Golf may be the next big thing in China thanks to the fact that it will be an of­fi­cial medal sport in the next Olympics in Brazil. The star­tling suc­cess of a 14- year- old Chi­nese pro­tégé is also win­ning the sport new fans. Belle Tay­lor finds out more.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE -

Song Huaxun from the China Golf As­so­ci­a­tion proudly shows off the wall of plaques dis­play­ing each sport un­der the Multi-ball Games Ad­min­is­tra­tive Cen­ter of the Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Sport.

“We have two Olympic sports now,” he says, point­ing them out. “Rugby, and golf.”

The fact that th­ese two sports, played the world over by mil­lions of peo­ple have been lumped in the same cat­e­gory as bocce (a type of Ital­ian lawn bowls) and sepak takraw (a com­bi­na­tion of soc­cer and ten­nis played mainly in South East Asia) gives some in­di­ca­tion of how re­cently golf was con­sid­ered a fringe sport in China. That’s chang­ing, and fast.

Golf has been slowly gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity in the Mid­dle King­dom for the past 30 years, but there are two things which are now shift­ing the sport from the fringes and into the spot­light. One of those things is the Olympics, the other is an eighth grader.

“Golf is now an Olympic event and that’s good news for us and the game,” Song says.

A 2009 de­ci­sion to in­clude golf in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has led golf from be­ing played only by a small group of rich Chi­nese, to a sport that is en­joy­ing govern­ment-friendly poli­cies to en­cour­age more chil­dren from all walks of life to pick up a golf club.

“Since golf be­came an Olympic game, ev­ery prov­ince with their own sports bureau has be­gun to set up their teams,” Song says.

There is also a big­ger fo­cus on ju­niors.

CGA, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with a spon­sor bank, runs the only of­fi­cially sanc­tioned ju­nior golf pro­gram in China — a se­ries of golf camps across the coun­try to en­cour­age more young ath­letes at the grass­roots to play. Since 2008, they have also run golf classes in 100 schools across the coun­try, reach­ing thou­sands of chil­dren.

While the prospect of Olympic gold may have sparked govern­ment in­ter­est, pub­lic in­ter­est has been stim­u­lated by a hum­ble teenager.

In April, 14-year-old Guan Tian­lang be­came the youngest player in his­tory to play in a Masters Tour­na­ment. Not only did the teenager rub shoul­ders with Tiger Woods, but he won le­gions of fans with his as­sured play­ing, win­ning the sil­ver cup for top am­a­teur in the tour­na­ment.

“When you look at what Guan did in Au­gusta, that has in­stantly spurred a lot of growth,” says Ray­mond Roes­sel, founder of event man­age­ment firm In­fi­nite Ideas In­ter­na­tional, and the man be­hind many of China’s top golf events. He also helps or­ga­nize promis­ing young Chi­nese golfers to train in the US.

“In the last four or five months since he played so well, and then went on to play a cou­ple of tour events, there has been grow­ing in­ter­est in golf.”

While golf is con­sid­ered pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive for the ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese, the com­bi­na­tion of more grass­roots op­por­tu­ni­ties to play the game, com­bined with Guan’s in­spi­ra­tional achieve­ments, means golf in China is poised to en­joy a boom in pop­u­lar­ity.

In 2004, there were only 174 golf cour­ses in the coun­try, to­day there are 600.

The jump in the num­ber of cour­ses has forced prices (slightly) down, at a time when Chi­nese are wealth­ier, mak­ing the game ac­ces­si­ble to more peo­ple than ever be­fore.

The SARS epi­demic in 2003 gave golf an un­ex­pected boost as busi­ness­men opted to forego in­ti­mate restau­rants for the airy ex­panse of the fair­way to seal deals.

There might only be an es­ti­mated 400,000 Chi­nese golfers, but statis­tics from Mind­share Global Sports In­dex put the num­ber of TV view­ers of golf in China at 39.7 mil­lion.

This might be a drop in the ocean con­sid­er­ing the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of 1.3 bil­lion, but it is a big­ger golf au­di­ence than the United King­dom and the United States com­bined. Sports academies in North Amer­ica and Aus­tralia are fill­ing up with the chil­dren of China’s wealthy.

Crit­ics say govern­ment re­stric­tions on the num­ber of cour­ses al­lowed to be built and the high cost of the game will mean golf will never have a ma­jor im­pact on China. That may be so, but China is cer­tainly set to have a ma­jor in­flu­ence on the game of golf.


Four­teen-year-old Guan Tian­lang is the youngest player in his­tory to play in a Masters Tour­na­ment.

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