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Golf - 16. March 2010.

Future Golf Stars

Almost regardless of what angle you look from, trying to truly understand the speed of the development of golf as a sport in China is a head-spinning experience.

From zero golf until 1984 to the point now where Mission Hills’ 216-hole complex near Shenzhen is officially recognized as the world’s largest golf course, – although the far less well-known Nanshan International Golf Club in Shandong has 279 holes and presumably some kind of claim to that title – the next Mission Hills development on Hainan Island is believed to be planning 22 courses with a potential 396 holes.

From zero officially recognized professionals until 1994 to having a first winner on the European Tour (Zhang Lianwei) in 2003, a first Asian Tour order of merit winner (Liang Wenchong) in 2007, a first player on the US collegiate circuit (Han Ren, Indiana University) in 2007, and a first player on the LPGA (Jenny Feng Shanshan) in 2008…to put it into motoring terms, it’s nought to 90 in a nanosecond.

Who the top players are and where they come from is also changing faster than a hummingbird flaps its wings.

Generation by generation one can generalize: First come those plucked from the ranks of golf course workers (Zhang); second, those picked as players of potential from the paddy fields (Liang); and third, those born into money, raised on golf courses their fathers owned (Wang Minghao, now at Georgia Tech, and neopro James Su Dong) or groomed for stardom at the IMG Academy in Florida (Hu Mu). Where the trickle becomes a flood is when the sons and daughters of golfers start to learn, play and compete within a proper national structure. That flood is generation four, or even five, which is where the HSBC China Junior Golf Program plays its part.

“Since we first entered into the partnership with HSBC in 2007, we have been able to build a structure and a framework to develop and grow the grassroots of the game. We have the platform of elite-level junior tournaments and we also have the camps and schools projects to expand the base, to increase the overall number of children being introduced to the sport,” says Zhang Xiaoning, Secretary General of the China Golf Association.

“What we’re now seeing is a maturing of that structure and a growth of the golf industry around it. We have more school teachers able to teach the basic fundamentals, we have more coaches working with children, and we have more children competing at the top level of junior golf. Above that, the junior national team is more and more active, especially since golf was accepted into the Olympics, and the junior players are starting to dominate the national amateur tour. The Greater China Tour, has been revamped, with the OneAsia events and at the very pinnacle the WGC-HSBC Champions,” Zhang adds.

The list of achievements for the juniors is mounting, too. Kevin Ou Zhijun, a two-time winner on the HSBC National Junior Championships in 2008, won the 2009 HSBC China Junior Open and became the first graduate to turn professional. That move in itself is proving both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. The inspiration is proof to his contemporaries that they can graduate to the professional ranks. The cautionary tale is one that will be all too familiar in some of the other Asian golfing nations, such as Thailand, where the financial pressures on the families has arguably forced too many promising young players to turn professional before they were ready. Ou Zhijun missed the cut three times in his appearances on the 2009 Omega China Tour.  

Meanwhile on the open-age amateur circuit – the CITIC China Amateur Tour – Zhang Jin, then 13, Liu Yu, then 13, and Apple Yang Jiaxin, 14, were among the four juniors to win events, with Liu winning twice and Yang claiming the overall Order of Merit (See individual profiles).

“This is the legacy of the WGC-HSBC Champions,” declared Giles Morgan, HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship.

“For us there would be no point creating Asia’s best tournament and spearheading the arrival of world-class golf in the region, if there were no long-term contribution to the sport to go along with it. That philosophy starts with the way we do business in Asia’s rapidly emerging markets and has to apply to the way we enter into the business of sponsorship.”

For HSBC, one of the most significant achievements is less tangible. By helping the CGA create a platform of regular tournaments they are seeing more and more parents placing their children under the guidance of professional golf coaches, but just as importantly, they are seeing the parents themselves becoming more and more willing to be guided by those professionals, too.

“The parents of the children currently competing in the HSBC National Junior Championship are, in their own way, pathfinders for golf in China, in much the same way that Zhang Lianwei was the pathfinder for China’s professional golfers. These are the first parents to introduce their own children to golf in China, the first to find a passion for the sport and share it with their offspring, and the first to guide their children along the path towards a career as tournament golfers,” Morgan explains.

“By hiring a coach, these parents are, for the first time in many cases, able to draw on the experience of professionals who are able to give them a more defined picture of their child’s growth and development in golf, and how it connects to the child’s personal development and the development of the child-parent relationship. As a result we’re seeing some really good decisions being made in the long-term interests of the children, as children as well as golfers.”

The change is significant. Well-informed choices made now could be the difference between these fourth and fifth generations of golfers – currently kids aged between 6 and 17 – sparkling briefly or going on to have long, stable successful careers as golfers. There’s still a long way for them to go – realistically even the oldest of them are at least three or four years away from being consistently competitive amongst the professionals – but the framework is there for them. Now they just have to keep growing.

 

Different Values, Same Thirst for Success.

By simply extrapolating the extraordinary achievements of the golfers China has already produced in a period when the sport was truly in its infancy and projecting an increase in the scale of future achievements to match the stunning growth in golf courses and golfing infrastructure, it does not take much imagination to expect a Chinese player to be up amongst the world’s greats in the not-too-distant future.

That golfer may be among the ranks of the children currently competing in the HSBC National Junior Championship. Realistically, though, it is likely to be another eight years before the children profiled have matured as both golfers and people to the extent that they can compete amongst the world’s best and, as one coach put it succinctly, a lot can go wrong in eight years.

At the same time, their pathfinder - China’s first LPGA Tour player Jenny Feng Shanshan - is sure there will be more like her very soon.

“Oh, yeah, they are really good; they are! I feel a little pressure, too, because they are coming and also I'm pushing myself to play a little better,” Feng declares.

“I think there are a lot of good ones, especially the girls. The Chinese girls, they are really good; like Liu Yu, I think she's good and some of the girls from Guangzhou, from the same hometown as me. So I'm sure they will come. Just need to wait. Be patient, they will come.
And maybe at that time I'll feel old; old, old, old,” adds the 20-year-old with a laugh.

The following profiles highlight some of the more successful juniors in China. They do not seek to hold any of the individuals up as the next Tiger or Lorena – that is an unfair burden on any teenager – but simply to illustrate who they are, where they come from, how they are developing and their different points of view and different values.


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Apple Yang Jiaxin

Born: 10th April, 1995 Beijing

Lives: Beijing

Won the 2009 CITIC Order of Merit

HSBC National Junior Ranking End of 2009

Number 1, Girls Group B (b1994-1996)

Winner 2009 CITIC China Amateur Tour, Order of Merit

Winner 2009 CITIC China Amateur Tour, Hangzhou Leg

HSBC National Junior Championship wins (4):

2009 Girls Group A, Final, Shanghai; Girls Group A, Kunming Leg.

2008 Girls Group A, Final, Shanghai; Girls Group B, Zhengzhou Leg.

If there is a poster girl for the growing wisdom and understanding among China’s golfing families, Apple, a laid-back and witty Beijinger, is it. In 2009 she had phenomenal success, winning twice on the HSBC National Junior Championship and claiming a leg of the national amateur tour and the overall order of merit. But it was not sustainable. In successive weeks in November, as a 14 year old, she won against the adults in Hangzhou and then defended her title at the HSBC National Junior Championship Finals playing against girls up to three years older than her. Yet there was no sense of joy or enjoyment, not even a quiet sense of satisfaction.

Now, however, she smiles and laughs and cracks jokes in fluent English. For the first time since she first picked up a golf club, she had an entire month away from the sport over the winter. She’s refreshed, relaxed and happy…and still playing well.

“Last year I played so many tournaments and me and my mum looked at it like it was our whole life, but junior golf is not life… you’re not going to die if you don’t win a tournament. It’s just an experience and you should enjoy it. Last year I just went play, play, play like a robot,” she recalls.

Now she’s smiling, and her golf conversations are littered with words like “enjoy” and “fun”, thanks to the intervention of new coach Billy Martin, the head coach at Beijing’s Qinghe Golf Club, and the club’s co-owner Wang Tao.

“She works so hard on her game and she’s so tough on herself; she may be too tough at times. We have to let her loosen up and have some fun. She wants to practice until 10 o’clock at night. People think you have to practice 10 hours a day and that’s not true. If your muscles don’t have time to repair, and that includes your brain, you become dull,” says Martin, an American, who spent 10 years as Director of Instruction and Director of Education at Jack Nicklaus Golf Centers in Japan and Korea before moving to China.

“My coach and Mr. Wang, one of the bosses of Qinghe Bay, told my mum not to push me as much. He said, ”she’s working hard, she wants to be good”, and my mum understands and has tried to learn. It’s a good start. It’s helped me a lot.

“My mum used to give me some pressure and I gave myself some pressure… so I was always under pressure. Now I’m more relaxed. It seems my mental things got improved. When the mental things improve, the mechanical [things] improve – the skill things – because you’re not tight, you’re not nervous, you’re not quick. ‘Quick’ is my old friend: a very bad friend,” she laughs.

Having passed her exams, playing catch-up due to having spent only half as much time in school as her classmates, at the beginning of 2010, Apple says her focus this year will be more balanced between golf and schoolwork.

“This year I’ll study more with my friends. If you learn Maths and Chemistry, you can’t make iron or put strange things together and go “boom”. You have to learn the way to study. If you’re smarter, you’ll play golf smarter. Only golf and you’ll be tired, it’ll be boring and you’ll get stupid,” she says, before pointing out that this doesn’t mean her golfing ambitions are any less strong.

“The perfect plan is I want to go to college in the USA because I think the education is better, and they give the players more space and they have school teams. I really look forward to that. All the top players want to play the LPGA and I’m the same.”

 

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Lucy Shi Yuting

Born: 5th March, 1998 Japan

Lives: Shanghai

HSBC National Junior Ranking End of 2009

Number 3, Girls Group C (b1996-1998)

Winner Group C Girls, 2010 HSBC China Junior Open

HSBC National Junior Championship wins (9):

2009 – Girls Group C, Final, Shanghai; Girls Group C, Huangshan Leg; Girls Group C, Taicang Leg.

2008 – Girls Group D, Final, Shanghai; Girls Group D, Zhengzhou Leg; Girls Group D, Kunming Leg; Girls Group D, Beijing Leg; Girls Group D, Taicang Leg; Girls Group D, Wenzhou Leg.

Shi Yuting introduces herself as Lucy these days. It’s a name, she explains in tones so gentle it sounds like a lullaby, that her teacher helped her choose last year. Just turned 12, she is one of the sweetest girls you could hope to meet: slightly shy, yet charming.  But don’t let the description fool you. Her handshake betrays a vice-like grip, and her stunningly mature course management has already won her 10 victories in the HSBC tournaments. This is a golfer, but a happier golfer.

A switch from the Huangshan golf school in Anhui province, where Lucy and her mother lived while her younger sister and dad stayed in Shanghai, to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy at the Shanghai Silport course where she works with Scottish coach Michael Dickie, has sparked the change. Instead of splitting her days 50-50 between lessons and golf, she now stays in school all day, leaving an hour earlier than her classmates to get back to her clubs. The family is back together just outside Shanghai where Dad can join them every weekend.    

“It was quite lonely when we weren’t all together. Now it’s much better because we can all be together at least once a week,” she says.

Talk of pressure and mistakes, which jarred somewhat coming from her mouth when she was just 10 years old, have disappeared and the smile is more readily available. Now she talks in more positive terms about what she’s been working on in her game, rather than what she did wrong on the course that day.

“I’ve improved some new skills and my distance is further than before. I’ve fixed my grip a bit and my arms are straighter when I address the ball, and I’ve learned to stop dropping my head when I hit the ball. My driver is 20 metres longer. I’m really happy with that; it’s not just further, it’s straighter, too. Before the ball didn’t go far and didn’t go very high, but now it’s better and I’m very happy,” she explains.

Despite stepping up an age group in 2009, Yuting continued to win, claiming two legs of the HSBC National Junior Championship and winning at the final in November, before finishing the Year of the Ox with her first triumph at the HSBC China Junior Open at the end of January.

“Everyone can win a championship, but how much you practice and how hard you work is what decides how many tournaments you can win. I think I love golf more (than the other girls),” she adds, to explain her dominance.

“Golf is the loveliest sport for me, but I’m also learning snooker and table tennis. My dream is to be a member of the national team at the 2016 Olympics. I’ll be 18 then. I’d like to win the gold medal if I can. I want more people and more children to love to play golf. If I can win the Olympics, I will let the whole world know how fantastic golf in China is. I want people to be proud of Chinese golf and to introduce Chinese golf to everybody.”

Liu Yu

Born: 15th November 1995, Beijing

Lives: Beijing

HSBC National Junior Ranking End of 2009

Number 4, Girls Group B (b1994-1996)

Winner 2009 CITIC China Amateur Tour, Final, Shenzhen

Winner 2009 CITIC China Amateur Tour, Dalian Leg

Winner 2009 Zhang Lianwei Cup, Shenzhen

HSBC National Junior Championship wins (4):

2009 – Girls Group B, Final, Shanghai; Girls Group B, Beijing Leg.

2008 – Girls Group C, Final, Shanghai, Girls Group C, Taicang Leg.

If there’s anyone out there who still labours under stereotypical misconception that all Chinese females hide their emotions behind a mask, they should meet Liu Yu. Encountering her bold and direct demeanor, a westerner might say she wears her heart on her sleeve. To the Chinese, she might be called a “typical” Beijing girl. Either way, ask her a question – for instance how she felt about golf when she first tried it at the age of eight – and you’ll quickly know exactly what she thinks.

“My father took me to the golf course. It was OK. It was so-so, but I thought it was boring. But, my father forced me!” she exclaims.

Asked later whether her relationship with her sport has developed into a love affair, she’s equally frank.

“I’m not really, really in love with golf, but I do like it.”

Although she’d won twice in the 11-12 age group in 2008, it was only last year that Liu admits she started to feel she was a good golfer. It began when she shot her lowest ever score, a 65, en route to winning the Zhang Lianwei Cup in Shenzhen. By the end of the year she’d won twice on the amateur tour, including the final back in the same city, and twice in the HSBC National Junior Championships.

“I didn’t like Shenzhen until last year. Before, I’d shot 54 for nine holes!” she interjects, not for the first time, as she cheerfully corrects translation, clarifies and adds to her explanations.

“I’m more confident. There was a step to the results. I’d practiced more and the results improved. But it’s not always positive, good. There are times I don’t play well and still feel upset… not a lot… just a little.”

Her future plans are also described with the same honesty, confidence and no small measure of determination.

“It depends on how talented I am. I would like to go to University in the US; a good school. If I can play golf well, maybe I can get into a top American college, not just a golf school. I’m still concerned with how much talent I have for golf. If I can be a professional, I only want to play LPGA, nothing else. If I can, I want to go to the top.”

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