China deal to bolster growth in Asia

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The once-in-a-lifetime experience of being in the same era as the first generation of mainland Chinese golfers during the late 1990s and 2000s was truly a privilege to savour on a personal front. And after eight long years, it is truly exciting to hail the Asian Tour’s new strategic partnership with the China Golf Association (CGA) which will see both parties working hand-in-hand to stage new tournaments in China this season and beyond.

Professional golf in the Middle Kingdom has always been full of optimism and promise, thanks largely to its economic might and a fast- growing middle class.Back in the day when golf was like cricket is to America, the likes of Zhang Lian-wei, whose first sporting love was to launch a javelin, taught himself to play the Royal and Ancient (R&A) game at a time when golf was showing signs of a boom in China.

THE ASIAN PGA TOUR, THE PRECURSOR TO THE ASIAN TOUR IN 1995, SERVED AS A CATALYST FOR A PIONEERING BATCH OF CHINESE PROFESSIONALS SUCH AS ZHANG LIEN-WEI AND CHENG JUN TO VENTURE INTO A NEW WORLD OF OPPORTUNITY.

A few other milestones paved the way for the game to grow amongst the Chinese. The legendary and late Arnold Palmer designed and launched China’s first modern-day golf course in 1984 in Zhongshan and over a decade later, the International Golf Association took a massive leap of faith by bringing the World Cup of Golf to China.

Those who witnessed the 1995 World Cup at Mission Hills, won by the American duo Fred Couples and Davis Love III, remember vividly women walking along fairways in high heels while unsuspecting children picked up players’ golf balls that strayed beyond the fairways and found sand traps a convenient playground to pass their time.

Then, there was also the birth of the former Asian PGA Tour, the precursor to the Asian Tour in 1995. With a schedule of tournaments, the Tour served as a catalyst for a pioneering batch of Chinese professional golfers such as Zhang and Cheng Jun to venture into a new world of opportunity.

During the early days, Zhang, now 51 years old, never had the opportunity to enjoy proper coaching or the best of golf equipment. Starting out as a caddie in Shenzhen, he watched and learned from others, and tried to copy their golf swings.

What he may have lacked in skill and technique, Zhang overcame with an abundance of heart and grit between his teeth as he rose to great prominence, first winning three China Amateur Open golf titles before joining the play-for-pay ranks in 1994.

The likeable Zhang’s journey of discovery soon saw him blazing a new trail as he amassed five Asian Tour victories and several notable scalps including those of Nick Price and Ernie Els.

Zhang’s success inspired another small group of golfers and Liang Wen-chong emerged, with the younger man coming under the wing of the trailblazing Zhang. Despite possessing an unorthodox golf swing, Liang became a force and was crowned China’s first Asian Tour Order of Merit champion in 2007. He is also currently ranked eighth on the Asian Tour’s all-time career earnings with US$3.48 million in winnings.

Wu Ashun has since stepped on the scene in recent times, followed by the exciting Li Haotong, both who are now European Tour champions.

Ultimately, China’s growing number of young and exciting prospects including the likes of Guan Tianliang and Cheng Jin, who both won the Asian Amateur Championship to earn appearances at the Masters Tournament, and Dou Zhecheng stand to benefit through greater exposure to Asian Tour tournaments in China and beyond.

By Chuah Choo Chiang

(The writer is Director, Communications at Asian Tour)

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