In a country where the Olympics are seen as the summit of sport, the ramifications of last Friday's International Olympic Committee (IOC) announcement that golf and rugby sevens are to be included in the 2016 and 2020 Games will be huge.
Golf, in particular, has had a short and startlingly fast development path in China. From the first golf club, Zhongshan Hot Spring Golf Club, which opened in China in 1984 to Mission Hills, home to the World Cup of Golf with its 12 courses designed by the top industry names such as Nick Faldo, José Maria Olazabal, Greg Norman and Ernie Els, golf in China has mimicked the economy in its rapid growth. The re-admittance of golf into the Olympics could speed up the game's growth in China even more by attracting money, government support and popular interest.
Asian golf in general is booming right now and most recently it was South Korean Y.E. Yang's PGA victory over Tiger Woods in the States that shocked the world. Mirroring Yang's career path many Chinese "first generation" golfers are also from under-privileged family backgrounds and are self-taught, picking up the game in their late teens just as Yang did. Chinese golfer Wu Ashun is an example of this phenomenon; determination and luck have enabled him to work his way up from a 19-year-old first-timer to the top amateur national player and now to a top three ranking on the Omega China Tour.
Wu, whose talent was discovered by a Hong Kong charity fund, is not satisfied yet however and says "I would rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a small pond." Describing the China Tour as a small tour is no understatement. Most of the golfers outside its top 20 struggle to break even on their travel and accommodation expenses.
It is a situation that Dan Washburn, author of the as yet unpublished book "Par for China," has likened the situation of China's pros to that of the early 20th century in America where professional golfers, who were mostly immigrants, were socially ranked somewhere between traveling salesmen and itinerant farmhands. Of course, the US PGA Tour has since grown to become the largest golf competition in the world and it will be interesting to see how the IOC's latest decision affects the growth of golf in the world's most populous nation.
"Par for China" is more than just a description of golf in China; it also uses the metaphor of the development of golf epitomizing the country's development as a whole. Washburn describes "golf as a barometer of economic growth" and certainly golf has only existed since Deng Xiaoping opened the country in the 1980's. A key issue for the rapidly developing China, both politically and within golf, is land usage rights. The official stance is that golf courses built on farmland are illegal, but on the outskirts of the wealthiest Chinese cities--where the rich of the city meet the poor of the country--the farmland is often obtained through backdoor connections and bribes to local officials. The property is then listed as housing estates and turned into a golf course.
Another aspect of golf that reflects a topical issue in contemporary China is the question of "accessibility for all" versus elitism. As promoted by the IOC, the decision to include golf in the Olympics will certainly bring added funding to the sport in countries such as China and India, but the question remains whether this money will go towards the development of the sport at the grassroots level where it is needed the most or if it will stretch the gap between China's rich and poor even more. The reality, though, is that golf will struggle to ever become the people's game due to exorbitant greens fees (an average round costs $152 USD, the most expensive in the world) exacerbated by the government's well-intentioned efforts to curb construction which decrease supply and put further upward pressure on prices.
China has seemingly been the fastest to rebound from the economic slowdown and the golf industry will likewise continue to flourish, with the China Golf Association predicting that by 2020 China will have 20 million golfers. Tiger Woods has stated that he intends to participate in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and having witnessed last year what China can do when they focus their efforts on the Olympics, it would be no surprise to see a Chinese golfer challenging him for the gold.
Tags: Dan Washburn, golf, Mission Hills, Olympics, Omega China Tour, Y.E. Yang, Zhongshan Hot Spring Golf Club
World Championship Golf event, one of 100 so sanctioned by the International Federation of PGA Tours. The announcement was made at a Shanghai press conference earlier today. The event's prize money will increase from $5 million to $7 million, and Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia are both confirmed to compete.
The HSBC Championship will take place November 5 through 8 at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, where it has taken place every year since it started. But IMG Golf global managing director Mark Steinberg said at the press conference that it will likely move to Mission Hills, perhaps as soon as 2011.
This post relies heavily on the reporting of Shanghaiist managing editor Dan Washburn, who attended the press conference and is the only English-language writer closely following China's golf scene. His full report is here.
Tags: Dan Washburn, golf, HSBC Championship, IMG, Mission Hills, Sheshan International Golf Club, Tiger Woods