In 1984, when China ushered in its first modern-day golf course, Zhou Xunshu was 12 years old, living in an impoverished mountain village in the country's midsection. At his school, light came from kerosene lamps, heat from a coal furnace in the middle of the classroom. At home, Zhou worked in the fields, cutting tall grass with a sickle. He didn't know a sport called golf existed.
In 1994, when China first acknowledged "golf pro" as a profession, Zhou enrolled in a military-operated police school, trying to find direction in his life. He had spent the previous four years studying to pass the senior high school entrance exam -- his parents had hoped he would be the first family member to do so -- but schooling was never Zhou's strong suit. Four years in a row he went through the motions, and four years in a row he failed. Now 22, Zhou had still never heard the word "golf."
A year later, Zhou made a move that would alter the course of his life in the most unexpected way. He left police school early and hopped on a train to Guangzhou after hearing there were jobs to be had in the southern boomtown. Zhou landed a gig as a security guard at something called a "golf course." Things would never be the same.
In 2007, Zhou (his family name, pronounced similar to "Joe") is finishing up his fourth year as a golf instructor. And the 35-year-old is the No. 22 golfer on China's three-year-old pro circuit, the Omega China Tour.
Zhou's ascension from peasant farmer to golf professional, while remarkable, is not entirely unusual in this early stage of China's golf experience. To be sure, the sport in China, perhaps more so than anywhere in the world, is an elitist pursuit -- a status symbol, like BMWs and Beaujolais, for the nation's nouveau riche. But those who rely on golf to eke out a living tend to be a little rough around the edges, and the road that led them to the game was often a random one.
A word that Zhou often uses to describe his childhood is "ku," which means "bitter." Qixin, a tiny village in rural Guizhou Province, didn't have electricity until the early 1990s, and despite China's "opening up" in the late 1970s, the effects of the planned economy days lingered in the village throughout the 1980s (even today the average rural family in Guizhou earns less than $100 a month). Zhou talks about sharing a bed with three of his brothers inside the family's stone home. He talks about hauling heavy loads of coal on his back 5 kilometers at a time. He talks about going hungry, looking at the family's boxes of government-provided potatoes knowing they wouldn't last the ever-expanding household -- two parents, seven children, and various in-laws, aunts and uncles -- through the winter.
"Life in the mountains was pretty tough," Zhou says. "When we traveled into town we could see other people had better lives than us. But it's a page of my life. Conditions were bad and there was nothing we could do about it."
But when Zhou landed at Guangzhou International Golf Club (GIGC) in late 1995, he thought of Qixin and smiled. He saw mountains. He saw green. And he was reminded of home. He also saw, for the first time in his life, grown men using metal sticks to hit a little white ball in the grass. But that, too, seemed oddly familiar. Back in the village, while children were watching the cattle in the pasture, they'd play a game that involved balling up wads of paper and using tree branches to knock them into holes dug in the ground.
"I felt really comfortable and happy. People were playing just like back in my hometown," says Zhou, who was also pleased with his $200 a month salary, more than four times what a security guard would have made in Guizhou.
Guangzhou International is a private golf club, and in 1996 a membership there ran about $32,000, more money than a poor farm boy could fathom at the time. Being a private club, keeping up appearances was important. And one of the club's rules stated, in no uncertain terms, that employees below a particular level of authority were not allowed to play golf. Zhou, despite overseeing a large portion of the security force (he imported most of them from Guizhou himself), fell below that particular level.
This would prove to be torturous for Zhou. One of his duties was following playing groups around the course, and reporting their whereabouts back to the clubhouse. Zhou had always been athletic, and he loved sports. It was natural that he wanted to give this new activity a try. But he couldn't. For two years, he walked and watched.
"I really wanted to play," Zhou said. "At night, I even dreamed about playing. But I knew the equipment was very expensive, and anyway, I had nowhere to play. It was like having a piece of meat in your mouth, but not being able to eat it. So bad."
Then, in 1998, representatives from PING visited Guangzhou International, and Zhou looked on as the PING people, members of GIGC management and the club's foreign golf instructors all tested out some top-of-the-line drivers. They were trying to see if anyone could hit the ball over a tree-covered hill approximately 50 yards behind the yardage marker that read "225." A small crowd had formed, including Zhou's immediate boss, Wang Shiwen, a serious-faced but friendly northeasterner. But no one was able to clear the trees.
Then Zhou, dressed in his security guard uniform, spoke up. "Leader," he said, addressing Wang. "Can I have a try?"
Several in the group responded by laughing. The security guard wants to take a swing? Others teased Zhou: "This is a really expensive club," they said. "If you break it, you're going to have to buy it." But Wang jumped in, "If he breaks it, I'll buy it. Give the boy a try."
Zhou, for all intents and purposes, had never swung a club before. Maybe a chip here and there when nobody was looking, but he most definitely was a novice. How would you like it if your first swings of a driver were in front of a crowd, an unforgiving one at that? But Zhou stepped forward. He removed his hat, his tie. He loosened his collar. He took the club in his hands. They were shaking.
Zhou settled himself the best he could, lined up his shot and swung.
He heard chuckles in the crowd. But he picked the ball from the rubber tee and carefully placed it back. He swung again.
More laughter. Zhou felt his face go flush. But again, he lined up the ball.
Baseball was another sport Zhou was unfamiliar with, so three strikes didn't mean he was out. Although some in the crowd said they had seen enough, he wasn't going to leave unless someone forced the club from his hands. He had to at least hit the ball.
And on his fourth attempt, that's exactly what he did. He hit the ball. Long. Straight. And over the trees. The laughs were now those of disbelief.
"Some of the coaches said it was just dumb luck," Zhou says. "I didn't try again because I was afraid I would break the club. But that was the moment I started thinking that, if I worked hard, maybe one day I could become good at golf."
One problem remained, however. He still wasn't allowed to play. But Zhou was determined not to let that stop him. He had caught the bug.
He started collecting discarded and broken clubs, building up an arsenal. He dragged a worn-out driving range mat back to the workers' dormitory. He'd hop out his first-floor window, to a narrow corridor of grass, and hit balls for hours. At night, he'd sneak out to a practice green with just a ball -- no putter -- and study how the ball rolled atop the curves of the closely cropped grass. He read any golf book he could get his hands on, and watched golf videos (John Daly's "Grip It and Rip It," to name one) in the driving range office when he was off duty. He may never have been a good student, but Zhou taught himself golf.
In 2001, Zhou returned home to Qixin for the first time in more than five years. He brought back 10 golf balls, and the villagers looked at the strange foreign spheres with wonderment and curiosity. His mother bounced one, and everybody clapped. Then some neighborhood children took the balls, and they played with them like marbles. Zhou figured he'd choose another time to explain golf to his family.
At Guangzhou International, despite all of his stealthy preparations, Zhou wasn't able to start playing golf regularly until 2002, a full six years after he arrived at the club. Prior to then, he had little tastes of the game here and there. Bosses would leave, restrictions would loosen, and he'd be able to golf. But without fail, something would happen -- for example, local farmers would sneak onto the course at night and steal tee markers to sell as scrap metal, with Zhou's security team catching the blame -- and restrictions would be tightened again. During one such low point, Zhou fashioned his own practice clubs using broken shafts. He'd fill a cut-off water bottle with wet cement and stick the shaft inside, allowing the cement to dry around it. Then he'd carry the weighted club to the dormitory roof and take practice swings, hundreds of them, every night.
There was no mistaking Zhou's determination. He even offered to work without pay in exchange for free access to the course -- twice -- and was turned down both times. In the spring of 2002, Wang eventually took pity on him and, risking his own job, agreed to play with Zhou each morning at 6:30 a.m., after Zhou worked the night shift, and before most of the customers would arrive. Very few people were aware of this arrangement, and that is the way Wang and Zhou wanted it to be.
"Sometimes, if someone was coming, I'd have to go hide in the bushes," Zhou says. "And before each swing, I'd have to look around to make sure nobody was looking. If the coast was clear, I'd swing quickly and race after the ball."
After a year of racing around the course, Zhou was hitting in the 70s. And in 2003, he hung up his security guard uniform for good -- a Guangzhou driving range hired him as an instructor. Two years later, he was teeing up in his first China Tour event. The poor boy from Guizhou was a golf pro.
Yep, just as easy as that.