China, Asia bubbling and ready to explode


HOLD THE BACK PAGE:A rather clever cartoon did the viral rounds on twitter the other day which served to highlight some changing times in the world of golf: it featured a young Asian child in a nappy – a caricature of teenager Guan Tianlang – watched by two doting women in green jackets, sketched in the likeness of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and American financier Darla Moore.

It concerned a likely scene at next year’s Masters where Chinese prodigy Tianlang will become the youngest player, at 14, to compete in the Masters. It will also be the first Masters which will be watched by women members of the august Augusta National Golf Club, after Rice and Moore were invited, earlier this year, to become members.

Such changing times, though, would appear to be only the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, golf’s future is bubbling and set to explode. The Chinese – and the rest of Asia – are coming. Earlier this year, Andy Zhiang (15) played in the US Open at the Olympic club and, now, Tianlang, even younger, is set to pitch his A-game against the game’s biggest players.

Golfing tradition is mainly rooted in the western world, going all the way back to its birth in Scotland and the evolvement of the British Open and the export of the sport to America, where it was adopted and given fresh life by a multitude of Scottish professionals who were only too keen to spread the gospel until those in the New World claimed the game as their own.

Additional coaching

It’s interesting that both Zhiang and Tianlang have, at various times, for however short a period, availed of additional coaching in the United States as part of their meteoric rise and it would seem the two Chinese teenagers are the front wave of a new generation that will increasingly have an influence on the world of golf. As we’ve seen, the PGA European Tour – and, now, even the PGA Tour – have moved with all the stealth of an elephant in a bone china shop to embrace the new sponsorship money available in the emerging economies in Asia and the Middle East.

Tiger Woods, for one, has already spoken of his amazement at seeing hundreds of young wannabe golfers in South Korea in what amounted to warehouses perfecting their swings before ever getting to a golf courses, whilst Nick Faldo, who has taken his successful Faldo Series to Asia, has spoken of the need for Chinese golf to unearth “a hero, someone with good looks, great personality, that will be the really big thing that sets them off. If people think they can become rich and famous, they will want to play”.

As it is, the Chinese Golf Association has signed a deal to train coaches in Australia and a schools programme – backed by HSBC – has exposed over 100,000 schoolchildren to golf inside the past three years. It is just the tip of the iceberg, but the response has been overwhelming to those who initiated the project. Perhaps Faldo’s observation of fame and riches is a salient one that underpins the transformation from communism to capitalism.

As it happens, the December issue of Golf magazine has a piece with Gerry McIlroy, the father of world number one Rory, who talks of how his wunderkind initially held the club left-handed and how it was that Rory’s invitation to play in the Junior World Championship in Doral in Florida provided a life-changing discussion with the instructor Jim McLean.

Blew field away

Of the trip, Gerry remarked: “. . . he just blew the field away. And he was only nine. Jim McLean said to me, ‘this kid’s good. I’m tellin’ you Mr McIlroy, this kid has something’. So I went home and said to Rosie, ‘we should put more effort into Rory’. At that time in Ireland, nine years of age, there were no tournaments. They were all in America. So we used to work at three jobs. I used to clean in the mornings – locker rooms, toilets. You had to get the money. I’m working class, you know? I cleaned the rugby club, cleaned all the toilets and the showers and the bar.

“And then in the afternoons, from 12 o’clock until six o’clock, I used to tend bar at a bar in Holywood and then at seven o’clock at night, I was at the rugby club, at the bar again. So I did that for eight years, 90 hours a week. Rosie worked for an American company, 3M, night shift, because I got home at 12. she worked 12 to 7.30am, on the line. But it’s all paid off. We’re having a good time now!”

If that work ethic might have ironic similarities with the old communist regime, it instilled an ethic of its own into the young golfer who didn’t shy away from work on his game. As McIlroy Senior explained it: “One different thing about Rory is, you see kids at golf clubs, they’re hanging about the pro shop and the putting green. Rory used to take himself out on his own and practice on the course . . . he used to practice for hours on the course. It all paid off.

“He wanted to go to the range one morning and Rosie said ‘they’re not going to be open, Rory. There’s snow’. He said: ‘They’ll open for me’. So she took him and they did, they put 200 balls out, cleaned away a spot in the snow. Another time we’d gone to the range and played and we were at home, and Rory said: ‘Dad, could we go to the range?’ I said, ‘Rory, we’ve gone to the course, we’ve gone to the range’. He said, ‘Dad, do you want me to get any better?’”

The new kids on the block, be they from China or the more traditional golfing powers, have a tough act to follow. But follow, it seems, they will.

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