Golf: Man from East makes light of the West

Tim Glover watches as hard work pays off for the Chinese No 1
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ACCORDING TO Manuel Pinero, who has been around a bit, the West course at Wentworth is not what it was. "It was far tougher 20 years ago," the Spaniard said. "If you missed a fairway you were in heather but a lot of that has gone. Now you can't lose a ball."

In the second round of the Volvo PGA Championship yesterday, Pinero seemed to be making a case to support his argument. "In the old days a score of 72 would have got you into the top 15," he said. "Now it would mean missing the cut."

Following a one-under-par 71 in the first round Pinero, who won this championship 22 years ago, picked up birdies at the fourth and the sixth holes at which point the task of making that halfway cut looked a formality. However, he came home in 39 for a 75 and a total of 146 which left him sweating at two over par for the tournament.

That was one more than Lian-Wei Zhang, who not only had the distinction of producing the most extraordinary front five holes in the second round but of being the only Chinese player in the field.

Heather or no heather, Zhang would not agree that the Burma Road, as the West course is known, is now a dual carriageway rather than a dangerous alleyway. "It's very challenging," he said through an interpreter, his manager and minder Debbie Yeung. "Very difficult."

Zhang is one of only 21 male professional golfers in a country with a population that, according to Yeung, was 1.3bn at the last count. Aged 34, he started playing golf at 20, learning the game as a caddy at Zhuhai golf club near Macao. The son of a farmer, Zhang turned professional five years ago since when he has probably done more travelling than an arms salesman. "All he does is play golf, practises and sleeps," said Miss Yeung.

Zhang, who is staying at a Holiday Inn at Heathrow Airport, received a sponsor's invitation to play in this flagship tournament, arriving hotfoot from the Volvo China Open where he finished 20th. Volvo see China as a developing market, particularly in buses. After Wentworth, Zhang will play in the Compass English Open at Hanbury Manor next week and then hop over to Canada for a couple of tournaments.

"His biggest problem is in getting visas," Miss Yeung said. "He has only a Chinese passport and it's very expensive and time consuming getting the necessary paperwork. Officials are always sending faxes to Beijing to check that he's a professional golfer."

Despite the red tape, Zhang will attempt to qualify for the Open Championship in July and is also going to have a tilt at qualifying for the US Tour. "There's not a great deal of prize money on the Asian tour," Miss Yeung explained. So how much did Zhang make on his travels last season? "I think it was $10,000 (pounds 6,200)," Miss Yeung said. "No, that can't be right. I think it was $100,000." Mark McCormack she is not but you get the impression that, without her assistance, her client would forever be sleeping in an airport hotel.

Not so long ago the Chinese authorities might have viewed golf as a semi- decadent Western pursuit but by the millennium the number of courses in China will have doubled to 100, the number of players to more than 30,000. As the Chinese No 1, Zhang lives in Shenzhen in a house given to him by the government. "He is famous in the city," Miss Yeung said. "Not many people in China have such privileges."

In fact, he is not just big in Shenzhen, but has also made his mark at St Andrews. In the Alfred Dunhill Cup last year he inspired a score of headlines in the press - most of them incorporating the word "takeaway"- after completing a famous victory over the Scotland captain Colin Montgomerie.

Yesterday Zhang, playing with England's David Gilford and the Spaniard Pedro Linhart, began 3, 4, 5, 7, 2: birdie, bogey, bogey, double bogey, birdie. At the second he was in a bunker, he found sand again at the third and at the par-five fourth he was in the trees twice.

He went to the turn in 37 and then birdied the 10th, 11th and 12th. His round of 71 contained six birdies and it should have been seven. At the par-five 18th he was 10 feet from the flag in two after hitting a three iron 216 yards but then took five, missing a birdie putt from three feet. "It was much better than the first round," he said.

After a 74 on Friday, he took a putting lesson from his French caddie Tom. And it paid off. They made the cut which means they will make a cheque and that is good news for the Holiday Inn.