Coverage of the BMW Asian Open, a professional golf tournament co-sanctioned by the European Tour and the Asian Tour. A version of this story appeared in the May 1, 2005 edition of the South China Morning Post (subscription only).
by DAN WASHBURN
SHANGHAI — China’s top-ranked golfer Zhang Lian Wei criticized his government and Chinese companies Saturday, delivering an emotional post-round press conference that elicited applause from members of the Chinese media covering the BMW Asian Open at Tomson Golf Club.
Zhang, who turns 40 on Monday, said he has never received any state funding during his historic 11-year career. He added that he has zero domestic sponsors.
“It’s such an ordeal playing golf in China over the years,” Zhang said, his voice cracking at times. “It’s tough, it’s difficult and it’s lonely. I know golf is not an Olympic sport, but I think the sports authorities should at least have shown some kind of support, like air tickets or something, to show their appreciation of my contributions to Chinese golf.”
In 2003, Zhang became the first Chinese and only the fifth Asian to win a European Tour event, defeating Ernie Els by one stroke to win the Caltex Masters in Singapore. Last year, he became the first Chinese golfer to play in the U.S. Masters tournament at Augusta National.
Zhang gave up a state-funded life as a javelin thrower when he discovered golf while living in Zhuhai in southern Guangdong province in 1985, just one year after the first post-Liberation golf course was constructed in China. He worked as a caddie and taught himself to play.
“Over the 20 years I have made a lot of money if you look at the checks,” Zhang said. “But you don’t know how much money I have spent to support myself.”
While golf has grown exponentially in China over the last two decades, it still remains a fringe sport for most of the Chinese population.
“My sponsorship all comes from foreign companies,” Zhang said. “In fact, I don’t feel comfortable being supported only by foreign brands. Wherever I go, people look at me and think I represent China. But they don’t know that I haven’t received support from China. With this opportunity, I call for sponsorship from Chinese enterprises.”
Zhang proposed that golf’s governing body in China allocate 10 to 20 percent of its budget to supporting its athletes.
“But of course, this is reality,” Zhang said. “This is China. I’ve never bowed to reality, because I have nothing to lose. Next, I will talk to my management to see if they can help arrange for me to play more in the United States.”
Zhang shot a third-round 69 on Saturday and enters today’s final round at 6-under, 13 strokes behind a seemingly unstoppable Els. Last week in Beijing, Zhang finished 63rd at 1-over in the Johnnie Walker Classic.
“I feel more relaxed playing in Shanghai,” Zhang said. “I just don’t understand why every time I play in Beijing it just doesn’t feel that comfortable. There are so many officials you have to shake hands with. You talk with them and eat with them. Sometimes I can’t even finish my meal. If you don’t feel very comfortable before the competition, how can you perform well?”
Zhang’s pointed remarks came in response to a question about what life is like outside of China’s state-funded sports system. Minutes later, the same question was posed to 26-year-old Liang Wen Chong, China’s rising star in golf. He declined to comment.