Three seasons young, the Omega China Tour, which recently wrapped up its eight-event 2007 schedule, symbolizes just how new the game of golf is to China. Each stop on the China Tour comes with a total purse of only $100,000, but that is more than the golfers of China ever had before. The China Tour has helped spark a revolution of sorts -- it's provided regular domestic competition for scores of Chinese golfers, and in the process created a wide-eyed and ragtag group of newly minted professional athletes.
The Wild West atmosphere surrounding the game in China is reminiscent of the beginnings of pro golf in the the United States back in the early 20th century. Golf then had little broad appeal and was primarily a pursuit of the moneyed, and most of its professionals were teachers of the game. And that is exactly the state of golf in China today. Only a handful of golfers on the China Tour are making a living from playing tournaments alone. Most have second jobs. No one is getting rich from golf -- they play the game because they love it.
Here's a look at eight players on the China Tour and the wild and random paths that led them to golf:
Age: 33, playing golf for nine years
2007 China Tour ranking: 18th, $11,279*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 74.83
Career highlights: Four top-10 finishes in past two China Tour seasons, including two top-5s to bookend the 2007 campaign.
Current job: Head pro at Tiger Beach Golf Links in northeast China's Shandong Province. Also owns a small Chinese barbecue restaurant.
Hometown: Dalian, Liaoning Province, Northeast China
Current residence: Xubao, Shandong Province, Northeast China
Liu was working as a sushi chef in Dalian, a city in northeast China, when a regular customer, who happened to be a Japanese golf coach, persuaded him to come work at a new driving range. Until then, Liu, who grew up in a small farming village, had never heard of golf. "After I finished my work duties, I watched them on the driving range, and I said to myself, 'That doesn't look hard at all,'" Liu recalled. "I picked up a 7 iron and took a swing. The ball went very far. Then I hit about five or six more balls and I did not miss. All of them went very far. I asked the Japanese coach, 'I can support my family doing this?' He said, 'Yes.'" Two years later Liu was hired as the head pro at Tiger Beach Golf Links, where he still works today. Did Liu find this quick and curious course of events strange at all? "Not strange," he said. "I am a Christian and I believe in God. He led me to golf."
Age: 26, playing golf for nine years
2007 China Tour ranking: 4th, $34,956*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 72.94
Career highlights: Named the China Tour's 2007 Rookie of the Year after winning the first pro tournament he entered and posting five more top-10s on the eight-event circuit. A top-ranked amateur prior to turning pro, Wu represented China in the 2002 and 2006 Asian Games.
Current job: Pro golfer, based out of Zhuhai Lakewood Golf Club in Guangdong Province. Says most of his income comes from gambling on golf matches with local businessmen.
Hometown: Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, South China
Current residence: Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, South China
Wu, from southern China, grew up close to one of the first golf courses in modern China and remembers collecting lost golf balls in the hills nearby as a child. He would sell the balls back to the course. "Back then, I did not know golf," Wu said. "I only knew the balls." But by chance, another golf course went up right beside his village, and his sister got a job there as caddie master. His older brother worked there, as well. Told there was a Singaporean coach there looking to train young golfers, Wu quit school at 17 and signed up. "I was bad at school, so it didn't make that much difference if I kept studying," Wu said. "There weren't many other ways out for me." Nine years later, Wu is still based out of the same club.
Age: 29, playing golf for eight years
2007 China Tour ranking: 8th, $19,531*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 73.80
Career highlights: In 2007, earned Most Improved Player honors after recording three top-5 finishes on the China Tour. His previous best was an 18th in 2006, when he failed to make the cut in three of the six tournaments.
Current job: Occasionally gives lessons at a hotel driving range in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.
Hometown: Tongling, Anhui Province, East Central China
Current residence: Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, East China
At the age of 20, Chen, whose given name means "pony," was working in his family's rice fields along the Yangtze River -- the same as he had done since he was 10 years old -- when he decided to ask his uncle to help him find a job. Chen's uncle, the only relative with a college education, was an engineer who worked in the construction of golf courses (not that the golf part meant anything to Chen; he had never heard of the sport). Expecting to become a laborer, Chen ended up working at a driving range instead. "At first I thought it was a pretty funny game, and that only big bosses would come and play," Chen said. "We weren't busy on weekdays, and that is when I got a chance to play. I liked it from the moment I started."
Age: 25, playing golf for five years
2007 China Tour ranking: 29th, $8,875*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 75.30
Career highlights: Three top-15 finishes in two seasons on tour.
Current job: Technically an instructor at Shenzhen Haibin Driving Range, in southern China, but supported financially by a group of wealthy businessmen who took a liking to him. They also happen to be his gambling partners.
Hometown: Laibin, Guangxi Province, Southwest China
Current residence: Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, South China
The son of an army cook, Yuan has done a lot of living in his 25 years. At age 11, he enrolled in martial arts school because he wanted to be the next Bruce Lee. At age 12, he joined a touring acrobatic stunt motorcycling troupe called the "Flying Dragons" (but his parents made him quit at age 15 after too many broken bones). After five years of odd jobs -- with stints as an electrician and as the guy who slaughters oxen that are no longer of use to farmers -- Yuan landed in southern China at an aunt's home that just happened to be near a golf course, whose employees just happened to be on strike. Soon he talked his way into a job as an instructor, despite having never played golf in his life. That is when he figured he should learn; three years later he was teeing up in his first China Tour event. "I have always been good at sports," the 5-foot-5 Yuan said. "But I also worked very hard. I'd play from morning until night, only taking breaks for lunch and dinner. I think I have earned a reputation as one of the hardest-working golfers on the tour."
Age: 36, playing golf for 10 years
2007 China Tour ranking: 14th, $12,457*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 74.38
Career highlights: Nine top-10 finishes on the China Tour.
Current job: Head pro at Haikou Golden Eagle Training Center on Hainan Island. Also owns a small chain of golf pro shops.
Personal: Married, one daughter
Hometown: Hengyang, Hunan Province, Central China
Current residence: Haikou, Hainan Province, South China
In 1996, Xiao was entertainment manager at a hotel on Hainan Island (sometimes called the "Hawaii of China") and became intrigued when his bosses purchased an indoor golf simulator for guests to use. This was his first introduction to golf, and he soon discovered he had a knack for the sport (the computer-simulated version of it, at least). Before long no one at the hotel could beat him. And it was over a round of simulated golf that a customer -- the owner of a golf course in northeast China -- offered to double Xiao's pay if he'd be willing to pack up and move to become his course's caddie master. Xiao accepted the offer, and when he arrived at his new place of employment it was the first time he had seen real a golf course in his life.
Age: 39, playing golf for 12 years
2007 China Tour ranking: 9th, $18,551*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 74.03
Career highlights: Eight top-10 finishes on China Tour, including runner-up performances in 2005 and 2007.
Personal: Married, three sons (to get around China's one-child policy, he paid fines of $2,500-$4,000 for each extra son)
Current job: Pro golfer and owner of Weishi Golf Equipment Company, which includes a pro shop and a club fitting center.
Hometown: Quanzhou, Fujian Province, Southeast China
Current residence: Xiamen, Fujian Province, Southeast China
After graduating from college and going to work for his father's construction company, Wu traded his morning wushu regimen (he studied Chinese martial arts for 15 years) for rounds of golf. "I wanted to grow my business, and I knew wealthy and well-connected people played golf," Wu explained. "I never thought I would become a pro golfer. But after playing for seven months, I was shooting in the 70s. In two years, I was the best golfer in the city." Wu has since left the construction business to his father and started a golf equipment company of his own. All three of his sons play golf.
Age: 40, playing golf for 19 years
2007 China Tour ranking: 36th, $7,090*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 75.92
Career highlights: Six top-10 finishes on the China Tour. Numerous second-place finishes prior to tour earned him a variety of Mickelson-esque nicknames. Still looking for first career win.
Personal: Married, one son
Current job: Works as a consultant to companies looking to get involved with golf in China. Occasionally teaches.
Hometown: Shanghai, East China
Current residence: Shanghai, East China
One of the strongest men on tour, Qi was a world-class youth rower in China's state-funded sports machine before quitting at the age of 18. A couple of years later, he learned that a new golf course in Shanghai was looking to hire and train out-of-work athletes. This was in the late 1980s, and since the sport was so new to the country, courses had virtually no experienced job candidates to choose from. "I had never seen a golf ball or club before," said Qi, who in 1994 became one of the first Chinese golfers to achieve "pro" status. "But it was a ball game. When I left rowing, a body-building coach saw me and my build and asked me to become a body-builder. But ever since I was a kid, I always liked ball games, so I went with golf."
Age: 27, playing golf for 11 years
2007 China Tour ranking: 1st, $87,825*
2007 China Tour stroke average: 71.69
Career highlights: The China Tour's money leader in 2005 and 2007, winning seven of the tour's first 18 tournaments and never finishing out of the top 10. In 2005, finished 9th at the Volkswagen Masters, an Asian Tour event in Beijing, prompting early-round playing partner Michael Campbell to describe him as "a big talent." Has three top-10 finishes on the Asian Tour.
Current job: Pro golfer, based out of Nanhai Peach Garden Golf Club, Guangdong Province, South China. Recently signed management contract with IMG. Sponsored by Srixon.
Hometown: Beijing, Northeast China
Current residence: Foshan, Guangdong Province, South China
The son of timber mill laborers, Li is one of the first generation of Chinese golfers to have picked up the game in school, in his case No. 77 Secondary School, a well-known academy in Beijing that offers a golf major. A former soccer goalkeeper, the 6-foot-3 Li was spotted at the age of 16 by Song Liangliang, the current deputy secretary general of the China Golf Association, and encouraged to enroll in the program. "The tuition fee was 5,000 yuan [$675] per year in 1996, which was very expensive for my parents -- they were just workers," Li said. "My parents did know not about golf back then, but they thought it could be a good sport. At that time no one knew what the future of golf in China would be like, so they viewed it as a kind of an investment or gamble." Li has by far been the most successful golfer in the short history of the China Tour and, aside from established pros Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong, is probably the only one able to earn a living from playing tournaments alone. Many associated with the sport in China are encouraging him to leave the comfort zone of his home country and test his skills on the Asian Tour and in Japan.
* Before 20 percent income tax deducted
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. Alice Liu contributed to this report.