For the first time since golf was re-introduced into China in 1984, the Mainland has a genuine nationwide structure through which to develop its stars of the future. Tim Maitland reports from the Zhengzhou leg of the HSBC National Junior Golf Championship
"I can play better! I just didn't play good," explains the weary golfer, having plopped himself into the first available chair in the clubhouse.
It's a familiar refrain that could have come from anyone from the weekend hacker to a European Ryder Cup player.
On this occasion, however, we're in the opulent surroundings of the Henan Synear Golf Club, close to the banks of the Yalu River half an hour's drive from China's twelfth largest city Zhengzhou. The post-round post mortem is being conducted by Wu Suowei, aged eight and a half.
"I had doubles and triples. I wanted birdies and pars. My score was 44 but maybe I could have got 39 or 40," said Wu, whose frown briefly belies a name that sounds like the Chinese for "never mind" until he shrugs and smiles.
"It's OK, but I could have done much better."
Wu, who hails from Beijing, has just played nine holes in the eight-to10 age group of the Zhengzhou stop of the HSBC National Junior Golf Championship, but quickly turns his attention to the previous day's post-round activities – fun-orientated, target games and skills competitions.
"I like the little games and I can win some prizes. They give me things like some toy cars and a water bottle," he says, before entering into the kind of detailed explanation that anyone with small children will instantly recognize.
"We play a game called poison. You can putt other people's balls away. Our balls our poison and if they touch someone else's ball they are dead, but if I am poison and my ball goes in the hole then I am dead. If I putt and get their's, they are dead and that's game over!" he concludes satisfied that the rules and regulations are now fully understood by all.
The fun element is an integral part of attending the six events that lead to November's final in Shanghai for the younger age groups. They are part of a philosophy that back's the HSBC China Junior Golf Program – long-term sustainable youth development. In this case the aim is to avoid dulling the passion of kids who, in general, have started golf earlier than any other generation of Chinese golfers.
Remember, Zhang Lianwei didn't even know what golf was until he was 20. Liang Wenchong was 15 when he first picked up a golf club, Li Chao was 16. No wonder China's next great hope Hu Mu, who is just starting a golf scholarship with the Florida Gators, has already predicted that this generation will produce at least five golfers with his talent.
One of those golfers, as cute and charming a little girl as you could hope to meet, has just hauled herself onto a tall stool and sits with legs dangling and head and shoulders only just visible above the table. Ten-year-old Shi Yuting has just won the Girls Group D (ages 8 to 10) competition at the Zhengzhou Stop and taken her haul to five of the six legs; not that you'd be able to tell from her assessment of her day.
"I'm not very satisfied," she says sweetly.
"I made some putting mistakes and I made a mistake aiming at the 14th green.
"But I've been doing OK. I've won eight tournaments this year, five HSBC tournaments," she adds, carefully and systematically ticking off the stops.
"….Wenzhou… Taicang… Beijing… Kunming… and here; Zhengzhou. I won another tournament in Chongqing... and Shenzhen… I can't remember the other one."
Simultaneously shy at being grilled by a "wai guo ren" (foreigner) and yet quietly confident and friendly enough to make eye contact, Shi could hardly be more different from the winner of the Boys Group E (ages 6-8) section, Benjamin Huang Shuaiming. Hong Kong born, the eight-year-old moved with his businessman father to Beijing two years ago. Playing as an invited guest he'd posted the best score for his age group at each of the previous five HSBC National Junior Championship events, but now qualified to enter formally he'd just earned the right to claim his first winner's certificate and gift… not that the difference seemed that high on his list of priorities.
"I enjoyed putting, because the greens are very fast. I could really putt today. My approaching was good too. Lots of my approaches were six feet from the hole. They were all stopping close to the hole," he said in fluent English, picked up at the international school he attends in the capital.
Captivated by the sport since the age of three, Benjamin practices everyday at his school's driving range. He recently asked his Dad if it would be OK to join the PGA when he reaches his 10th birthday, but now grins broadly when this gets mentioned.
"I think maybe 10 is a bit early. Maybe I'll wait until I'm 14 or 15," he says earnestly.
His Dad says his child's obsession with golf is so great his ama (nanny) once found him practicing his swing in his sleep. Benjamin, however, is at pains to point out that his is a far more rounded personality than that.
"I sometimes think about other things," he explains.
"I play football at school at playtime and lunchtime. And we play with computer games with each other. I like DragonFable!" he says empathically.
But Benjamin's passion still remains with golf, and his father Franky Huang Weihan is convinced that the HSBC National Junior Golf Championship events have added fuel to the fire that burns in his young son.
"This is a really good environment for Benjamin to compete with the other kids. It's one of the best tournaments, it's well organized. It's good exposure. He's definitely improved with each tournament. We've found that his golf has become more mature, more refined," says Mr Huang, the President and CEO of a real estate investment company.
"Tournaments are very important to keep him motivated. You can't just train everyday as a kid. Tournaments are like having a test in school. It gives you a milestone to aim at. Once you reach that milestone you can set another goal. That's what keeps their interest. Without these tournaments it wouldn't be healthy, they'd end up being pushed by the parents and pushed by the coach and they'll get fed up with it. The tournaments help the children focus."
It's not just the children who have become more focused since the China Golf Association and the world's local bank launched the HSBC China Junior Golf Program in 2007. Creating a mini-tour of six regular stops, the final and adding their support to the HSBC China Junior Open is just part of a strategy that includes a series of summer and winter golf camps aimed at introducing youngsters to the sport. The program has also introduced golf training in schools.
That's up and running in Beijing, Yunnan and Hefei and starts in Shanghai this year. With PE teachers being coached in the art of coaching and supplied with equipment it's estimated that at least 30,000 children in China will touch a golf club for the first time in their school this year alone.
The structure also allows the CGA to track the development of young players, because the consistent course set up at the HSBC National Junior Championship events permits a meaningful rankings system to be compiled – a crucial element in a country the size of China.
But the direct impact of the program is increased dramatically by the less tangible side-effects. The increased publicity the championship has generated for junior golf, has increased the number of other sponsors backing additional junior tournaments. Meanwhile each new host venue becomes increasingly aware of the need to foster junior development. Having hosted a leg in Kunming, the Yunnan Golf Association successfully petitioned the province's courses to agree a maximum green fee for juniors.
In Shandong, it's said that a group of parents have managed to persuade their course to slash the price of rounds for children during the summer holidays. To golfers from more mature markets this might seem logical, but the top-down development of Chinese golf courses and their profit-driven structure has meant that children are not seen, let alone heard, on the tees nearly as often as one might assume.
"The HSBC China Junior Golf Program is the true legacy of the HSBC Champions," explains the bank's Group Head of Sponsorship, Giles Morgan.
"Bringing players of the calibre of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to Shanghai each year has helped popularise the sport, but it is the junior program and these kinds of knock-on effects that will accelerate the growth of the sport. I don't think people realize just how new golf is in China and, given the scale involved, how challenging trying to get the right structures in place has been for the CGA. We've been able to give them the financial support and to share some of our expertise in helping them create the system. It's a system that is directly and indirectly helping to expose more and more youngsters to the game and at the same time is energising the children already playing at a high level."
In Zhengzhou, among those feeling energized are the winners of the top age group. Hong Wei and Lv Zheng are, in some ways, playing catch up. Lv, who won the Girls Group A – her second win of the year – only picked up golf two years ago. Hong, who has only three years of golf under his belt, finally got his first win in the senior boys' category after more third-place finishes than he cares to remember.
"I feel good!" he says, testing out his English with a laugh.
"It's cool, it's exciting to win," he adds in Mandarin.
"I've had a lot of third places this year. This time the golf course was relatively difficult, but I was able to stay very stable and very calm and I won!" he adds.
"Although I've only played a short time compared to the other players I believe with hard work and hard practice I can catch up with the others. With all these tournaments I've accumulated a lot of experience. I'm confident now that I can win."
Hong has some catching up to do. Several players his age have gained experience whatever way they can. Kids like Benny Ye Jianfeng have been playing in professional events since the age of 13. Hu Mu, James Su Dong, Han Ren and Wang Minghao headed to North America to get the competition and coaching they needed. These however are the last generation likely to be scattered to the four winds. It might need another 10 years before China develops the kind of elite-level coaching to rival the kind available in the States, but, with the tournament and development platform of the HSBC China Junior Golf Program in place, the country has taken a giant step towards nurturing it's home grown talent itself.
photos Janos Schmidt