By Dave Seanor
Kids will be kids, whether they come from San Diego, Santiago, Sarajevo or Shanghai.
That’s why Song Liangliang, leader of the BMW China Junior Team, had to lay down the law first thing on a Monday morning in the athletes’ cafeteria at the IMG Academies. The 22 kids in his charge, ages 9 to 17, who seconds earlier had been cutting up and jostling each other, snapped to attention as Song began to speak.
The gist of his lecture, delivered in Mandarin, could be roughly translated: “You’ve come to the United States as representatives of the 1.3 billion citizens of China. Don’t screw it up.”
Thus began an 11-day training session for China’s most promising juniors at IMG’s David Leadbetter Golf Academy. The first visit by a Chinese national golf team to the United States was born of a collaboration among the China Golf Association, the Acushnet Cos. and IMG.
They came to measure themselves against top juniors in the United States. To learn what it takes to reach an elite level.
By all accounts, Team China did its homeland proud.
“I’ve seen a great work ethic and lots of talent,” said Malcolm Joseph, one of five Leadbetter instructors who worked with the Chinese during their stay.
The team arrived Feb. 3 in Los Angeles and was escorted to Oceanside, Calif., for swing evaluations and club fitting the next day at the Titleist Test Center. From there it was on to Florida, where the real work – and fun – began.
The 12 boys and 10 girls were divided into five groups according to age. Instruction included full swing sessions on the range, putting, short game and video analysis. Most afternoons were spent playing on IMG’s El Conquistador course, usually with a teacher offering game management and shot selection tips. One day was reserved for an exhibition match featuring four of the top-ranked players in the Golfweek/Titleist Performance Index, another for a day trip to Walt Disney World’s MGM Studios in Orlando, the final day for an international friendship match that paired Chinese players with full-time students at the IMG Leadbetter Academy.
“We wanted our players to be exposed to the best,” Song said through an interpreter.
China is a latecomer to golf, as the game was forbidden during the Cultural Revolution until the
mid-1980s. With a traditional admiration for all things Western, a population of 1.3 billion and a mushrooming middle class, the country anticipates a participation boom unrivaled in the annals of golf.
The current PGA European Tour schedule includes six stops in China, giving aspiring golfers exposure to the creme de la creme of professional golf, including the man himself, Tiger Woods.
There are only about 230 courses in China, most of them upscale private clubs affiliated with real estate developments, but driving ranges abound in urban areas. (Because of land-use issues, the Chinese government in 2004 issued a moratorium on new course construction. Growth hasn’t stopped, however, because projects that had been on the drawing boards were permitted to proceed.)
China’s surging economy has produced a voracious middle class, which the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates could account for 40 percent of the country’s population by 2020. Another reckoning, by the French bank BNP Paribas Peregrine, pegged the Chinese middle class – those who can buy private homes and cars, and can afford the cost of education and holidays – at 100 million people by 2010. Western luxury goods are all the rage, which explains why BMW was more than happy to take on sponsorship of the China Junior Team. And for many Chinese, golf represents another rung on the personal wealth ladder.
Joseph, an Englishman who played college golf at the University of Central Florida, has seen the transformation firsthand. He helped open the Leadbetter Academy at Mission Hills Golf Club – a 10-course complex in Shenzhen that hosted the 1995 World Cup. He taught there for three years before moving to the IMG Academy in 2004.
When he arrived at Mission Hills, Joseph said, “80 percent of the golfers were from Hong Kong, the rest from the mainland,” referring to a 100-year history of golf in Hong Kong under British rule. “When I left, it was more like 60-40. As their wealth increases, it’s good to be seen socially as a member of a golf course.”
What’s missing from the Chinese golf equation, however, is a teaching and competition infrastructure. Building it is Song’s mission.
Song, 48, is vice chairman of the China Golf Association. It oversees all aspects of the game. Three years ago, the CGA was simply a component of the Multi-Ball Games Division of the State Sport General Administration. A staff of seven shared responsibilities for running 12 sports. Today, Song said, he is one of five employees dedicated to golf.
“Among the eight sports (in his newly created subdivision), the popularity potential of golf is the biggest,” Song said, noting that participation in China is growing 20 percent per year. (Estimates vary widely, from 500,000 golfers in the country to nearly 2 million.)
The skill level of the China Junior Team – solid ball strikers but poor strategists – came as no surprise to the IMG teaching staff.
The near unanimous opinion of Western golf instructors is that players from Asia become fixated with swing mechanics and don’t take the time to learn course management and other nuances of the game.
“You learn to play by playing,” Joseph said. “I’ve seen significant improvement in a lot of the kids this week on the range, but they haven’t taken it to the course yet.”
If that mentality exists with the Chinese, it’s exacerbated by the dearth of public golf facilities – “You can’t just tee it up and walk nine holes somewhere,” Joseph notes – and the academic demands junior golfers must juggle.
The typical elementary or secondary school week in China is six days, 11 hours per day. Sunday is the only day open for youngsters to practice or play; even top-level players are lucky to compete
in 10 tournaments per year. Team China took advantage of the country’s three-week winter break from school to make this trip.
“We will not overstep school for golf,” Song said.
Team members were selected via points accumulated, by age group, in a five-tournament series conducted during the six-week summer break. Each event had a field of 120 to 150 players. Song said the CGA will add regional tournaments to encourage more participation.
Meanwhile, the CGA is grappling with demand for qualified instructors. To become a CGA certified instructor, candidates must pass a playing ability test, a rules test and a golf terminology test.
Most clubs in China employ British or Australian professionals to run the golf operations; Song said there are about 150 CGA-certified Chinese professionals. The plan is to add a broader variety of competency tests and develop four classifications of professionals, Song said.
Joseph had a hand in mentoring 10 Chinese instructors at Mission Hills.
“What you’ve typically got now is a good Chinese golfer, who’s probably self-taught, who takes a playing ability test, and then they’re set free to teach,” Joseph said. “But the good teaching fundamentals as Team China, as we know them aren’t there. They usually just teach homemade swings.”
Louise Wong, one of the Chinese instructors who accompanied the team, is typical. Wong, a pro at the Chung Shan Hot Spring Golf Club in Guangdong Province, gained most of her golf expertise by attending the John Jacobs schools that make periodic visits to China.
“I want to learn more about how to teach,” she said.
Chinese coach Shen Hao – who goes by the English name Howie – learned to teach during three years at the Mission Hills Leadbetter Academy.
“We have a lot of things to do when we get back to China,” Shen said. “The first is to help the kids’ parents learn the difference between how the game is played and taught at home, and how it’s done here.”
Which is why opportunities like this visit to the IMG facility are so important to the future of golf in China. Few, if any, of the youngsters who made this trip are destined for the PGA Tour, but some might become professional teachers, far more grounded in golf and more highly qualified to teach than their predecessors.
As for touring pros, the most accomplished from China is Zhang Lian-Wei, who was given a special invitation to the Masters in 2004 and missed the cut by a shot. In 2003 the low-hitting Zhang became the first Chinese player to win on the European Tour, besting Ernie Els by a stroke at the Caltex Masters in Singapore. He followed his ’04 Masters appearance with a T-47 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic but missed the cut at The Memorial. Improved driving accuracy has helped Zhang notch two top-12s in five European Tour events this season, including T-7 at the Volvo China Open. As of Feb. 17 he was 37th on the Order of Merit.
Six women from China have played on the Futures Tour the last two seasons; there is a China Golf Tour, which was started essentially as a developmental circuit for players who hope to qualify for berths reserved exclusively for native Chinese in the six domestic European Tour events.
Most promising among Chinese juniors is 16-year-old Mu Hu, who has lived in Orlando, Fla., for three years, honing his game with David Leadbetter. Mu is No. 8 in the Golfweek/Titleist Performance Index. He participated in the aforementioned exhibition match, shooting 1 under for nine holes at El Conquistador.
Asked what it will take to ignite a golf explosion in China, Mu said: “There has to be a superstar. A lot of people play golf, but it’s mostly CEOs. Not many junior golfers are that good. There needs to be more participation among juniors.”
“Most of these kids will come back (to the States). And good players will keep coming.”
Is it he, Mu was asked, who is destined to become that superstar?
“Hopefully,” he said, before pausing and nodding toward the Team China players who were watching the match. “Or one of us.”