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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Collins

Haotong Li and Golf in China

Updated: May 27, 2019

Rocky Past

To say that golf has had a tough history in China would be a considerable understatement. The trouble started in 1949, following Mao Zedong’s ascension to power, when it was branded a ‘sport for millionaires’ and duly banned. China’s first course was finished in 1984, 8 years after the death of Mao, and golf began to gain popularity among China’s elite with China hosting its first international tournament in 1995.

In 2004, the Communist Party of China (CPC) banned the construction of golf courses on the grounds of concerns over their environmental impact. However, this did little to dampen prospectors ambitions and by 2009 there were almost 600 active courses in China, most cloaked by the alias of ‘leisure’ or ‘country’ clubs. This explosion was made possible by local governments keen to raise money through selling off their most abundant asset, land.

Golf continued to thrive in the shadows, until 2011 when 111 courses were shut down, allegedly due to water and land conservation issues. Numerous courses were ordered to close and return the previously arable land to how it had been before construction. In 2014, things went from bad to worse as President Xi’s ‘war on golf’ became part of his wider crackdown on corruption in the CPC. Members of the CPC (approximately 85 million of them) were banned from playing golf due to allegations of free memberships given to officials.

Signs of Life

Recently, however, the signs have been much better for golf. It was included as a ‘sport to encourage’ by the Chinese cabinet in October 2016 following the success of Shanshan Feng at the Rio Olympics where she won bronze. As with any sport looking to grow in China, inclusion in the Olympics provides a huge boost as it generally brings with it government focus and funding. Despite the ban for officials still being in effect at the time, Feng’s medal was celebrated by Beijing and Xi congratulated Feng in person on her achievement.

This year, the good news has continued for golf with President Xi declaring that there was now nothing wrong with members of the CPC playing golf, so long as they pay for the pleasure, stating that there is ‘no right or wrong’ in playing the game. Development is continuing as the Chinese Golf Association finalises its 5-year development plan for golf in China. The governing body also agreed to a strategic partnership with the Asia Tour in May which includes plans to co-sanction 4 new tournaments in China this year, with more set to be announced for 2018.

What about the players?

Obviously, there is a big difference between golf becoming a sport that is not widely banned and a sport at which China excels in on the world stage. It remains an extremely expensive sport relative to the rest of the world. Generally, a round at one of the courses outside of Beijing will run you closer to $200 than the $50 you could expect to pay for a similar standard of course in the USA. The number of courses in China, somewhere between 550 and 700, also pales in comparison to the 15,000 in the US, showing that golf is a long way off becoming a sport adopted by the masses.

However, the good news for golf is that it is a sport that can be developed relatively quickly, unlike team sports which generally take decades. It also suits traditional Chinese values such as mental strength, control and discipline and the dedication to practice required fits well with how China tends to look to develop athletes.

Also unlike other sports looking to grow in China, golf currently boasts some homegrown heroes, another huge benefit. As mentioned, Feng Shanshan won Bronze in Rio to add to her LPGA Championship (a major) which she won in 2012 and has finished in the top ten at each of the other majors on the LPGA tour. She is currently ranked 7th in the world.

On the men’s side, 2017 has been somewhat of a breakthrough year for Haotong Li. The 21-year-old became the first Chinese player to make the cut at the US Open in June and then followed that up with a top 10 finish at the British Open this weekend, during which he tied the second lowest round in major championship history. His final round of 63 would have been good for tied lowest ever had it not been for Branden Grace breaking the 44-year-old record the day before. His 3rd place finish is the best result for a Chinese player at a men’s major to date. The result will give him both a place at next year’s Open Championship as well as entry into the 2018 Masters, becoming only the fourth Chinese player to appear at the famous event.

China also boasts two very promising amateurs in Guan Tianlang and Jin Cheng, both of whom have played at the Masters. The former becoming the youngest male player to make the cut at a major championship at 14 years and 5 months during the 2013 edition.

With all three budding players under the age of 21, and after such an amazing performance on the biggest stage by Haotong Li, in the immediate future of golf is well positioned to inspire a generation of Chinese talent. Align that with the indications that Beijing may be ready to get behind the game it could well be that golf experiences a remarkable few years in China.

Mailman is a digital sports marketing consultancy and technology company. We help global rights holders, athletes, and leagues to build a successful business in China.

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