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.
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