China to showcase its golf progress at Asian Games

The Canton tower illuminates the sky over the city during preparations for the opening ceremony in the 16th Asian Games in Guangzhou. After six years of planning and billions of dollars in investment, Guangzhou is putting the final touches to its Asian Games.

More than 14,000 amateur athletes and officials from 45 Asian countries are converging on China for the 16th edition of the Asian Games in Guangzhou, starting Friday through Nov. 27. Among them are almost 200 golfers. While Korea and Japan are tipped to dominate the men’s and women’s golf tournaments, the host nation has high hopes of bridging the gap on its rivals.

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Make no mistake. Golf is still very much in its infancy in China. Banned during the Cultural Revolution and described as a prime example of Western decadence, it was just 26 years ago that the game was reintroduced in China courtesy of then leader Deng Xiaoping.

Today, there are about 400 courses in the country and the number of players taking up the game continues to escalate, even if it’s not at the rampant pace that many had predicted.

While golf’s inclusion in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games has led to calls for the Chinese government to provide funding for the game’s growth and the development of elite players, there’s no doubt that medal success at this month’s Asian Games would help to strengthen golf’s push as a mainstream sport.

Even though the hosts had unlimited exclusive access to the Dragon Lake Golf Club course, there’s no guarantee they will add to their solitary Asian Games golf medal – an individual silver delivered by Zhang Lian-wei in Hiroshima in 1994.

Having spent much the last two months camped out at Dragon Lake, they’ll be no excuse for them not intimately knowing every blade of grass on the course. Of more concern may be the possibility of burnout after a grueling schedule this year.

Huang Wenyi, Liu Yuxiang, Zhang Xinjun, Huo Wei, Zhang Jin and David Wei Wei comprise the Chinese team -- four will be selected by opening day.

Then there’s also the matter of the quality of the opposition, most notably from traditional regional heavyweights Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

This month’s field, for example, will include Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, still very much on a high after winning the Asian Amateur Championship in October.

In the four-man team event, in which the best three daily scores are counted, Matsuyama is joined by Satoshi Kodaira, Kenta Konishi and Masahiro Kawamura – all determined to secure Japan’s first team gold since 1998.

Possibly their main threat comes from the Korean quartet of Kim Meen-hwee, Lee Kyoung-hoon, Park Il-hwan and Lee Jae-hyeok. They are expecting nothing less than to emulate the gold-medal winning effort led by Kim Kyung-tae in Doha four years ago.

Anyone doubting the depth of the Korean amateur game should consider that 2010 British Amateur champion Jin Jeong, 2009 U.S. Amateur champion An Byeong-hun, 2009 Asian Amateur Championship winner Han Chang-won and U.S.-based Kim Sih-wan couldn’t get onto the first team.

Although acknowledging that China is still playing catch-up with the established golf powers, Zhang Xiaoning, secretary general of the China Golf Association, said it’s simply a matter of time before China begins to flex its golfing muscles.

“There is still a big gap between us and the Asian first-class golf countries, like South Korea, Japan and India,” Zhang told China Daily. “(But) we have been preparing for the Asian Games over the past two years. We have provided a lot of chances for the amateur golfers and a lot of young players have stood out.

“Playing on home soil, I just hope our young players can play at their normal level and get the much-needed experience to catch up with our neighbors.”

If any added inspiration for the China team was required, it came from Liang Wen-chong who carried the Asian Games torch during its relay run through Guangdong on Oct. 13.

Liang, world No. 65, said: “As a golfer, I feel so honored to be chosen as an Asian Games torch-bearer, especially in Zhongshan, my hometown. Zhongshan was where China’s first golf course was built (the Arnold Palmer-designed Zhongshan Hot Spring Golf Club) and has been an important part of Chinese golf.

“I hope my participation in the torch relay will help more people in China know about golf and support golf. I hope more schools can offer golf lessons and make more children interested in the game.”

An Asian Games medal or two for the Chinese would go a long way in helping that become a reality.

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