March 29, 2013

Tianlang Guan will tee it up for the future of Chinese golf at Augusta

Tianlang Guan has already played with Tiger Woods in a pro-am event in 2010© Getty Images

However he hits it, Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan will be one of the big stories until at least Thursday and Friday at Augusta. The 14-year-old became the youngest player to qualify for the Masters when he won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November last year, and has been the focus of intense media coverage since.

China would dearly love to have found its answer to Japan's "bashful prince", Ryo Ishikawa. The golf industry as a whole would be amenable to it also, especially when you consider a population of 1.3 billion and the potential boost to business of the tiniest percentage being convinced to pick up sticks on Guan's lead.

It's not as simple as that of course. As Bob Haring wrote for ESPN, the development of Chinese golf has been severely stunted over the years by the fact the sport jars with Communist ideals. Research by the Telegraph in 2011 had the number of courses in China at just 500 - which equates to one for every 2.6 million people. The average membership fee was £30,000, compared to the average annual salary in Beijing of £6,000.

It you thought golf was an elitist game for the rich, the state of the Chinese game confirmed it. But, encouragingly, there are efforts under way to change that. This China Daily report from 2010 touched upon plans to dramatically increase the number of courses and make the sport more affordable to the masses. The decision to include golf as an Olympic sport for the 2016 Games in Rio is at least part of the motivation.

Big things are expected of Ryo Isikawa

China's golf drive has everything to gain from the successes of their own on the big tours. In 2012, Shanshan Feng became the first Chinese winner on the LPGA Tour and she did it in style - winning the LPGA Championship, one of the women's majors. "Golf in China is growing," she told reporters as she sat behind the trophy. "I believe in the future, China will be one of the strongest countries.”

Feng's triumph will surely be the first of many to come. But for now the highest ranked Chinese player in the men's game is Wu Ashun, who's currently 170th. Japan have nine players higher than that, including the bashful prince (104th) and Hiroyuki Fugita (51st).

Guan's precocious start to his career has understandably sent expectations soaring that he can be a trailblazer for Chinese golf. Judging by the swell of reporters who follow Ishikawa's every shot, Guan will be a major focus for the Asian media at Augusta.

He's not even the first 14-year-old Chinese golfer to play in a major. Andy Zhang became the youngest US Open player in 2012 when he took the place of an injured Paul Casey at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Zhang missed the cut after rounds of 79 and 78, but left saying it had been "one of the most exciting, unforgettable and unbelievable experiences."

Whatever happens to Guan at the Masters, we can only hope he emerges with the same sentiment. Augusta can be brutal, and carrying the hopes of the world's most populous nation on your shoulders probably takes its toll too. “I think I have a chance to make the cut," he said in a recent interview. "However, making the cut is not my target. I'm more concerned about what I'll show the world.’’

Els looking at the long and short of it

Ernie Els switched to a regulation putter for the first round of the Chiangmai Golf Classic in Thailand - eschewing the belly putter he won the 2012 Open Championship with.

The Big Easy shot a 69, but has confirmed he'll go back to his belly putter for the Masters. "I missed quite a few but I felt comfortable with it," he said of the short stick.


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