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China Golf Remains Controversial but the young players are growing


by Jason Lee

The People’s Republic might seem an unlikely incubator for golf prodigies. Chairman 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. The taboo lasted 35 years. China’s first golf course built since then is not yet three decades old — younger than Tiger Woods. 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. Then there’s the paucity of role models: though the country churns out Olympic champions in sports from diving to table tennis, China has just four professional golfers — two men, two women — ranked in the world’s top 300.

Early one recent Saturday morning, a stream of luxury cars pulled into the parking lot at Bayhood No. 9, a golf club and the most popular training ground in Beijing. BMWs and Range Rovers, Porsches and a single silvery blue Rolls-Royce — each disgorged a child dressed in colorful golf attire. A lesson with the head pro in one of the club’s state-of-the-art plexiglass bays costs $250 an hour. The row of V.I.P. suites on the second floor — carpeted rooms with flat-screen televisions and two hitting mats — rent for $75,000 a year. When I inquired at the front desk, the attendant smiled. “The V.I.P. suites are fully booked until next year,” she said. “May I put your name on the waiting list?”

By 9 a.m., close to a dozen junior golfers were chipping and putting around the practice greens, a parent or pro hovering over each of them. A mother in sunglasses laid out 20 balls for a pudgy boy in electric blue pants, scolding him under her breath when he flubbed a chip, then squeezing his face with delight when he rolled one into the hole. Steps away, a chain-smoking man in an orange shirt that matched his orange-tinted hair stood over a bunker where his 11-year-old son blasted out one sand shot after another. “Wrists firm!” the father barked. “More loft!” he cried after another shot. How long did father and son plan to train that day? The man smiled: “We’ll be here until it’s too dark to see!”

China is producing some of the world’s best young golfers because wealthy families who have profited from the nation’s market reforms are replicating, in miniature, the formula of the socialist state sports system: pushing kids to specialize early and then having them chi ku, or “eat bitterness,” with relentless training. “Families are different in China,” says Chen Li, a golf father who accompanies his 10-year-old son through eight hours of training each weekend day. “In America, you offer kids a big plate with lots of choices, right? We give them a small plate — make them choose early — and stack it as high as possible.” He raised his hand higher and higher and then wobbled it. “The pressure can get pretty heavy.”

Golf requires both rote training and creative thinking. One criticism foreign pros in China sometimes make is that elite Chinese juniors haven’t been trained to think independently, so they can have a hard time making their own judgments on the golf course. That may be a valid point, but I also found that China’s golf families tend to be more entrepreneurial by nature. They often break away from the traditional Chinese education system early on with an eye toward a future in America, where their son or daughter can enroll in a golf academy, earn a scholarship at a good U.S. university or (the ultimate goal) play on the P.G.A. or L.P.G.A. tours. One thing these parents value about the game, beyond the discipline and jazzy accouterments, is that the game forces kids to solve problems creatively if they are to succeed.
 
Education in China is supposed to be compulsory for nine years. But the onerous workload in public schools — even for primary-school students — pushes many golf parents to place their kids in private schools or home-school them. Many still take education seriously; they just want their children to have more time and flexibility to focus on golf. There is a significant minority, however, including the parents of 8-year-old Xie Chengfeng, that sees any formal education as a waste of valuable training time. Those families are making the biggest gamble. If their children fail at golf, they will have little to fall back on except their families’ wealth.
 
Golf is far more elitist in China than it is in the U.S. The country has an urban per-capita income of about $4,000 per year, yet everything about golf — from clothes and clubs to lessons and greens fees — is far more expensive in China than in the U.S. The fact that golf in China is the preserve of the very rich poses a problem for the Chinese sports system, whose success in other sports has hinged, in part, on having a massive pool of potential athletes from which to choose. Even the family of Luo, the 8-year-old girl in the state sports school, is not poor, but middle class. Her parents simply couldn’t keep up with the $30,000 to $60,000 a year other families spend on their kids’ golf “careers.” One irony is that China’s first pros in the 1990s often came from poor families that happened to work at golf courses as part of the maintenance or caddy crew. But now, as China gets wealthier, almost all of the best young golfers come from rich families and are trained by foreign pros.
 
If you are interested in visiting China and playing some golf, then check out....
 

Spring City and Stone Forest Golf Courses, Kunming China