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"Last Call," Golf World magazine cover story (Nov. 9)


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As China readied to host a $7 million WGC event, local golf pros who pioneered the sport face a new reality: The party may be winding down for them. By Dan Washburn (

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"Last Call," Golf World magazine cover story (Nov. 9)

  1. 1. Profile international CHINA’S MOST UNLIKELY gOLf CHAMp TOOK HIS SEAT who toil on their country’s domestic golf circuit. Most of at a neighborhood restaurant in the dark, sooty suburbs near them stumbled into the sport accidentally and relatively Beijing’s international airport and declared, “I like to drink.” late, bringing personal histories almost unheard of in the Before long he was chugging cold Yanjing beer and gnawing Western world of contemporary professional golf. on stewed pig intestines. He closed the place down, outlast- For example, the first-round leader board of the Luxe- ing even the shirtless kitchen workers who were smoking hills Golf Championship, a $150,000 event Chen won in cigarettes and playing cards at a corner table. June, featured in its top 20 a former security guard, a This is how Jian Chen unwinds the week of a tournament. former soldier, a former stunt motorcyclist, a former But it’s a safe bet the 33-year-old was eating and drinking kung fu champion and at least a half-dozen guys who like this long before he ever heard of golf, a serendipitous spent their formative years swinging a harvesting sickle, discovery that happened less than a decade ago. not a 6-iron. For them working at a golf course or a driv- Chen’s rise from farmer to head waiter to obscure pro ing range was just a job, a way to make money, an at- golfer—now, slightly less obscure—mirrors the random tractive, and slightly more lucrative, alternative to some trajectories followed by the majority of the Chinese men other form of menial labor. 24 November 9, 2009
  2. 2. Last Call As China readied to host a $7 million WgC event, local pros who pioneered the sport face a new reality: The party may be winding down for them By Dan washburn • Photograph by RichaRd castKa oFF to WoRK Chen, farmer turned waiter turned pro, heads toward the course at last month’s Midea China Classic in the industrial town of Shunde.. “When I was young, our village didn’t have electricity—it ternational GC in Shanghai adhere to the Walt Zembriski still doesn’t have running water,” says Chen, who grew up storyline—humble origins and a haphazard path to golf. in tiny Chen Xiang Cun, a farming community in poor east- • Lian-wei Zhang, 44, the first Chinese golfer to win a Euro- ern Anhui province. “When I was old enough to work in the pean Tour event, was a 20-year-old washed-up state-system fields—about 10 years old—I worked in the fields. It was hard javelin thrower when China’s second course opened near his work, too hard, and I did it for several years. I vowed to get home in 1985. He wasn’t familiar with golf, but Zhang still out of the village, find a job, any job, and never come back.” accepted a $20-a-month job caddieing and doing odd jobs. Chen pauses, using his chopsticks to scrape some flesh His rice-farmer parents thought he was crazy. off the side of a steaming fish, and adds, “Of course, back • Wen-chong Liang, 31, the 2007 Asian Tour money leader then I had no idea that job would be playing a game called and China’s top-ranked player, was one of a few dozen golf. Why would a farmer in Anhui know what golf is?” teenage farm boys plucked from the rice paddies near Even the four Chinese golfers going up against pedi- Zhongshan Hot Spring GC, China’s first course, and greed players such as Tiger Woods in this week’s glitzy instructed to take some test swings for club administra- $7 million HSBC Champions tournament at Sheshan In- tors looking to start a youth team. November 9, 2009 25
  3. 3. international aLL thE RiGht MoVEs • Ashun Wu, 24, China’s top talent under 30, didn’t know Tian Yuan (left) resembles what golf was until 2001, when reps from a new golf acad- a martial artist as he emy visited his high school looking for potential talent. celebrates a par-save during the 2008 Tianjin Eight years later, this son of a truck driver and a municipal Championship; Weihuang worker posted three top-10 finishes on the Asian Tour. Wu (below), no stranger • And then there’s 41-year-old Weihuang Wu, the afore- to kung fu moves himself, talks to media at the Dell mentioned martial-arts expert who practiced wushu for Championship in March. 15 years starting at age 8. He’s the only member of this foursome who plies his trade almost solely on the de- cidedly unglamorous, and increasingly unpredictable, China Tour. Wu started golfing in his late-20s because he thought it would advance his family’s construction busi- ness. After only seven months, however, he was shooting in the 70s. Within two years he was considered the best golfer in Xiamen, a city of 2.5 million people on China’s southeastern coast. Wu, like most of his peers, is self-taught. His swing is stiff and stabby, reminiscent of a hockey slap shot. He strangles the shaft and swings with such fury that all the muscles on his slight, sinewy frame ripple and pop. Jian Chen also would be playing in “Asia’s Major,” which earlier this year was elevated to World Golf Champion- ships status, had a rule change not cut in half the number of Chinese players eligible for the ’09 event. The inclusion of Chen, who eight short years ago thought golf consisted sports-marketing firm World Sport Group, issued no for- solely of what he witnessed at the driving range—he had mal announcement about the stoppage, and players were yet to see a course—would have been a fitting tribute to left wondering for months whether rumored tournament his gritty generation of pioneering pros whose window dates would become reality. They never did. for competitive success appears to be closing. Uncertainty has been the norm in these early days of There is a new crop of players nipping at their heels, Chinese golf. Tourney dates are rarely firm or announced rich kids mostly, the first wave of Chinese golfers young more than two weeks in advance. Players joke they always enough to have grown up playing the game and wealthy have a bag packed because they never know when an event enough to afford quality coaching. And there are foreign will pop up. Others point out this irony: The country that invaders, as well. This year, in an effort to improve its hosts Asia’s richest golf event, the country that, with golf quality of play, the China Tour invited more non-Chinese now in the Olympics, may hold the key to the future of the pros, primarily from the PGA of Australasia Tour and the sport, may enter 2010 without a formal domestic tour. Mercedes-Benz Tour of Southeast Asia. As a result, many “It’s hard to say who or what is to blame,” Wu says. “We of China’s late-bloomers started seeing themselves get- all want to compete, but if there are no tournaments to ting leapfrogged on the leader board. compete in, sooner or later I fear some players will lose But in 2009, a year that was supposed to signal their their enthusiasm for the game.” slow fade into irrelevance, China’s homespun pros And that would be a shame because since its 2005 david paul Morris/World sport Group (2) showed considerable fortitude. Weihuang Wu and Chen launch the China Tour often felt like a breath of fresh air. alternated victories with more polished foreign coun- The game is so young (2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas terparts, big-hitting Australian Kurt Barnes and Thai Glover is five years older than golf in China) that players legend Thaworn Wiratchant. lack pretense. The game is so unpopular (statistically, Unfortunately, in its fifth year, this latest attempt at a 0 percent of the Chinese population plays golf) those who domestic Chinese tour fizzled due to lack of funding, and grind away at the game for a living have yet to assume the the ’09 season was cut short in June after only four events affectations associated with pro athletes elsewhere. China (eight to 10 were planned). The tour’s title sponsor, Omega, Tour golfers drink. They smoke. They curse. They say and its organizers, the China GA and Singapore-based what’s on their mind. As one observer says: “The big pro November 9, 2009 27
  4. 4. international Golf Championship in June came away with much more than complimentary head- tours feel so sterile nowadays. wear. They got to see Jian The China Tour has got soul.” Chen, the lanky and laid-back More so than most places, nobody, pull off the biggest golf’s an elitist pursuit in China. shocker in China Tour his- But the Chinese men and tory. Chen played his way into women trying to earn a a sudden-death playoff, on living from it occupy a far live TV, against a 28-year-old different rung on the social Aussie named Rowan Beste. ladder. Many of the origi- He was playing for a paycheck nal China Tour players are that was worth more than all basically poor boys from his winnings from the previous the provinces doing some- four years combined. thing that makes no sense Chen was a longshot’s to anybody back home. A thE BiG FiNish longshot. His opponent be- handful make a comfort- (Above) Xunshu Zhou’s gan playing golf at age 10 and follow-through at the Dell able living through spon- event is indicative of the had played on the Asian and sorships and prize money; unique, oft-quirky swings Australasian tours. Chen, the rest hold down jobs at on the China Tour; (left) on the other hand, spent his Chen, shown during the courses or driving ranges, Midea tournament, plays childhood working on a farm. or manage to talk a local with an extraordinary calm He first hit balls on a lark businessman into bank- and good humor. He won at when he was 25, before he Luxehills in June. rolling their career. If they knew what a golf course was. were being honest, several Nonetheless, Chen appeared guys would list gambling to be the only person at Sich- as their primary source of income. They remain, as one uan Province’s Luxehills International CC not affected first-generation pro golfer puts it, “blue-collar workers.” by the gravity of the situation. His smile wide and genu- At tournaments, where finishes outside the top 20 likely ine, his eyes kind and honest, Chen loped back to the mean not covering expenses, a fraternity atmosphere pre- 18th tee laughing with his female caddie and wasted no vails. Golfers share rooms at cheap hotels and crowd ta- time launching his drive on the 602-yard par 5 into the bles at local restaurants smoking cigarettes and downing fairway, a shot he followed with a smile. tall bottles of local beer—or, if it looks like they’ll miss the His secret? Extremely low expectations. Chen’s only cut, several shots of the foul Chinese firewater, baijiu. prior top-10 finish came in his China Tour debut in 2005, While most players are serious once they hit the course, and since then he had been what the Chinese might call the rest of the week can have the feel of an extended boys’ mamahuhu, mediocre. night out. In 2007, on a Friday night in the middle of a So although he was leading going into the final round $100,000 event he was leading, Zhang threw himself a 42nd in Sichuan, Chen never thought he really had a chance birthday bash in the club’s restaurant. With a slight hang- to win. He figured one of the more established players over, he went on to win the tournament by two strokes. playing ahead of him would make a charge and he would david paul Morris/World sport Group; richard castKa When the Omega China Tour began in 2005 with four fade away. But that never happened. He won the tourna- events and the promise of growing by two tournaments ment on the second playoff hole and partied at a karaoke each year, players were optimistic it would bring some sta- bar until his flight the next morning. bility to their competitive lives. The events were first-rate; The victory earned Chen a check for $20,500, after only one thing was missing: spectators. Tour organizers taxes. He admits he has already blown about half of his found their most successful events were the ones that en- winnings taking large groups of people out to dinner, but ticed fans with prizes—people were more likely to come he did manage to send $1,500 to his parents—that’s more if there was a chance to win a home appliance or laptop than an average year’s income back in their village. computer. Getting them to actually watch was another is- “I told them I won a championship, a very big na- sue, so this year spectators who got their ticket stamped tional championship,” Chen says. “They asked what after every three holes went home with a free hat. kind of championship. I said golf. ‘What is golf?’ They Those who stuck around until the end of the Luxehills still don’t know.” GW 28 November 9, 2009