2006: Line forms to left of cash register
The way players on the Chinese Junior Team excitedly pressed their faces against the windows of the tour bus, you’d think they just pulled up to Disney World.
Not quite. Try a typical golf discount retail store.
They hadn’t even smiled earlier in the day when told teenage soccer star Freddy Adu was practicing less than 200 yards away, but they gleefully poured off the bus to shop.
“It’s much bigger,” Luo Wenhao – who goes by Bobby – replied when asked how the store compared to any in his homeland.
The smallest objects brought the most joy. Miniature permanent markers, plastic semicircles used to draw a straight line on a golf ball and other tiny accessories were snatched up.
A group of girls bought two boxes of golf balls stamped with “It’s a boy” and “It’s a girl,” most likely unaware that they’re meant to be used as birth announcements.
The team’s next stop was a supermarket. In China, most shopping is done in outdoor markets. With a few exceptions in the major cities, grocery stores are about the size of an American convenience store.
The kids were dazzled by gallon tubs of Neapolitan ice cream. They giggled before two of them lifted the large container into their cart. Their joy was curbed only when told they couldn’t cook a frozen pizza in the microwave oven in their room at the IMG Academies. In China, pizza is available only at American restaurants such as Pizza Hut.
They also loaded up on small packages of ramen noodles, which are purchased by the bucket in their home country.
The shopping cart was almost half full by the trip’s end. It seemed a lot of food for one week, especially since team members were served three meals per day at the Academy.
But then Bobby pointed at 13-year-old Wu Shuai, who at 5-foot-8 is taller than many Chinese adults, and said, “They eat a lot,” as he puffed his cheeks and held his arms out wide.
The charisma that made Bobby the undoubted leader of his group of 11- and 12-year-old boys was evident throughout the day.
During an impromptu chipping contest for a “cola,” Bobby thrust his arms in the air whenever his wristy stroke sent his ball into a basket. He’d proudly shout his team’s score, and flash his broad, toothy smile, when partner Liang Zheng (James) sank a shot.
Bobby’s energy carried over to his golf swing, a quick motion with excess swaying and turning, not surprising for an active youngster who is always on the move.
Bobby walked around and rapped 20-footers off the artificial-turf putting green while his teammates silently repeated practice strokes and drills.
On the range, he posed after hitting perfect shots. He shouted, “Shank!” and let go of his club when he struck a ball off the hosel. After chunking another shot he smiled and stuck out his tongue.
“He needs a swing that has some room for his natural flair,” said the group’s instructor, Malcolm Joseph. “He has a real passion for the game, a real natural instinct. He didn’t have great technique, but he could get the job done halfway decent.”
Joseph didn’t want to overload the young player by trying to overhaul his swing, so he worked mostly on Bobby’s posture.
The same couldn’t be said for James, who’d taken lessons from Joseph at the David Leadbetter Academy at Mission Hills Golf Club in China.
Joseph immediately noticed James had fallen into many of the old habits the instructor had worked to correct. After working again with Joseph for several days, James gained 30 yards off the tee.
By the weekend, Wu’s swing didn’t resemble the one he had brought to Bradenton. Joseph was impressed Wu had adopted the changes that turned his large hook into a high, gentle draw, which allowed him to take advantage of the length afforded by his adult-sized frame. His new swing resembled the modern action of David Leadbetter protégé Charles Howell III.
Liu Yifan (Ivan) also hit a gentle draw. He was probably the team’s most consistent ball-striker, repeatedly hitting low left-to-right shots.
It was hard to know which was a bigger thrill – the trip to the grocery store or an improved golf game.