For most of China's short golf history, one man has been known as the nation's best: Zhang Lianwei. Zhang, like many Chinese golfers, stumbled into the game. In 1985, his javelin career over, then 20-year-old Zhang was working for the government sports bureau in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, painting lines on soccer fields, racking up snooker balls and other odd jobs.
He was then presented with the opportunity of working at a new golf course in the city -- it was the second golf course in China. For three years, Zhang caddied, mowed lawns, raked bunkers and practiced, practiced, practiced. In 2003, Zhang, who is "90% self-taught," became the first Chinese player to win a European Tour event, the Caltex Masters in Singapore. The following year he became the first Chinese player to tee up at the U.S. Masters.
This week, Zhang teams up with China's new No. 1, Liang Wenchong, to defend their home turf in the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in Shenzhen, China.
How did you feel when the opportunity to play golf was presented to you back in 1985? What did you know about golf at that time?
A: Actually, I really did not think about it much. I just needed to find a job. I did not know what golf was back then. But in the 1980s some things in China were still pretty bad, and the atmosphere of a golf course attracted me. Also I like sports. I got paid 20 dollars per month when I started. At the time, I had no idea how golf would develop in China over the next 20 years. I just liked the game. As soon as I started playing I liked it, and I keep doing it until now.
My family had lots of objections to my decision initially. They were rice farmers. "Only 20 dollars per month?" they said. I went to work and did not bring money home, did not help the family out. My older brother and my parents weren't happy. They thought I should be able to find a better job and help the family. Back then I had an athlete's attitude, and my family gave me lots of pressure, that is true.
Q: Were there many opportunities for you to compete in the early days?
Although I was just an amateur, I was very eager to play in the tournaments. Because for sports, the only way you can compare yourself to others and to see if you are making progress is through competition. But I was practicing and practicing and there were almost no tournaments. There were some amateur tournaments in China but mostly we were waiting around for the Asian Games in 1990 and 1994. Actually, I spent most of my time working at the course!
Q: Young golfers in the United States grow up saying they want to be the next Tiger Woods. Young Chinese golfers will say they want to be the next Zhang Lianwei. Who were your role models? What golfers do you admire?
A: In the early days, I liked several guys. And of course now I like Tiger Woods just like everybody else. I like Bernhard Langer from Germany. I like Seve Ballesteros from Spain. I like his spirit. Now it's Tiger Woods, though. I have played with him three times.
Q: At a press conference for the BMW Asian Open in 2005 you got very emotional talking about a lack of domestic support for golf, a lack of domestic sponsors, and some of the hardships you faced as a golfer in China. Do you remember that day?
Yes. I was wondering aloud why BMW sponsors such a big tournament in China while lots of Chinese companies do not sponsor tournaments in China. You can see lots of them now: HSBC, Volvo, BMW, Volkswagen. All are foreign companies that come to China and sponsor Chinese golf tournaments.
Why is that? It is not that Chinese companies do not have money. Why don't they put their money toward golf? I haven't figured it out yet. Actually lots of bosses of Chinese companies play golf. But all my sponsors are foreign companies: Nike, Omega, Buick and Standard Chartered. Everything is foreign. I think Chinese companies should sponsor me, but it is very strange that they don't.
Q: Do you think it has something to do with the stigma attached to golf in certain aspects of Chinese society? That golf is an aristocratic activity? Now still lots of government officials like to golf, but they do it privately because of the image associated with golf. Is that part of the problem as well?
I can't answer this question. It's very sensitive. I know lots of officials play, but they can't even say so. I believe they must like it very much. This question is pretty sensitive, so I can't answer it.
Q: Over the years, there had been many stories about even top Chinese golfers like yourself having trouble getting visas to leave the country to play in tournaments. How frustrating is that? You are the best golfer in the country and you try to do your job, you try to represent China and you encounter all of these problems.
I also think it is very strange, because for every country we need visa and we always have to fly from Shenzhen to Beijing and back to process the visa. All the flying around is very expensive and plus we waste a lot of time we could be practicing. It was like this in the '90s after we turned pro and even now it is still the same. No matter where I go, I need a visa. So it is not like because I am such a good golfer in China they will do it as fast as they can. It's the normal process, and it is very annoying.
Q: Even now?
Even now it's the same. Same Chinese passport, same visa.
Q: Because most tournaments are not in China, what kind of effect did this have on you?
A: Sometimes you can't go to one tournament because they have your passport processing a visa for another tournament.
Q: But what if you were not a golfer? What if you were a basketball player or soccer player?
A: Other sports have it easier because it is a team. And a team is just much faster because the state administration will handle it together and they will get the visa the next day if they ask them to. It is different because we are going out alone.
Q: So tennis will also have this problem?
A: Tennis? They have the tennis association to handle this for them.
Q: What about the China Golf Association?
A: (Laughs.) Nothing I can do about it. Golf is different, is different in China.
Q: In 2003, nearly 20 years after you began playing golf, you had your best year as a pro. You won a European Tour event and the following year you played in the Masters -- you were the first Chinese golfer to achieve both of those feats. Can you describe the sense of accomplishment?
I came a long way, and it wasn't easy. Personally I think I did a lot of things for Chinese golf. Not easy given the environment. But looking back, it was all worthwhile because it brought great honor to Chinese golf as well as myself. I started golf when I was 20 and I was self-taught. It is not easy for someone who didn't go through a strict training program to achieve these things. So I should say 2003 rewarded my persistence. If you keep persisting without focusing too much about awards and prizes, you will succeed.
Q: Tell us about your Masters experience. Was that your first time playing in the U.S.?
Yes, first time. I had watched on TV many times before. I was very excited. It was magical. It was wonderful. Because in golf the greatest honor is playing in the Masters. It is the highest level of golf. Getting invited was truly an honor that I never expected to receive.
Q: You played several legs of the Omega China Tour this year. Why are you focusing more on the domestic circuit now?
I think the China Tour has already improved in just three years. I have played in many tournaments throughout the world and I still need to deal with the same visa hassles. I don't have the time for such things anymore. But now in China there are some Asian Tour and European Tour tournaments. There are more opportunities now in China, so now I don't need to use so much energy to play abroad. I have the responsibility and the duty to promote golf sport in China because I hope our Omega China Tour will grow and I hope our golfers will play better. So I will put more time in China and try my best to do something in China.
Q: How many of the golfers on the China Tour now do you think have the realistic chance to go beyond the China Tour?
Good question. I think out of our pro golfers maybe eight or 10 have the ability to play on the Asian Tour. And among our current players, no one is at the level of the European Tour. And I don't know why more haven't tried the Asian Tour yet.
Q: Right. A lot of people are talking about Li Chao and wondering why he is still focusing on the China Tour.
I have told him many times. Go to Japan. Go to Asia. It's better for you. But I don't know why he doesn't. I told Liang Wenchong the same thing seven years ago. I told Liang, go to America. Don't stay here. He did not go, so he lost the opportunity. It is just like this -- human beings are just like this. I have already told Li Chao about where he should be playing. But there is nothing I can do about it. And Liang, I told him to stay in the U.S., not here. You need to live in America to play on the PGA, I said. Now Li Chao is the same. I do not understand.
Q: What do you think keeps them here?
A: (Laughs.) They like China too much.
Q: You have a son, right? Tiger?
Yes, Tiger Zhang. He's 3.
Q: Do you want him to play golf?
I hope he likes playing in the future.
Q: When your son is old enough to become a pro golfer, do you think there will there still be China Tour? There have been other attempts at domestic tours. Will this be the one that sticks?
It is hard to say, but definitely [there] will be a China Tour. It might not be this one. Maybe when my son is old enough, the China Tour might be close to PGA. Twenty years from now it will be bigger and players from all over the world will come to China and play. Maybe!