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Fore! Golf is catching on in China

As Adam Scott and Angel Cabrera captivated golf fans in a sudden death playoff at this year’s Masters Tournament, 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, Ga., to make the cut. Despite finishing near the bottom of the pack with a 12-over par, Guan impressed fellow competitors and galleries.

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 more than 300 golf courses in China, and more are being built annually. But unlike the easily affordable and accessible public courses in the United States, most of those in China are at luxurious country clubs reserved 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-renowned 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 the chairman of the board of Changchun Guoxin Investment Group, a Chinese private enterprise 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 played several times a month.

Because he travels so frequently, Wang has memberships at golf clubs all over China. He often finishes business trips with rounds of golf with his colleagues.

David Lee, who helps develop and build golf courses in China and also works as a consultant for the championship-quality Tomson Golf Club in Shanghai’s Pudong district, said it was understandable that golf was out of reach for most Chinese.

“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 U.K., the 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 the country’s economy did. That year China’s gross domestic product soared past $1 trillion as strong growth in exports, foreign investments and consumer demand boosted the economy.

As China’s wealthy became richer, more people could afford pricey memberships to golf clubs, such as 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 never will get the chance to play. And those who do often don’t understand the game’s rules and etiquette, Sheshan instructor Janssen said.

Sheshan hosted the World Golf Championship-HSBC Champions from 2005 to 2011, a tournament won by players such as Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. Janssen recalled seeing many people spitting, smoking and taking photographs at the matches, behavior that doesn’t fly with golf’s traditions and has become taboo during professional tournaments.

Janssen thinks 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 cellphones. . . . It’s only going to take time.”

Along with that increased knowledge of the sport’s tradition, there are many young people in China getting started with golf. Not far from Sheshan is the Tianma Country Club, where a small group of golfers ages 8 to 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 the director of instruction at Tianma’s academy, said his students were dedicated to getting better 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 loved the hard work she did in the program, as she hoped to play professionally one day.

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

Tianma’s long term program charges about $14,000 for a full year’s tuition. While that’s more than most in China can afford, Guan’s success may spark an interest in more youths to take up the sport on their own and may get more people playing.

That new direction will surely take time, though.

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

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