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SBD Global/July 15, 2013/Marketing and Sponsorship

Golf In China Spreading Fast Due To Country's Economic Boom, Growing Middle Class

China's Guan Tianlang, 14, competed at this year's Masters.
The People’s Republic "might seem an unlikely incubator for golf prodigies," according to Brook Larmer of the N.Y. TIMES MAGAZINE. Chair Mao, after all, "banned the game in 1949 as so much bourgeois frippery and had the handful of golf courses that predated the Communist revolution plowed under." Even today, the state "ostensibly outlaws the construction of new courses in mainland China, lest they gobble up too much scarce land and water" -- an edict that, though flouted in places, still limits the growth of the game. And yet Chinese "wunderkinds are now beginning to infiltrate some of the highest levels of golf. First came 14-year-old Andy Zhang, who played in last year’s U.S. Open." Then, in April, Guan Tianlang, also 14, "dazzled at the Masters." And the prodigies "keep getting younger." In May, Ye Wocheng -- at 12 years old, not even a teenager -- "became the youngest golfer ever to compete in a European Tour event when he played in the China Open." These three boys "may be just the beginning." Beyond them, training with ferocious intensity, "is a small but growing band of younger Chinese golfers" -- some, like Xie, just 7 or 8 -- who are starting to win int'l tournaments. The "wealthy children of China's economic boom." These boys and girls, whether driven by desire or family pressure, "often train nonstop, with very few days off, under a parental discipline that can rival the toughest coaches in the Chinese sports system."

LOOKING FOR A STAR: In the effort "to create a Chinese star, families are not the only ones doubling down." Corporations, too, "are eager to find a figure" -- golf’s version of the basketball star Yao Ming -- who can help "build a sport that appeals to China’s status-conscious elites." And now, "an even bigger player has invested in the quest: the Chinese state." The head of the state-run China Golf Association, Zhang Xiaoning, said golf’s emphasis on technique and mental strength, rather than sheer athleticism, makes it "ideally suited" for the Chinese. The challenge now "is to expand the pool of athletes in a game that is almost the exclusive preserve of the very rich." So far, the CGA "has teamed with corporations to host tournaments, teach golf in primary schools and build a sophisticated national golf training center."

NO PLACE TO PLAY: Thirty years ago, "there were no golfers or golf courses in mainland China." Today "there are around 400,000 regular golfers, a number that could easily double by 2020 as the middle class expands." The number of courses in China "has grown to some 600 today from 170 in 2004, with 1,000 projected by 2020." (The U.S. has 15,000 courses, Japan 2,500.) The CGA’s biggest gambit is an $80M national golf training center "inaugurated last year in Nanshan in Shandong Province, on China’s eastern coast." The facility, built to CGA specifications by the Nanshan Group, a Chinese conglomerate, "is meant to surpass the most advanced training centers in the West." It has "several hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of the latest digital swing technology." Ye's father said that Nike "has been sending Ye a steady supply of free golf clothes and clubs since he was 9." Nike has also signed up British touring pro David Watson as part of its worldwide advisory staff, bringing him to the United States for workshops on fitness and training" (N.Y. TIMES MAGAZINE, issue 7/14).
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