Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China, once stigmatised golf as a “millionaire’s sport”, but the winds of change have been blowing for many years in the world’s most populous country.
Female star Feng Shanshan was the first Chinese golfer to win a Major title at the 2012 LPGA Championship. The 29-year-old was also the top-ranked woman golfer from November 2017 to April this year but has slipped to No. 9.
Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong were the first male golfers to triumph on the European Tour and teenage prodigy Guan Tianlang became the youngest player at 14 to make the cut at a men’s Major championship at the 2013 Masters.
Last week, the next generation of Chinese golf was on show at the 2018 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) at Sentosa Golf Club’s New Tanjong Course. Led by 2015 winner Jin Cheng, who finished joint sixth, all six Chinese made the cut and four finished in the top 15.
Jin spent his formative years in Singapore, studying at St Gabriel’s Secondary School. The 20-year-old Beijing native arrived in 2010 to sit the PSLE exams and returned to China for high school in 2014.
“I used to cycle every afternoon after school to the Singapore Island Country Club to play golf,” he told The Straits Times.
He is not alone in spending his teenage years outside of China.
Andy Zhang and Bai Zheng Kai moved to the United States at 10 and 16 respectively. Lin Yuxin, 2017 AAC champion, is based in Beijing, but is homeschooled. Zhang and Lin were tied for ninth at the AAC, while Zhang finished joint-13th.
Said Zhang, 20: “China is trying to grow the game. It has been made more public and accessible to kids.”
There were no golf courses in China in 1983. Last year, there were 383, according to a report by The R&A, golf’s governing body for the world outside of the United States and Mexico.
Lin, 17, was among the 400 juniors registered with the China Golf Association in 2013, but that number had swelled to 35,000 by the end of last year.
“There are more professional events in China now, which gives Chinese players opportunities to be able to participate and compete against the world’s best,” he said.
“I think that helps a lot in not only our game but also mentally, knowing how good we need to be to play on the biggest stage in the world.”
There are nearly 40 men’s professional events for China this year, across the China Tour, European Tour, European Challenge Tour, PGA Tour China and Asian Tour. The latter two did not feature on the calendar last year.
Li Haotong, third at last year’s The Open Championship, is China’s highest-ranked male at No. 55 but it may be only a matter of time before a Chinese makes a big breakthrough in the US and at Majors.
Said R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers: “It is incredibly exciting now. As the game develops in Asia, China will push the quality up and that’s great for golf. So the more hungry Chinese golfers come through to beat the rest of the world, the better it is for the game.”