Golf in China: All growing, all new, all raw

SHANGHAI -- It's November, and in what is fast becoming pre-Thanksgiving protocol, the eyes of the golf world -- those that can manage to stay open, that is -- turn to China. This week, golf's annual World Cup begins its titanic 12-year stay at Mission Hills Golf Club in southern China's Guangdong Province. And a little more than a week ago, Phil Mickelson barely avoided disaster to emerge victorious at the star-studded HSBC Champions tournament in suburban Shanghai.

Both events, huge for a nation with such a limited golf pedigree, come with requisite amounts of hoopla and hubbub, and it is not difficult to stumble upon a quote from someone, somewhere, opining on the massive benefits such high-profile events can have on the growth of the game in a country that didn't open its first golf course until 1984.

And golf, no doubt, is growing in China. Isn't everything? It's hard to pin down an official estimate on the number of golfers in China, but the current consensus -- around 1 million -- is more than double the number that was bandied about just two years ago. Golf courses, too, are being spawned at a startling pace. When ESPN.com last broached this topic in 2005, China was home to some 220 courses. Now, reliable sources put that number at well over 350, with another 100 or so set to open over the next two to three years -- never mind the Ministry of Land and Resources' supposed ban on golf course construction, due to land use concerns, that has been highly publicized and rarely enforced since 2004. (For all the talk of "Red China," the place remains one giant gray area.)

But while buckets of cash can build record-setting golf facilities -- at 216 holes, Mission Hills is the world's largest -- and bring in top-shelf talent -- the HSBC event boasted the strongest field ever assembled in Asia -- such achievements do little to advance China's domestic game. Golf talent can't be built like so many Shanghai skyscrapers.

Of the HSBC's $5 million purse, around $92,500 in winnings was spread out among the host country's nine pro participants, and 65 percent of that total was shared by Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong, China's top two players, and the only ones in the group to make the cut. After the 89-player tournament's second round, the bottom of the leaderboard was awash with red Chinese flags. After Zhang and Liang, there they were: Nos. 68, 73, 84, 85, 86, 87 and 89. The names -- Li Chao, Zheng Wengen, Wu Kangchun, Wu Weihuang, Yuan Hao, Huang Mingjie, Yang Wenzhong -- read like a who's who of the players on the Omega China Tour, China's fledgling domestic circuit.

You are forgiven for never having heard of the China Tour. Very few people in China have heard of it, either.

"Really, the tour is no different from anything in China," explained Raymond Roessel, an executive with World Sport Group, the Singapore-based sports marketing and event management company that partnered with the China Golf Association to launch the tour in 2005. "It's all growing, it's all new, it's all raw."

And that describes Chinese golf in a nutshell. The sport in China is nine years younger than Tiger Woods. There wasn't a "pro golfer" designation in the country until 1994, and even then for most golfers the classification meant little more than a higher salary at the golf courses that employed them as instructors. At that time, golf tournaments were rare and the most "veteran" among the Chinese pros had been playing 10 years, at most.

There have been other attempts at starting golf circuits in China -- most notably the Volvo China Tour in the late 1990s -- but they all, for one reason or another, fizzled. Too soon. Not enough talent, interest or money.

The Chinese professional golf community, small though it may be, is hoping the current incarnation of the China Tour is the one that sticks. "The [Omega] China Tour was good news for Chinese golfers," said 27-year-old Li Chao, who topped the tour's money list in two of its first three seasons. "Tournaments in China for Chinese golfers had been getting fewer and fewer. Now the country's golfers have a reason to practice and a chance to win regular prize money."

The China Golf Association initially contacted World Sport Group about a potential domestic tour in late 2004. Nine months and a $1.6 million investment from WSG later, the China Tour was born. "We did four events in less than three months," remembered WSG regional president Nick Mould. "We just kind of threw them together."

Mould likens the China Tour -- which, in a multimillion-dollar, three-year deal, added Omega as title sponsor in 2006 -- to an "evolving beast." His company has signed on for seven years, with an agreement to expand the tour by two events every year, each tournament carrying with it a $100,000 prize fund. The eight-tournament third year just wrapped up in October. Next year, it's 10 tournaments … and the challenge of scheduling them around the Beijing Olympics.

But challenges are nothing new to golf in China. It's an activity loaded with political implications; there's a reason why the sport, which earned the nickname "green opium," was nowhere to be found during the first 35 years of the Communist regime. Golf, the belief goes, is an aristocratic, individualistic, even capitalistic pursuit, linked to corruption in the minds of many. And in today's China, although it is slowly becoming more accessible, golf indeed remains a rich man's game. With virtually no public courses to choose from, 18 holes in China will cost around $60 on average, and that's a pretty big chunk of the monthly income for a typical Chinese farmer, a demographic that makes up close to half of the nation's population.

Thus, while a fair number of Chinese government officials enjoy hitting the links from time to time, rarely will they do so in public. In a country with an ever-widening gap between rich and poor, and lately an uncanny knack for toppling politicos on the take, to do so would be career suicide.

And so where does that leave the China Golf Association, itself a government body, part of something called the Small Ball Games Administrative Center, which includes cricket, lawn bowling, squash and a handful of other non-Olympic sports? With limited support from above, the CGA is expected to serve as the PGA of America, the PGA Tour and the USGA all rolled into one -- a single office responsible for nearly every aspect of golf in China. It's a system set up for failure, and, off the record, most onlookers will say that is just what it is doing.

But a lack of political support and direction aren't the China Tour's only obstacles. If 1 million Chinese are golfing, that means 1.299 billion are not. There are no lucrative television deals to be had. In fact, the opposite is true. The China Tour must pay CCTV-5, China Central Television's sports channel, to air its one-hour highlights program at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, eight days after the conclusion of an event. World Sport Group must also pay transportation, room and board for the members of the Chinese media, mostly golf specialty magazines and Web sites, who cover the tour. And the obligatory media gift bags are distributed upon arrival in the tournament media center.

Nailing down tour venues can also be a hassle. The final schedule for the 2007 season was not announced until three weeks prior to the opening event. And the tournament entitled the "Shanghai Leg" actually took place in neighboring Jiangsu Province -- most Shanghai courses did not want to forfeit a week of business for a tournament featuring no foreign stars.

But for all the growing pains, behind-the-scenes wrangling and wheeling and dealing, the end result, from a spectator's point of view, is really rather normal. China Tour events look and feel the way they should, like professional golf tournaments. The only things separating them from, say, Asian Tour events are the number of spectators -- the gallery following the lead group during the final round of a China Tour event will range anywhere from a couple dozen to a couple hundred -- and quality of play -- the average cut line heading into the weekend on the China Tour this year was 13-over-par.

(Note to readers who just said to themselves, "Hey, I could dominate the China Tour!": Don't pack your bags just yet. The tour is currently open only to golfers from mainland China, with the occasional golfer from Taiwan or Hong Kong getting a special invitation.)

While Mould says potential sponsors aren't beating down his door -- and the China Tour has yet to attract a Chinese sponsor -- those who have signed on at this early stage have expressed satisfaction with their investment. French luxury hotel chain Sofitel joined the tour this year in a three-year deal said to be "well into the six figures." The agreement included naming rights for the season-opening event, held at a Sofitel golf resort in Nanjing, a city two hours from Shanghai by train.

"We didn't have huge expectations, but our expectations were greatly exceeded," said Sofitel marketing executive Ray Stone, adding that the Nanjing resort saw an uptick in business after the tournament. "It's also pleasing that we are supporting golf in China at the grassroots level. That's a good feeling."

The China Tour is very much a developmental golf circuit. In a country where the sport is only 23 years old, it has to be. It's meant to be a platform from which the tour's best golfers can advance and compete on a grander stage, the Asian Tour being the next logical step. An American golf fan might compare the level of play among the top 20 or 30 golfers to a third- or fourth-tier regional tour in the U.S., something akin to the Hooters Tour. The talent level drops from there, and those are the golfers left wondering each week if they are going to be able to break even.

Only a handful of China Tour golfers actually earn a living from the tournaments themselves. The majority are still teaching pros. And there have been some rumblings among the golfers, perhaps with accelerated expectations based on what they see elsewhere in the pro golf world, that the China Tour prize money is no longer sufficient. Mould says he feels their pain, but everyone must deal with the current reality of the marketplace that is professional golf in China.

"If we have 10 events next year, there's a million [dollars] U.S. on offer for Chinese golfers that didn't exist 2½ years ago," Mould said. "We need to work harder to get that money in. They need to work harder to perform better so it becomes more attractive for people to put their name on it. People buy products. You are a product now, guys. How good is the product?"

Wednesday: Who are those guys? An introduction to some personalities on the China Tour
Friday: A Q&A with China's golf trailblazer, Zhang Lianwei

Dan Washburn is a Shanghai-based writer who followed the golfers of the China Tour throughout the 2007 season. He is currently writing a book about golf in China, entitled Par for China.