GOLD ON GREEN
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.
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.