2006: China’s best? Mu Hu, that’s who

The future of Chinese golf has a strong and sturdy build, an engaging smile, a nimble sense of humor and a powerful swing that would blend quite nicely into a crowd on the practice tee at any PGA Tour event. It also should be noted that Mu Hu doesn’t lack for confidence.

A few months ago, when the 16-year-old ventured home to China to play in the HSBC Champions tournament not far from Shanghai, he had a chance meeting with the only player at the event garnering more media attention than he was – one Tiger Woods. The two exchanged pleasantries, and as they parted Hu told Woods, “Hopefully we’ll play together on Sunday.”

Woods took a liking to the youth’s conviction. “There you go,” he told Hu.

Hu, the field’s lone amateur, beat Woods by a stroke that Sunday, shooting 68. (“I see it as a big deal,” Hu said. “I was pretty proud of that.”) For the week, though, Woods lapped the teen by 27 shots.

“Mu just likes to remember the good ones (rounds),” his mother, Jenny, said with a laugh.

It has been almost five years since Jenny and her son left China for the United States to provide Mu, then 11, a chance to chase a new life in golf. Mu’s father, Jian Song, stayed behind to run the elevator company he started in 1992.

Mu Hu was a pioneer, enrolling at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., as the only Chinese golfer at the complex. (Today, there are seven.) People back in China wondered what he was doing, leaving a nice school and comfortable life in Shenzhen for a new land where he didn’t know the language, and for a game few of them had ever seen.

It hasn’t always been easy. Speaking in Chinese, Jian Song, a sportsman who wanted to guide his son into athletics, said he “felt a lack of something in his life” when his son headed to the United States. The dad loved to play golf but found he couldn’t play after his son was gone. There were only two truly happy times in his day: One in the morning, one in the evening. That’s when Mu would phone home.

But Mu Hu, who today speaks proficiently in English and Mandarin, says he has matured quicker because of the path he traveled, and his game has blossomed. He has played in a handful of European Tour and Asian Tour events (tying for 11th at the Asian Tour’s 2004 Sanya Open, where he shot 65) and has become a force on the American junior circuit.

Hu’s goal for 2006 is to be the American Junior Golf Association’s Player of the Year. By fall 2008 he wants to be playing golf at an American university. By 2010, his mother estimates, there will be more than 50 Chinese youths living here to hone their golf games, following Mu’s model.

The strength of Hu’s game is his driving. He’s long (about a year away from being average Tour length, says his instructor, the renowned David Leadbetter) and when he misses a fairway, he does so on the correct side. How is his short game? “I can almost make up and down from anywhere,” he said assuredly.

In late 2003, Jenny and Mu decided to move near Orlando, allowing him to be closer to the tutelage of Leadbetter at the teacher’s academy at ChampionsGate. Hu hits balls there every day after school, usually for four-plus hours, and he visits with Leadbetter about once a week.

“Technique-wise, he’s got a great golf swing – I mean really, really good,” said Leadbetter. “He has a very good work ethic. He’s very focused, very single minded. He’s a really good kid, too. He’s funny. He speaks perfect English. You can only see great things for him down the road.

“He’s got the looks, the fashion sense, a good sense of humor . . . he’s got all the assets. I think there is a tremendous amount expected of him, especially in China, so I think it’s good that he’s here.”

China’s top player these days is Zhang Lian-Wei, 40, who has won on the European Tour and played in the Masters in 2004. But those involved with golf in China realize Hu is the player of the future.

“Every junior golfer in China knows who Mu Hu is,” said Song Liangliang, vice chairman of the China Golf Association. “Some people look to him as a role model. They really respect him for his ability to come to the United States, to the IMG Academies. A lot of kids try to emulate him. He has a very strong character when he’s playing golf. A very strong attitude.”

And it’s only a matter of time, most believe, until he’s competing next to Tiger Woods on Sundays.

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