2004: Special Report - Major challenge

Beijing

The China Golf Association is housed in a new but nondescript government office building in this capital city’s downtown business district.

Far Hills, N.J., or St. Andrews, Scotland, it isn’t.

Nor is the influence of the CGA anything like that of the U.S. Golf Association or the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. The CGA, founded in 1985, is but one small component of the Multi-Ball Games Division of the State Sport General Administration.

Along with golf, the Multi-Ball division regulates 11 other sports in China, such as baseball, softball, tennis, field hockey, table tennis, bowling, soccer, handball and volleyball. The Multi-Ball division has a full-time staff of seven government employees.

“They have their hands full, or hands tied. Probably both,” said Duncan Weir, who as R&A director of golf development is as familiar with the CGA as any foreign golf administrator.

“No volunteers in this setup, like you have in other countries around the world,” Weir said. “You get a sense that golf is pretty low down the government’s list of priority sports.”

Unless golf becomes part of the Olympic program, said Weir, the State Sport General Administration won’t take it seriously. “It’s not a game of the people,” he said.

Indeed, no golf posters or photos adorn the offices of the Multi-Ball Division. Seated in a small conference room and speaking through an interpreter, Jian Guo Hu, vice chairman of the Multi-Ball division, discussed the role of the China Golf Association.

“Through this structure, we coordinate all the people involved in golf and unite them in the effort to promote golf in China,” Hu said.

Committees focus on specific aspects of the game, including professional careers, amateurs, women, youth, seniors, agronomy, media and publicity.

“That means our administration is in charge of every aspect of golf,” Hu said.

Many believe the most daunting challenge for the CGA is the education of the country’s fast-growing golf population.

“The biggest problem,” said David Lloyd, “is the game has no history.”

Lloyd was born in one of the cradles of golf, Musselburgh, Scotland, but has lived in Hong Kong and south China for 16 years. He owns a high-profile golf shop in Hong Kong – despite its location in an alley – and is a member at three golf clubs in Hong Kong and Guangdong province. He writes an equipment column for Asian Golf Monthly magazine and plays to a single-digit handicap. Objecting to the proliferation of bogus handicaps in his region, he founded the South China Golf Association Limited.

Hence, Lloyd is an informed and outspoken observer of golf in China.

“Unlike how the game developed in the U.S. or Australia, where British professionals migrated and they brought with them the history and tradition, you’ve not had any of that really happen in China,” Lloyd said. “There are very few examples of professionals who have lasted more than a few months.

“So, you don’t get the experience and history coming overseas, and that spirit of integrity, honesty and sportsmanship doesn’t come into the game at the grass-roots level. If that’s not addressed, then what will happen is we won’t have the same game in China as you have in the States or Britain or Australia or wherever else it’s played with history and tradition.”

Lloyd’s concern is shared by Peter Dawson, secretary of the R&A.

“We at the R&A face quite a challenge in certain parts of the world where the game could develop very quickly,” Dawson said. “In getting the message across to these new countries about the game’s finer points and traditions, and why golf is such a great game . . . we have to look very closely at what’s happening in China in that regard. Tradition, the importance of etiquette, understanding that gambling and handicapping may not mix too well.

“Golf has a lot of strengths, and probably its key strength is the responsibility of self in the game. That’s fundamental to its survival and to its appeal. Without that history, those kind of points can be missed in the melee of golf development.”

Dawson said the R&A has become more “hands-on” in the international arena, specifically noting the creation of Weir’s position last year.

“We have to get out there and visit more,” Dawson said. “We have to forge close links with developing golf organizations, like the China Golf Association. Which we are doing.”

Zhi Qiang Cui, the English-speaking secretary general of the CGA, acknowledges that golf administrators in China face an upward climb.

“In other countries, you have different (regional and local) organizations to do this,” said Cui, referring to the mentoring of beginning golfers. “In China, we just have the China Golf Association, which is like an umbrella. We cover everything in the whole country.”

Cui said most golf clubs in China make an effort to educate their members on rules and etiquette.

“I think the problem in China is the same everywhere in Asia,” he said. “These are fast-developing golf countries. We face a lot of problems.”

Cui is an anomaly in Chinese golf. He took up the game 20 years ago and carries a 6 handicap. (The CGA licenses the USGA’s GHIN system.)

So he, too, understands Lloyd’s concern about the influx of uneducated newcomers to the game.

“Personally, I don’t call them golfers. I call them ball hitters,” Cui said. “They don’t know the rules and regulations, and the heritage. So we hope the golf clubs will help us educate them, tell them how to play proper golf. You must play golf as a traditional game. “

Lloyd said it’s imperative that the CGA implement training programs for club personnel and administrators, or else golf in China will degenerate into a free-for-all.

“The game only can be nurtured out of the existing outlets,” Lloyd said. “So the pressing need at the golf courses is to get an infrastructure into place which teaches people – the professionals, the general managers, the staff that is involved with the members – about history, the rules, what handicaps are, the basics of turfgrass management, tournament operations, handicapping, course architecture, how to fix and repair golf clubs. These are skills that are completely absent.

“What China needs, categorically, is classroom teaching. You’ve got to get the China Golf Association to mandate a professional education program, not just a PAT (playing ability test).”

The CGA’s Hu doesn’t disagree.

“What we are trying to do is establish regulations and the method for the training program,” Hu said. “We are trying to seek the proper way to develop golf in China on the basis of learning from the expertise and experience of countries where golf is popular. So it’s very important that we implement these various training programs in different aspects of golf.”

The R&A’s Weir appreciates the gravity of the situation, but he also sees it from a broader perspective, including that of referee at the Volvo China Open, an Asian Tour event.

The gallery was sparse, yet Weir was mesmerized as spectators arrived by bicycle and wandered through bunkers and across greens, pulling out flagsticks and peering inside the cup. They were largely silent, not knowing when to applaud.

“It was almost like people landing on the moon,” Weir said. “But in some ways their curiosity about the game was quite refreshing.”

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