government-run Discipline Inspection and Supervision News signaled a thawing of opinion from the powers at be, stating: “Since it is only a sport, there is no right or wrong about playing golf.”

Dou Zecheng, 19, turned professional in 2014 after a stellar amateur career. Photo: Liu Zhuang
Dou Zecheng, 19, turned professional in 2014 after a stellar amateur career. Photo: Liu Zhuang

“There’s been a report that’s come out that speaks to golf in China,” said Carlson. “I haven’t seen it but I’ve heard there are some good positive things in it. It’s confusing because a lot of what you hear is rumor. I feel it is loosening up in terms of the perception of the government.”
This week’s Clearwater Bay Open will field a number of young stars from China — and beyond — including the 19-year-old Dou Zecheng, winner of four events in China this season.

The 23-year-old American Charlie Saxon — winner of September’s Ping An Bank Open in Beijing — is also lining up, after heading to China to “expand my horizons.” He believes more international players will follow.

“It has been an incredible life experience this year,” he said. “It’s difficult for us Americans to travel to, a bit of a leap of faith, but if you’re not prepared to do that I don’t know what you’re doing playing golf. It’s really taught me how to be a professional and I’ve had a win — that doesn’t suck.”

The corporate world is taking note. Numbers might still be relatively small — only an estimated one million people in China play the game — but with a population of 1.4 billion, as with anything in China, the possibilities are immense. As is the buzz.

Market researchers Frost & Sullivan received much ink over the past month for a report that claimed China should see an annual growth of 40% in spending on apparel and equipment over the next three years — raising the value of this nascent market to US$650 million per year.

Major players continue to take up the game. Last month saw the opening in Hong Kong of the first Asian branch of GolfTEC, an American-based indoor-training franchise that has 192 centers globally and claims it’s the world’s largest, with six million lessons given since its services started in 1995

While the growth in Southeast Asia is local partner Pro Golf Asia’s initial focus, China looms ahead, according to executive director Abhinav Gorawara.

“We’re looking already at moving into the south of China — Guangdong province and the cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou,” he said. “Anyone who plays here, as I do, can see the growth the game is having, especially among the younger players. We want to grow the game of golf in China, and training is a way to help that. China players are starting to boom and the publicity about the game is now become positive. That can only help us all.”

For updates on the Clearwater Bay Open, go to www.pgatourchina.com

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