China's golfing poster boys are driving a boom

But the world can relax – not all the teen talent is as good as Ye Wocheng and Tianland Guan

Miguel Angel Jimenez can relax. He will not have to worry about one 13-year-old Chinese prodigy getting under his feet when the European Tour grand finale begins in Shanghai later this month. Ye Wocheng, whose appearance at the Omega European Masters in Crans Montana last month drew some fruity criticism from Jimenez – attacking the policy of peddling invitations to super nippers to drive publicity – declined sponsor solicitations though he will share a practice range with Rory McIlroy at Lake Malaren ahead of the BMW Masters 10 days hence.

Wocheng is at the vanguard of the golf movement in China. Alongside the marginally more advanced pioneer, Tianlang Guan, Wocheng is ripping up the template that has served golf in the heartlands of Europe and America this past 100 years: school, university, tour. Last April, Guan became the youngest to contest the Masters aged 14. A month later, still aged 12, Wocheng lowered the benchmark on the European Tour when he played the Volvo China Open.

Golf is the default sport for China's aspiring middle class, particularly in the Hong Kong hinterland and in Beijing and Shanghai. Course numbers have more than trebled in the past decade to 700, with projections estimating 50 new ones opening annually, despite tight regulation and scarcity of land in large population centres.

Though participation is increasing, China is not yet fecund ground for golfing Tigers. Wocheng and Guan remain rare specimens harvested from neighbouring cities, Dongguan and Guangzhou, respectively. And as good as they are, both have chosen American finishing schools to sharpen their games against elite opposition their own age. Guan set up an American base in New Orleans. Wocheng is heading to golf central, also known as Florida.

David Watson, who as well as shaping Wocheng's career was recently headhunted to run Lake Malarens home of the BMW International Masters new academy in Shanghai, explained the thinking. "I have told his parents that he has to go to the States to spend time with 50 other kids like Adam [Wocheng's Anglicised name]. There is an established Chinese community where he will train with other kids like him. At the moment if he played 20 PGA Tour events he might make four or five cuts. The key is to compete at the appropriate level against the best amateurs in America before taking the next step. He's not far off."

The next we shall see of Wocheng at a frontline tournament will be in December at the One Asia Championship in his home city of Dongguan. Watson, a contemporary of Lee Westwood and David Lynn in his own junior golfing days, is a veteran of the Chinese youth scene, setting up his own coaching academy 10 years ago. In Watson, Jimenez has an ally regarding the over-exposure of kids for commercial ends, but the Swiss example was, Watson believes, entirely justified.

"He [Wocheng] heard what Jimenez said and didn't care. He laughed. He thought it was good that people were talking about him. He just sailed out and shot five over," Watson said. "He could have played a lot more professional events but we restricted it. Omega [title sponsors] do so much in China I thought it would be good to meet their people. And he deserved to be there. I don't disagree with the sentiment expressed by Miguel but there has to be balance. The pros should be grateful the game is growing in China and it's only going to get bigger in the next 20 years over here."

Watson, who has a Taiwanese wife, settled first in Guangzhou before relocating to Dongguan. His new position is part of the wider development of the game in China. A total of 23,000 youngsters have passed through youth programmes, with 600 seen as elite prospects. But, as Watson explained, kids as good as Wenchong and Guan are not representative. "You could see at nine years old that Adam had potential. You could see in the way that he focused, in his short game.

"He knew about landing areas, run-out. This is stuff older kids work on, but he was still very raw. It is amazing what he has achieved in three years.

"I was asked to coach Guan a few years ago but it never happened. This kind of thing comes around usually once in a generation. I know most of the kids here and there are not many up to the level of these two. It is freakish in a way. If you look at the Tiger Woods era there was only one of him came through. Here, potentially we have two."

The two are linked by achievement if not acquaintance. "He's watched what Guan has achieved. He is disappointed he did not beat Guan's scoring from last year [in the China Open]. He didn't achieve that but he broke the magical number of 80. The interest in him has been fantastic."

From the eighth onwards

Though some form of stick and ball activity can be traced to eighth century China, golf was not played until 1984 when the first course, designed by Arnold Palmer, opened in Zhongshan. By 2004 the number of courses rose to 200. In the last decade, as China has embraced the market economy, creating a new middle class, that figure has more than tripled to 700. There are almost 400,000 Chinese aged 18-plus enrolled as club members, a total that is expected to nudge 20 million by 2020. Membership at the Sheshan Golf Club in Shanghai, host to the WGC-HSBC Champions event next month, costs £180,000, if selected.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Parker says: 'I once had a taster use the phrase 'smells like the sex glands of a lemming'. Who in the world can relate to that?'
food + drinkRobert Parker's 100-point scale is a benchmark of achievement for wine-makers everywhere
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing