Ye Wocheng, 12, set to be China's latest golfing record-breaker
'Tigeresque' kid will be youngest European Tour player when he starts this week's tournament
Imagine defending your title at 25 years old and being more than twice the age of a rival. That is the fate of Branden Grace at the Volvo China Open this week, when a clutch of Chinese nippers led by 12-year-old Ye Wocheng will continue to lower the age of consent in world golf.
At 12 years 242 days Ye will be the youngest to contest a European Tour event, tearing up the mark set by Guan Tianlang at this tournament a year ago, aged 13 years 177 days. Guan has subsequently gone on to charm America as the youngest to play at the Masters, where he made the cut. And to think, the ban on golf in China, where it was seen by the politburo as a decadent expression of bourgeois excess, was lifted only in 1984.
Ye is a product of the youth programme launched six years ago by the Chinese Golf Association with the backing of the country's foremost bank, HSBC. Also in the field are fellow beneficiaries Dou Zecheng, 16, Bai Zhengkai, 15 and Andy Zhang, the trailblazer who played at the US Open last year aged 14.
Not surprisingly given his tender years and the interest he has aroused, young Ye featured prominently in pre-tournament publicity on the banks of the Hai river in downtown Tianjin. The Hai, a tributary of the great Yangtse, swallowed a number of balls hit by Ye and Grace, but not before they had exploded in the air releasing all colours of smoke to mark the opening of the 19th China Open at Binhai Lake Golf Club.
Ye came through the Western China qualifying route, claiming the last of three qualifying spots. His pedigree is well established among his amateur brethren. He is twice a winner of the US Kids World Junior Championship in San Diego and finished runner-up last year. The tournament record, once in the possession of Tiger Woods, is now his and stands at 12 under par. Among his peers he has already acquired a Tigeresque aura, winning the Guangdong Junior Championships by a record 18 shots.
More than 23,000 kids have passed through China's junior programme since its launch. The game is growing on the back of an expanding middle class coming to terms with leisure pursuits.
The number of courses in China has trebled in the past decade and topped the 600 mark in 2011. The profile of golf consumers in China is younger, fired to a degree by the first flowering of the super generation dedicated to the game.
There is an English dimension to the Ye story in the shape of his coach, David Watson, a contemporary of Lee Westwood and Justin Rose in his amateur days. Watson has been a part of the Chinese development programme from the outset and believes the potential of his star pupil is boundless.
"His ability to listen and respond is way above the norm," he said. "At the moment, I don't believe that Ye has too many close rivals of the same age. He often wins in higher age groups. But at the same time, I know it is dangerous to speculate and we realise that he is just a 12-year-old boy.
"The China Golf Association does a great job, which filters right down to the provincial associations who work tirelessly to host events and provide coaching programmes. It's amazing what China has achieved in such a short time. You can only admire what they are trying to do with sport in general, and golf is no different."
Matteo Manassero is the youngest winner on tour, claiming the Castello Masters three years ago aged 17 years 188 days, almost retirement age in this setting.
Youth club: Golfing prodigies
Ryo Ishikawa (Japan)
Became the youngest winner on the Japan Tour at the age of 15 in 2007 but since entering the PGA Tour in 2009 has only made the cut in just over half of his 55 PGA events.
Matteo Manassero (Italy)
Won the British Amateur Championship in 2009 at just 16 and went on to become the only teenager to win three European Tour titles. Currently ranked 52nd in the world.
Michelle Wie (US)
At 10 years old became the youngest ever to qualify for a USGA event but, despite reaching the top 10 of all four majors by the age of 16 in 2005, has just two tour wins since.
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