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Golf - 18. March 2010.

Seeing Stars!

Seeing Stars!

The world’s local bank has just announced it is renewing its sponsorship of the HSBC China Junior Program for another three years. Tim Maitland investigates how the first formal structure for the development of China’s future stars is helping the “Middle Kingdom” groom its golfers.

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.

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