China’s golf culture beginning to change

Story posted May 3, 2013 in Sports, China by Mike Still

   SHANGHAI –As Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera captivated audiences in a sudden death playoff at the 2013 Masters in April, a young golfer with far less experience also made headlines. 

    Fourteen-year-old Tianlang Guan was the youngest player ever to compete in the Masters. The Chinese teen was the only one of six amateurs competing in Augusta to make the cut. Despite finishing near the bottom of the leaderboard with a 12-over, albeit just three strokes back of three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Guan impressed fellow competitors and galleries.

     Two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw described Guan, the first male Chinese golfer in recent memory to achieve international success, to ESPN as confident and impressive. 

     For a country with a relatively brief history in golf -- its first modern golf course was built in 1984 -- the eighth grader’s success may represent a new direction for the sport in China.

    There are currently more than 300 golf courses in China, with more being built annually. But most of those courses are inaccessible to most people.

    In the U.S., it’s not difficult to find a local course and play nine holes for $20. But that course can’t be found in China as most of the places to play are luxurious country clubs reserved only for the financially elite.

    “It’s definitely like a social status, to be a member at a big club and have that opportunity just to play,” said Cyrus Janssen, an American who serves as the lead instructor at Shanghai’s world-renown Sheshan International Golf Club.

    “In China, in Asia, golf is more than just a sport. It’s a lifestyle," he said. "That’s the type of lifestyle they’re looking for.”

    Yan Wang is Chairman of the Board of Changchun Guoxin Investment Group (CGIG), a Chinese company that got its start in real estate development in 1998. Wang, 55, said he began playing golf out of curiosity 10 years ago and now plays several times a month.

    Because he travels so frequently, Wang owns memberships to a handful of golf clubs all over China including ones near Beijing and Hainan. He said he’ll often finish off business trips with a round of golf with his colleagues. 

    David Lee, who helps develop and build new courses in China and also works as a consultant for the championship-quality Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai’s Pudong District, says golf’s inaccessibility for many Chinese who can’t afford to play or get a membership is understandable.

    “The boom of interest in golf, as you can see throughout golf’s history, goes with the economic growth, hand in hand. Whether it’s the UK, the [United] States, or Japan, Korea or Taiwan, now China...economic growth and then there’s more people interested in golf,” Lee said. 

    According to Lee, golf’s popularity in China took off in 2002, around the same time that the country’s economy did. That year China’s annual GDP soared past $1 trillion as the economy was boosted by strong growth in exports, foreign investments and consumer demand.

    As China’s wealthy became richer more people could afford pricey memberships to golf clubs, like Tomson’s $200,000 price tag.

    Members at Tomson enjoy a clubhouse with five-star amenities, including a second-floor restaurant that overlooks the championship quality course. Female caddies dressed in pink pull golfers' bags through the 18-hole, 7,400-yard course and past sparking water hazards with the Shanghai skyline in the backdrop.

    Many Chinese will never get the chance to play. Meanwhile, those who do often don't understand its traditional rules and etiquette, Sheshan instructor Janssen said

    Sheshan hosted the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions from 2005-2011, a tournament won by players like Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Janssen recalls seeing many people spitting, smoking and taking photographs at past WGC-HSBC Champions events -- behavior that doesn’t fly with golf’s tradition and has become taboo during professional tournaments.

    Janssen does believe that as Chinese golfers gain experience, though, that understanding will improve.

    “Every year it gets better and better, people are getting more knowledgeable,” he said. “Even in social rounds, when people go play by themselves, less and less people use their cell phones … It’s only going to take time.”

    Along with that increased knowledge of the sport’s tradition there are also many young players in China getting started with golf. Not far from Sheshan is the Tianma Country Club where a small group of golfers from ages 8-16 are working to improve.

    The academy works in partnership with the Yani Tseng Sports Management Co. Tseng,  a 24-year-old Taiwanese professional golfer, has twice been named LPGA Tour Player of the Year.  

     Arnaud Garrigues, Senior Vice President and Director of Instruction of Tianma’s academy, said his students are dedicated to getting better with each day.

    “We try to be very focused,” said Garrigues, who works with 18 students in the program. “Try to do some relaxed training, have competitions between each other to keep it fun. They have to understand that just because they’re having fun, doesn’t mean they can’t learn and improve.”

    Jenna Gao, 16, has been training at Tianma for nearly three years and now participates in the school’s Long Term program. She began playing with her father at age 10. She said she loves the hardworking lifestyle she has in the program as she one day hopes to play professionally.

    “I like this lifestyle,” Gao said. “It’s hard to explain. I just love it.” 

    Tianma’s Long Term program charges little more than $14,000 for a full year’s tuition.

    While that price for lessons is more than most can afford in China, Guan’s success may spark an interest for more youths to take up the sport on their own and get more people playing.

    That new direction for golf in China will surely take time, though.

    “[Golfers] are getting more exposure…starting to travel abroad, more tournaments are coming to China,” said Janssen. “As time continues, there will be more and more tournaments here because the growth is out here.”