For the second time in 2013, a young Chinese prodigy is breaking records and grabbing the headlines in the golfing world. But how is it that China has been able to produce so many young talented golfers in recent times?
12-year-old Ye Wocheng yesterday became the youngest player in European Tour history, making a seven-over-par 79 in the first round of the China Open.
He was even looking promising for a par score, before the wind picked up later on in his round rendering his lack of power much more noticeable in comparison to his fellow competitors.
This prodigy has caught the public’s attention shortly after his 14-year-old compatriot Guan Tianlang made the news for becoming the youngest ever player to compete at the Masters – this, just a year after Chinese teenager Andy Zhang became the youngest ever competitor at the US open, again at just 14 years of age.
Golf is not the only sport in which the youths of Eastern origin have excelled against older opposition; Michael Chang, whose parents are Taiwanese, remains the youngest male player to have won a Grand Slam singles title after lifting the 1989 French Open tennis title at the age of 17. And Michelle Wie, an American of South Korean origins won the 2003 US Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship at the age of 13, having become the youngest player to qualify for a USGA amateur championship aged just 10.
So, to what does China owe this recent boom in young golfing talent?
Golf was actually banned in China until the mid 1980s, being deemed too bourgeois by the communist government. Statistically, less than 1% of the Chinese population plays golf, compared to roughly 8% of the adult population who play in the UK. If the participation rate in China could be brought up to the same as in the United States, there would be an additional 16.9 million Chinese golfers.
Despite the relatively low grass-root participation, however, China is beginning to churn out some exceptional professional golfers. Why?
The answer is difficult to put into words. The perfectionist culture on which the country has thrived in recent years is sure to have contributed. But I think it is slightly more complex than that. The effect of a sport, previously banned and scorned, suddenly becoming legal is not an immediate one. It has taken a while for the stigma of golf to wear off in China.
But after taking their first tentative steps the Chinese have been caught up in a whirlwind which is seeing them swiftly rise as a golfing power. This was epitomised by Ye’s beating of Tiger Woods’ tournament record at the US Kids Junior World Championship, with a 12-under-par card.
With golf being reintroduced in 2016 to the Olympic schedule for the first time since 1904, the sport is facing a promising future. Its ever-growing popularity is sure to be enhanced by its increased coverage in Rio.
Who will become the first player to win an Olympic gold in golf for more than a century? Time will tell. Perhaps it will be a tad early for Ye Wocheng, who will still only be at the tender age of 15. It is probably still far too early for his marginally older compatriots Guan Tianlang and Andy Zhang. But I believe we are witnessing the birth of a new age for golf. And the christening is taking place in China.