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Chinese golfer tees off young career

Updated: 2013-04-16 08:01
By Tang Zhe and Sun Xiaochen in Beijing and Garrett Johnston in Augusta, Georgia ( China Daily)

Observers wonder if China can become a great golfing nation, report Tang Zhe and Sun Xiaochen in Beijing and Garrett Johnston in Augusta, Georgia.

Chinese teenager Guan Tianlang had a memorable week at the Augusta National Golf Club in the United States.

When he teed off alongside the world's golfing elite on Thursday, the 14-year-old golfer became the youngest player in the history of the US Masters tournament. On Friday, he made history by becoming the first Chinese, and the youngest golfer ever, to make the cut in a major, making an instant mark on the game and winning fame virtually overnight.

Chinese golfer tees off young career

Guan with Chairman Billy Payne (center) and former US Masters champion Sandy Lyle after finishing his final round at the 2013 tournament in Augusta, Georgia. Mark Blinch / Reuters

Eventually, Guan finished the tournament in 58th place, 21 strokes behind winner Adam Scott of Australia and 17 behind his long-time idol Tiger Woods, who finished fourth.

Guan's achievement is noteworthy enough to pose an exciting question: Is China the next big thing in the world of golf?

In the eyes of Zhang Xiaoning, secretary-general of the Chinese Golf Association, who has led his association's "future star" program for six years, the answer is in the affirmative. Thanks to the program, tens of thousands of children have participated in amateur tournaments and training camps arranged by the association, and it looks as though China is well placed to become a major golfing nation.

"Guan is just one example. We have considerable talent in the under-16 age group. In the future, more and more Chinese golfers will emerge," Zhang said.

He has plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Even before Guan's recent efforts, several young Chinese golfers had made their mark on the world stage, including 24-year-old Feng Shanshan, whose victory at the LPGA Championship in June made her the first golfer from the Chinese mainland to win a major tournament. Meanwhile, in September, Wu Ashun served notice of his talent when he became the first male player from the Chinese mainland to win a tournament on the Japan Golf Tour.

"The impact of Guan's achievement goes beyond the tournament itself; it will be a huge driver for the development of golf in China," said Wu Wen, organizer of The China Futures Tour, an annual six-stop amateur tour in which Guan has participated.

Wu was in Augusta to watch Guan's game. "In making the cut at the Masters, Guan not only created a Chinese miracle, but also rewrote the history of the Masters. It's a gigantic shock to the golf world," she said. "Everyone here, from the spectators to the officials, is talking about Guan and Chinese golf. It's a considerable boost."

Ahead of the Masters, Guan was invited to play a practice round with the 1977 and 1981 Masters champion Tom Watson, and also meet with the "Golden Bear", 18-time major winner, Jack Nicklaus.

"Fourteen years old. I thought that was pretty sharp," said Nicklaus of Guan's achievement.

Great expectations

The Italian player Matteo Manessero was 16 in 2010, when he became the youngest person to play in the Masters at that time. Because of the adoration he received in his native country, he knows exactly what Guan means to China.

"I'm sure it's going to be huge for golf in China," Manessero said. "They need great Chinese golfers and golf stories to tell, and this is one of them, for sure."

The Italian was impressed by Guan's composure. "You kind of don't feel it while you're doing it," Manessero said of the pressures and the expectations of the people back home. "Once you grow up and you look back on it, you understand how important it was. But I don't think he's feeling the pressure right now, which is a good thing."

Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is also a Guan fan. "To come out here in the Masters and shoot the score he did on Thursday shows his composure and it's fabulous," he said.

Giuliani believes that the influence of one great athlete can change a country's perception of a sport. "Babe Ruth basically created baseball. It takes one great player to change a sport, to make an entire country focus on a sport," he said. "Hopefully he'll be it, and China is a great market for golf. It's an international sport, so it should be perfect for China."

The point is well illustrated by the tale of South Korea's Yang Yong-eun, who beat world No 1 Tiger Woods in the 2009 USPGA. That one victory dragged golf into the spotlight in Yang's home country, giving the player a unique perspective on Guan's achievement and his potential impact on golf in China.

"I think he's a good player," said Yang. "Fourteen years old is really unbelievable. He plays well and a lot of young people could come and play as well. In China, a lot of people play golf. Maybe more young people will take up the sport now."

The 13-year-old amateur Zhang Shilu is one of a growing number of youngsters playing the game. She practices at a golf club near the port of Dalian in Liaoning province, and hopes to have as great an impact as Guan.

"Guan leads golf in a delightful way, and is a great inspiration to those who have just started, or want to start the sport," said her father Zhang Zhiqiang.

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