Last week, just around the time your 11 p.m. news was coming on along the East Coast of the United States, golf balls were in the air half a world away, in China. If you missed it, that’s understandable. After all, it’s football season, right?
But know this: The PGA Tour’s three-week Asian Swing is becoming an important segment of the never-ending PGA Tour schedule.
Successful events in Malaysia (won by Pat Perez) and Jeju Island, South Korea (Justin Thomas) were followed last week by the biggest of the three, the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, where Justin Rose ran down World No. 1 Dustin Johnson to win on Sunday. This is supposed to be a sleepy time on the schedule, yet 26 of the world’s top 30 golfers turned up to compete in Shanghai.
Well, for one, there are limited fields with no cut (read: guaranteed payday), travel expenses are covered and there is plenty of money and world-ranking points to spread around. (For Americans, because it’s a WGC event, Ryder Cup points also were offered; it was the lone event of the fall portion of the 2017-18 schedule to offer points.) The purse in Korea was $9.25 million; in China last week, an additional $500,000 ($9.75 million) was thrown into the pot. In other words, it’s a long, long flight, but a nice way to get a jump on 2018. All three winners practically have one foot in next September’s Tour Championship.
We used to wonder aloud whether 1.3 billion residents of China cared at all about golf, but slowly China is making the transformation from “golf curiosity” to being a real player. Listen closely to this drumbeat. It will only become louder.
China had a women’s medal winner in the Olympics in 2016 (Shanshan Feng, bronze) and this summer had one of its own (Haotong Li) shoot a closing 63 at storied Royal Birkdale to finish third at the British Open. Beyond the Olympics, there is no bigger world stage.
At a news conference in Shanghai, Zhang Xiaoning, president of the China Golf Association, and PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced a new initiative that will strengthen the sport in the region: a new PGA China Tour that will kick off in 2018. The partnership agreement covers four years.
“As the sport of golf is categorized as the most influential sport in the 21st century, especially in Chinese golf development, it has great potential in an up-and-coming and rising time for the sport here,” Zhang said.
The PGA Tour, which keeps an office in Shanghai, will enhance the new tour with resources and support, and provide a route for top players to access the Web.com Tour (top five PGA China players get cards) and, potentially, the PGA Tour. This season, history is being made as not one, but two Chinese players, Xinjun Zhang and Zecheng “Marty” Dou, hold cards on the PGA Tour, having graduated through the Web.com.
“I hope that one day I can display the Chinese flag on some of the wins on the PGA Tour,” Xinjun Zhang said.
What a moment that would be. Certainly, all of this begs a question: Why would a U.S.-based pro tour, the mightiest in the world, care to wake a nation that has been lukewarm to golf? As selfish as it sounds, what’s in it for us?
As the PGA Tour continues to broaden its footprint globally, China gives it one more strong market. But it’s a bigger-picture deal. Monahan said the overall value to the game to have stars emerge in China is “immeasurable,” and something that will continue to play out over time.
“One of the six tenets to our mission statement,” Monahan said, “is to grow the game, and any time we are actively growing, diversifying, developing the game, opening new markets, hopefully everybody that’s involved in the game is benefiting.”
Whereas Haotong Li contended deep into the weekend two years ago in Shanghai (he was one shot out of the lead heading into the final round), this time, none of the seven Chinese players in the field contended. (Ashun Wu was the top finisher, tying for 20th.) There will come a day, and soon, where that will change, and that Old Tom Morris Trophy awarded to the HSBC Champions winner in Shanghai will be hoisted by a Chinese competitor.
In New Zealand on Sunday, a 17-year-old from China, Lin Yuxin, won the ninth Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. With his trophy he will get starts at the Masters in April and British Open at Carnoustie in July. Youths from his country, some of whom don’t yet play the game, will watch him compete, get inspired, and wonder how they can get involved.
And the game grows. One small seed at a time.
(Note: This story appears in the October 23, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)