CHAM­PION MAK­ERS

In the search for gold, ei­ther it be on a medal or in cham­pi­onship win­ning, the in­vest­ment is in train­ing and ded­i­ca­tion. Belle Tay­lor talks to the coaches to find out what it takes.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - SUNDAY SPECIAL -

In down­town Bei­jing, in a base­ment in a res­i­den­tial com­plex, there is a 7-year-old boy with a bunch of golf balls. He is care­fully bal­anc­ing them to make a tower, obliv­i­ous to the adults speak­ing in se­ri­ous tones around him.

His Nor­we­gian coach, Andy Friis, is chat­ting to his fa­ther about the day’s les­son, the par­ent ea­ger to hear how his son is pro­gress­ing, Friis charges up to 1,200 yuan ($196) an hour for his ex­per­tise.

This is the Play­ers Club, a golf haven in the mid­dle of Bei­jing.

Large screens de­pict lush, rolling grass in front of minia­ture putting greens in a rab­bit war­ren of rooms, each no big­ger than a stu­dio apart­ment. Golfers can hit a vir­tual ball into the vir­tual dis­tance, spend­ing hours per­fect­ing their real-life golf swing with­out hav­ing to ven­ture be­yond the fourth ring road.

The next Chi­nese golf star might be breath­ing the fresh air at Mis­sion Hills Golf Club in Guang­dong prov­ince, but he or she could also be per­fect­ing their putting to the sounds of elec­tronic na­ture noises piped through speak­ers at an un­der­ground bunker that looks more night­club than golf club.

In a coun­try with land and wa­ter short­ages, in­door golf clubs pro­vide a way for the game to be played with­out suck­ing up valu­able re­sources.

“I think (clubs such as th­ese) are a good idea, be­cause we have a big pop­u­la­tion and we don’t have much land,” says Song Huaxun from the CGA. “If you want more peo­ple to know golf th­ese clubs need less land area, and cost less money.”

Friis, co-founder of the Player’s Club, is pas­sion­ate about golf de­vel­op­ment. He may charge big money for his oneon-one train­ing, but he also pours his time into de­vel­op­ing golf at a grass­roots level, stag­ing tour­na­ments to give young­sters more op­por­tu­ni­ties to play.

Friis has been in­volved in golf in China since 2005, when he first came to the coun­try, ex­cited about the op­por­tu­ni­ties in China. While he is still ex­cited, he says the game has de­vel­oped more slowly than he ex­pected, but that it started to change in 2009, with the Olympic an­nounce­ment.

“Now you see golf de­vel­op­ing on a dif­fer­ent level,” says Friis. “Be­fore it was pri­vate, and govern­ment poli­cies were prob­a­bly a lit­tle bit against golf. But now dif­fer­ent prov­inces are putting money into club de­vel­op­ment, and dif­fer­ent provin­cial teams.”

Friis’ grand plans are helped by his as­so­ci­a­tion with Kel Llewellyn, a straight-talk­ing Aus­tralian who is best-known as coach to China’s No 1 player Liang Wen­chong. He also knows a thing or two about de­vel­op­ing golf in a coun­try new to the sport.

Llewellyn is some­thing of a golf­ing le­gend in Asia, hav­ing worked in In­dia, Bhutan, Thai­land, Malaysia, Sin­ga­pore and In­done­sia set­ting up ju­nior pro­grams. He is pas­sion­ate in his be­lief that to be­come a strong golf­ing na­tion, you need a strong ju­nior pro­gram.

“I think if golf wants to progress more quickly, it needs com­pe­ti­tion be­tween the prov­inces. Our plan — Andy and mine — is to start this,” says Llewellyn. “You need to have a lot of com­pe­ti­tion, this is how it’s done.”

Friis, 30, and Llewellyn, 72, are both wary, how­ever, of the sin­gle-mind­ed­ness in which some wealthy Chi­nese fam­i­lies are pur­su­ing their golf­ing dream.

“We find kids are start­ing as young as 3 or 5, or 6 and 7. They’ll get wrist prob­lems and back prob­lems, es­pe­cially if the tech­nique is not taught prop­erly,” says Llewellyn.

Most of the young­sters pur­su­ing golf at a high level in China are from wealthy fam­i­lies who can af­ford tuition at pri­vate academies. Many top young Chi­nese golfers are en­rolled in elite sports col­leges in North Amer­ica or Aus­tralia while oth­ers are in lo­cal academies at­tached to ex­clu­sive coun­try clubs.

“Golf is still con­sid­ered a rich peo­ple’s game,” says Chang Kai, deputy gen­eral man­ager of Tianma Golf Acad­emy lo­cated near Shang­hai. The acad­emy trains teenagers in golf, but works with Shang­hai Xi­wai In­ter­na­tional School to en­sure the young ath­letes also re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion.

“We saw a lot of ju­niors who dropped out of school for their sports, dream­ing of be­com­ing top pro­fes­sion­als, but they do not know how tough it is in the pro field,” says Chang.

Chang be­lieves the govern­ment push to have more youths play golf will lead to more good play­ers, but now the par­ents of his stu­dents at Tianma see golf as an in­vest­ment for the fu­ture.

“Go­ing to a US col­lege with a Di­vi­sion I golf schol­ar­ship is their goal,” Chang says.

How do you build a cham­pion? That is the ques­tion be­ing asked by par­ents who are spend­ing thou­sands of dollars hir­ing the best coaches and send­ing their chil­dren to the best sports schools.

Llewellyn thinks money may ac­tu­ally work against the goal.

“Rich peo­ple’s kids don’t be­come cham­pi­ons, their life is too easy. Tough peo­ple be­come cham­pi­ons,” says Llewellyn. He may have been talk­ing about his own stu­dent, Liang.

The 35-year-old golfer is a bona fide cham­pion, the only Chi­nese in the world golf rank­ing’s top 100. He is ex­pected to com­pete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics and many as­pir­ing cham­pi­ons look up to him.

“His par­ent didn’t know any­thing about golf. In the vil­lage they are farm­ers, so they ac­tu­ally didn’t put any pres­sure on Liang,” the golfer’s man­ager Jacky Peng says.

“He had some tal­ent, but most im­por­tant, he worked very hard,” says Peng.

Of course, rags to riches sto­ries are not al­ways the case.

Guan Tian­lang, the 14-yearold wun­derkind cur­rently wow­ing the golf­ing world spends three months a year train­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. When he is China he can be found putting in the hours at the ex­clu­sive Troon Golf Acad­emy at Lion Lake Coun­try Club in Guang­dong.

He also ob­vi­ously has re­mark­able per­sonal drive and tal­ent.

Llewellyn says a true cham­pion, whether they have the best train­ing in the world or a sec­ond-hand set of clubs and a lot of time, has some­thing spe­cial, an added de­ter­mi­na­tion which can­not be taught.

“You get par­ents who, when their kids are 3 or 4 years old, are push­ing them into this. There is no space to form the ini­tia­tive or imag­i­na­tion re­quired,” says Llewellyn.

“Most kids don’t be­come cham­pi­ons.”

Chang from Tianma thinks the prom­ise of golf in China lies in its ac­ces­si­bil­ity to the masses.

“The chal­lenges will be how to lower the stan­dard to make it more af­ford­able to oth­ers.”

The fu­ture seems bright. The Olympics are just around the cor­ner and Guan’s win has in­spired many.

“Golf is def­i­nitely grow­ing up,” Chang says. Con­tact the writer at bel­letay­lor@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

LI HAO / FOR CHINA DAILY

For­eign coaches are sought af­ter by par­ents who hope golf will open doors of op­por­tu­nity for their chil­dren.

PAUL LAKATOS / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

China’s No 1 golfer Liang Wen­chong is ex­pected to com­pete in the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympics.

PENG TONG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Ex­perts say the fu­ture of golf in China de­pends on ju­nior pro­grams.

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