I’d like to be able to say, “I knew this kid would be making headlines from the moment I met him.” But, to be completely honest, I didn’t event remember meeting him. If not for this tweet from a writer in Beijing, I’d still have no idea that I first wrote about Guan Tianlang — the 14-year-old golfer from China currently making history at The Masters — more than seven years ago.
It was 2005, very early in my days on the golf-in-China beat, and I was working for ESPN.com and the South China Morning Post covering the inaugural HSBC Champions tournament at Shanghai’s Sheshan International Golf Club. The big storyline was Tiger Woods, who was making his first official tournament appearance in China.
It was the first day of the tournament and I was looking to interview Chinese golf fans following Tiger. There were many to choose from, and I am sure I talked to plenty, but the one I ended up quoting was Guan Hanwen, a man from Guangzhou attending the HSBC Champions with his wife and 7-year-old son, who, the elder Guan told me, was a pretty good golfer himself.
Here’s the part of the exchange that ended up in one of my ESPN.com stories:
In a nation of 1.3 billion, crowds are not hard to come by. But on a golf course? That’s something new in a country where only an estimated 200,000 people play the sport, a country that didn’t have a golf course until 1984. The gallery following Woods for the tournament’s first two rounds easily topped 1,000. Some guessed it was closer to 2,000. That’s more than four times the number of fans who followed Ernie Els during the final round of the BMW Asian Open here in May.
“I’m not surprised at all,” said Guan Han Wen of Guangzhou in southern China, who thought nothing of dropping a couple thousand dollars to fly to Shanghai, along with his wife and son, to see Tiger play. An interior designer1, Guan started golfing six years ago, and his 7-year-old son, Guan Tian Lang, took up the sport at the age of 4. In July, Tian Lang placed fourth in the 6-and-under division at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego.
The elder Guan estimated that half the Chinese who showed up for the HSBC Champions tournament were true fans of golf like himself. And the rest? “They’re just after the fame of Tiger,” he said. “He’s the king.”
I also quoted Mr. Guan in a story I filed for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, although it doesn’t seem to be one of my stories available online. Here’s the entire version of the story I have saved on my computer, with the Guan section in bold:
To some, the inaugural HSBC Champions tournament — and perhaps more importantly the presence of Tiger Woods — signaled the arrival of Chinese golf on the international scene. Plaudits poured in all week. Zhang Lianwei, China’s top golfer, said Woods’ participation in the tournament pushed Chinese golf ahead 10 years. New Zealand’s Michael Campbell labeled China the “new golfing mecca of the world.” And Woods himself added to the adulation.
“Chinese golf will benefit with the exposure it is getting this week and in the future,” said Woods, who ended up second, three strokes behind England’s David Howell, in the $5 million tournament, the richest ever in Asia. “Chinese golf is headed in the right direction.”
While it’s true China is playing host to more and more big-ticket golf tournaments — in 2005, the mainland and Hong Kong combined for more European Tour events than either England or Scotland — a look at the final leaderboard at the HSBC Champions showed the other side of Chinese golf. Aside from Zhang, who finished tied for 25th in the 73-player field, the other eight Chinese golfers placed 49th, 61st, 65th, 67th, 69th, 70th, 72nd and 73rd. This is the current state of golf in China — the country is home to more world-class golf events than world-class golfers.
And that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Modern mainland China didn’t even have its first golf course until 1984, and some estimates place the number of golfers in the country of 1.3 billion at only around 200,000. The question is whether big-money golf tournaments are what China needs to make that number grow.
“Coming from a foreign country, we always talk about the growth of the game coming from juniors,” said David Townend, the Australian general manager of Shanghai’s Sheshan Golf Club, site of HSBC Champions for at least the next two years. “You bring new young people into the sport who will then have a lifetime experience of playing the sport and they’ll introduce it to other people. Right now, China doesn’t have a very strong junior development program.”
Zhang, the only Chinese player ever to post a win on the European Tour, believes the exposure brought by Woods’ first official tournament appearance in China will be a boon for the domestic growth of the game. “Young Chinese kids who don’t know golf, will want to learn the game and hopefully his will help develop golf further,” the 40-year-old self-taught golfer said.
But if Chinese children want to learn golf, will they be able to? Guan Han Wen, the father of one of China’s top junior golfers, has his doubts. The Guangzhou resident said his 7-year-old son, Guan Tian Lang, who placed fourth in the 6-and-under division at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego this summer, wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn golf if he lived in another part of China.
“There aren’t many things being done to help young people get to know golf in China,” the elder Guan said. “Except in Guangzhou, there’s an organization providing free opportunities for young people to get involved in golf. The fact that Tiger Woods is here will help promote golf. But it’s not going to have a significant effect on changing the situation of the sport.”
Guan also mentioned that that ticket prices for the HSBC were “too expensive for ordinary Chinese” and “not really good for the growth of the game.” Tournament passes were RMB 2,000, more than the average monthly income of a Shanghainese family. One-day tickets over the weekend were RMB 1,000. For the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai last May, entrance was free.
Townend said event organizers had in mind Woods’ first visit to China when they set the prices for the HSBC. In 2001, Woods played an exhibition match at Shenzhen’s Mission Hills. There was no charge for admission, and according to Townend, crowds were “out of control.”
“We wanted to make sure that we had a professional gallery to watch the tournament, who understood golf and respected what the players do,” Townend said. “Because at the end of the day, HSBC has committed to this event for the next five years. They need the players who are coming from all these foreign countries to have an exceptional experience, so they want to come back next year.”
Ticket prices didn’t stop several thousand people from attending the HSBC Champions, crowds for which dwarfed those that showed up for Ernie Els in the BMW Asian Open. But it’s hard to say the event, held about an hour west of downtown Shanghai, created a frenzy in China’s largest city. In Shanghai’s major Chinese-language newspapers, coverage of the golf tournament rarely made the front page of the sports section. Throughout the week, the papers dedicated more space to the Tennis Masters Cup, and that event didn’t begin until Sunday.
The column inches will likely grow in the coming years, especially if Woods plans on making Shanghai a regular stop on his schedule. But Woods’ agent Mark Steinberg, in attendance in Shanghai, said it’s too early to tell whether his client will return for the HSBC Champions tournament in 2006.
Reading this now, I’m not sure how much has really changed for golf in China over the past seven-plus years, especially when it comes to grassroots development of junior golfers. Sure the inclusion of golf in the Olympics has led to a well-funded Chinese national team program, but for kids to get introduced to the game they still need to come from privilege. Golf is still a prohibitively expensive pursuit for nearly everyone in China.
But back to Guan Tianlang and his father. I looked and I don’t seem to have any photos from the 2005 encounter. And I wouldn’t even know where to start looking for my notes. But at least now I know the first time I wrote about China’s golf prodigy of the moment. I have a feeling it won’t be the last.
1 One thing I am a bit confused by is my labeling of Mr. Guan as a former interior designer. ESPN.com’s Gene Wojciechowski, who spent a lot more time with the Guans than I did, recently reported that Guan Hanwen “gave up his medical practice to devote his time to his son’s golf dream.” Anyone know which one is right?