By Ed Leech
The V for victory sign flashed by the little girl on a driving range is such an international gesture that a casual observer could conclude that they understand the future of Chinese golf. But just as with almost every other area of development in this massive country of 1.4 billion people, Chinese golf is growing in it's own unique and different ways. The newest generations of golfers are emerging from all walks of life and all have different stories to tell.
Yet one aspect which links many of these young golfers together is the HSBC China Junior Golf Program. Launched in early 2007 in conjunction with the China Golf Association, its main aim is to provide a structure for China to develop, nurture and monitor the next golfing generation between the ages of six and eighteen. The young players take part in the HSBC National Junior Championship series of tournaments, as well as summer camps and fun mini-games throughout the year which are all part of the program's philosophy for long-term sustainable youth development.
The fun aspect of the program is aimed more towards the younger players because, while exposing them to quality teaching, it is essential that these kids do not lose their enthusiasm for the game especially given the fact that they, in general, have started golf earlier than any other generation of Chinese golfers. It's easy to forget that Zhang Lianwei, the godfather of Chinese golf, had not even heard of the game until he was 20. Liang Wenchong and Li Chao were in their late teens when they picked up a golf club for the very first time.
This is where HSBC has stepped in. The world's local bank has maintained a strong interest in golf in China, none more so than the HSBC Champions which has emerged as the most lucrative and successful tournament in Asia. In only four years, the tournament attracts the international jet set of world golf and has leader boards that could easily grace a Major. It has gone a long way in popularizing the sport in the country, but for all the golf stars and the millions of dollars in prize money, HSBC maintains that grassroots golf is just as important.
"The HSBC China Junior Golf Program is the true legacy of the HSBC Champions," explains the bank's Group Head of Sponsorship, Giles Morgan.
"There's no doubt that players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia playing in Shanghai each year have had a lot to do with the increased interest in the game in China. But it was clear that without a genuine structure in place, the growth of the sport was always going to be limited. It is very easy to forget that golf is a modern phenomenon in China and this new generation is the first one growing up with any knowledge of the game, however small. Whilst the HSBC Champions has exceeded our expectations over the past four years, nothing would give me more satisfaction than to hand over the HSBC Champions trophy to a Chinese player who has come through our program."
The probability of a future Chinese champion is inevitable, but the following four case studies are not meant to induce mass hysteria prophesizing the emergence of the next Tiger Woods or Lorena Ochoa. These glimpses into their personal stories are more an insight - a series of snapshots - that illustrate the many different routes the development of China's next elite-level golfers is taking.
Birth date: September 22, 1993
Birthplace: Guangzhou, Guangdong
Favourite Players: Sergio Garcia, Yani Tseng
Most girls Ashley Xiao Yi's age have their idols. They swoon over images of good-looking film stars, musicians and sportsmen plastered all over their bedroom walls. So as soon as she mentions her passion for watching basketball and the name Kobe Bryant pops up, it seems she is another average teenage girl. Yet her interest is definitely not the adolescent crush that you might expect.
"I think the best parts of his game are his shooting and his crossovers. But his all-round game is what makes him so good. He's got everything," she declares emphatically.
To most Chinese Ashley would seem to have everything too. She comes from a relatively wealthy family from the southern river port of Guangzhou in the heartland of the manufacturing boom that has driven China's emergence as a driving force in the global market.
Her parents are both senior managers in large corporations - Dad works for a company producing medical equipment, Mum works for Honda's Guangzhou-based joint venture - and can afford to fund their daughter's golf addiction. Yet it was not their interest that spawned this obsession. Her school in Guangzhou organised free golf classes in the afternoon and all her friends eagerly signed up.
It was by no means love at first sight.
Then, when she realized that golf came very naturally to her, she was hooked.
She has now been playing for four years and has even been joined by her father who decided to take up the game with his daughter.
"My dad started playing at the same time as me. We play every week together but he isn't very good. I think it's more of a hobby for him!" she confides, laughing.
While her father's game isn't in the greatest shape, Ashley, talking fluent English, says that she has matured a lot as a player over the past year. The fact that she has represented the adult ladies national team since January is a clear indicator that her game is way above standard.
The turning point was when she missed out on victory in last year's HSBC National Junior Championship final. She was leading up until the last hole… when disaster struck.
"It was all looking so good coming down the 18th but then I took four putts! I was so upset. I just walked over to my dad and burst into tears on his shoulder," she recalls.
"But I think that moment has made me stronger and I was very relieved when I won in Kunming this year. This year I have definitely become more and more confident and I often repeat to myself "I am the best, I am the best"."
However Ashley, despite her precocious golf talents, still holds her studies at the top of her list of priorities; school comes first. During the week she only goes to the driving range and the golf course is saved for the weekends. She explains that next year her parents have agreed to send her to high school in the United States, probably in California or San Diego. While golf tuition on the other side of the Pacific is a factor, the thinking behind this move is not entirely golf-driven; it's the American education system which is at the forefront of their minds.
After high school however, her ambition is to play professionally at the highest level.
"My dream is to play on the LPGA. To join players like Yani Tseng would be so special but for now, my studies are still the most important," she concludes.
Birth date: January 17, 1994
Birthplace: Dalian, Liaoning province
Favourite Players: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson
A 14 year old boy from the northern port city of Dalian, China's equivalent of Liverpool, Liu Yuxiang is a rarity. In a city that has always been a production line for China's top footballers - including former English Premiership players Sun Jihai and Dong Fangzhou and national team legends Li Ming, Zhang Enhua and Hao Haidong - soccer is everything. Yet unlike the majority of his friends, Liu does not see what all the fuss is about.
A two-time winner on the 2008 HSBC National Junior Championship, he has a different agenda and calmly explains what his aims are for the future.
"I don't like football. I'm going to be a professional golfer. First I want to play on the Asian Tour and then the Japanese Tour. If everything goes well, my dream is to play on the PGA Tour," he explains.
It's a lofty dream for a boy who, unusually among the potential future stars, comes from the humblest of backgrounds. In that sense he shares more in common with the current Chinese professionals, except that unlike them he did not find golf through working at a course.
His father is a putongren, a regular worker, and has never even picked up a golf club let alone had the money to aid his son's progress. However, with financial support from the China Golf Association, he currently studies at the small Huangshan golf boarding school where a handful of pupils study in the morning and improve their golf game in the afternoon, and with their help is able to compete regularly on the world's local bank's junior circuit.
Kuo Jia-Kuei, the teaching professional from Huangshan, finds in Liu a diligent and hard-working student whose emergence from relative poverty may be the key to his future success.
"I think his family's situation is not good. But sportsmen who are poor tend to be more determined. He works hard and plays hard because his golf is the only way to change his life. So it's very important. Liu's background has made him very determined and he's a very clever boy. I think he could make it at least to the Asian Tour. Obviously the PGA Tour is a dream of his but I think the Asian Tour could be a realistic one," Kuo explains.
Ironically, despite all the international standard courses and sumptuous clubhouses in China, Liu may have the clue as to where the real future of Chinese golf lies. He talks of the relatively unknown Nanshan course in Shandong which boasts a Colin Montgomerie lay out and is said to have more holes than the famous Mission Hills complex. The difference is that Nanshan provides low cost golf and is frequented not just by business leaders but also, as Liu puts it, by locals and farmers.
"In Shandong, the fees are very expensive. Nanshan didn't want to let a junior pay the bill, so I play at Nanshan, Some of the courses are at international level but not all of them," explains Liu.
Nanshan is one of a tiny number of courses that caters to the budget golfer, but if China is ever to become a world golf superpower it's at this more basic level of the market where the majority of its 1.4 billion people come from.
Liu provides another insight into how China's stars emerge. Until the age of 10 he was swimming for the Dalian city team, until his father decided that Chinese physique was not suited to international success in the pool. Badminton or table tennis was more suitable… until a friend suggested golf.
"When I first started I was rubbish! I had to practice all the time and for ages I would still be the same," Liu junior recalls.
"Then suddenly I would see I big difference and I would improve. I keep improving in stages," he explains.
Liu's future and first major goal is to qualify for the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010. He has already experienced international competition with the junior national team and he admits that it's an extremely satisfying moment to step out on a golf course with his country's flag emblazoned on his shirt.
"I feel very proud but at the same time very aware of representing my country. It's a special honour," he added proudly.
Birth date: November 14, 1999
Birthplace: Hong Kong
Favourite Players: Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia
"I want to be a top professional golfer. I want to beat Tiger. I want to beat Tiger in every tournament!" exclaims Benjamin Huang Shuaiming.
Fortunately for Benjamin, ‘calling out' Tiger is not likely to attract quite the same scorn that was poured on Ian Poulter for a similar act of bravado not so long ago. Nor is it likely to attract the wrath of the great one. Benjamin Huang is not on Tiger's radar screen… yet.
He is, after all, only nine years old.
Huang may not have Tiger's attention, but he does have his obsession. Captivated by the sport since the age of three, Benjamin practices everyday and sometimes at night; he's even been caught swinging in his sleep.
But then according to his father Franky Huang Weihan, the President and CEO of a Beijing real estate investment company, his son has never been one to do things in small measures.
"Since he was small he has always been 100% focused on what he was doing. When he was younger he would focus on Lego all day long!" Huang senior recalls.
Hong Kong-born, Huang Shuaiming is a product of the affluent, globally-mobile Greater Chinese population, who are increasingly moving back to the Mainland to live and do business. Despite still being at an age where what he did at playtime and different levels of DragonFable are far more worthy topics of conversation than cars and girls, Benjamin Huang already has more international experience than almost all of the players twice his age he regularly encounters on the HSBC National Junior Championship circuit.
He won his first golf tournament when he was four and earlier this year, had top ten finishes in the Callaway Junior Golf World Golf Championship and the U.S. Kids Golf World Championships at Pinehurst and, playing as a guest, dominated the 6-8 age group in China before finally qualifying to take his first official win at September's Zhengzhou Stop.
He switches effortlessly between Putonghua and English, having spent the last two years since his family moved to Beijing being educated at the Dulwich International School which boasts its own driving range and practice greens.
And he could be on the move again in the not too distant future. Benjamin's father is thinking of moving the whole family, including Benjamin's two brothers, to the U.S.
"It would be a big move. He's still very young so we'll move when the time is right. In Beijing we have great facilities but the education system in the U.S. is very good," Mr. Huang states.
"I'm very excited. Here we finish school at 3:30 but in America they finish at 1:30," the younger Huang declares.
"I will have lots more time to play golf!"
Franky Huang is considering David Leadbetter's Florida Academy and the IJGA, but has yet to settle on a final destination, but he is certain of one thing. His son will get all the backing he needs as long as his passion for golf burns bright.
"A supportive family is very important. It's important that Benjamin has that environment," Franky declares.
"Without Earl Woods, Tiger would not be Tiger."
Birth date: March 5, 1998
Favourite Player: Lorena Ochoa
Over and over her ball finds the centre of the fairway off the tee. Her lay-ups unerringly find the widest part of the landing area; her approach shots hit the safe side of the pin and her mistakes, rare as they may be, are made in all the right places. This quality of course management is nothing unusual - you can see it every week on the LPGA - but this is the HSBC National Junior Championship Final and the masterclass is being staged by a 10-year-old.
It's a display of stunning maturity.
Shi Yuting's family name, Shi, means rock and she's as steady as they come.
Calm and contained on the course she dominated her age group on China's junior circuit in 2008, winning five out of six legs and then coming out on top in the final in early November.
"Other players are much bigger and they can hit it further. But I don't make many mistakes around the green," she explains.
She beams with enthusiasm as she discusses what she likes about the tournaments, which were introduced as part of the HSBC China Junior Golf Program: the world's local bank's partnership with the China Golf Association.
"They're really great. We go to courses that are very challenging. They give us a chance to play against each other people the same age," she says.
"Sometimes the tournaments are a little bit more competitive and much closer. I find that I really I have to concentrate then to make sure I win."
It's impossible not to fall for the quiet, yet charming, child from Beijing who somehow combines shyness with an engaging warmth. But she's not like the other children.
While some of the other kids her age profess to enjoy winning the toys and other small prizes awarded for the fun skills competitions the young players engage in at each stop of the championship, Shi's focus is noticeably more on the tournaments. She has little doubt why she's outperforming her rivals.
"I practice every day. Every morning I got to school and then I practice in the afternoon. And I play on the course twice a week," she explains.
Shi lives with her mother at the Huangshan school in Anhui province, while her younger sister and father reside an hour's flight away in Shanghai. There's a sacrifice involved for any child at that age to live away from her family, which she explains in some ways when discussing her status as one of China's most promising young golfers.
"Sometimes I will remind myself that I'm the best in China to cheer myself up," she admits, modestly.
"There are so many other girls and it can feel like there is pressure, so I sometimes think about that to make myself happy. "I really want to be a pro. If I can play on the LPGA it would be amazing."
Shi is among 12 pupils at the school based at the Huangshan Pine Golf & Country Club in Anhui province, which is believed to be one of only three full-time golf boarding schools (along with the ones in Nanshan in Shandong province and at Mission Hills in Guangdong) in China. It is clearly a sound springboard for promising young players and has produced several winners on this year's schedule. Kuo Jia-Kuei, the teaching professional from Chinese Taipei who coaches the Huangshan pupils, believes that the school does possess a future star in Shi.
"I think she has the potential to become a very good player, maybe another Yani Tseng in ten years time," he muses.
"She has a very good mentality and when she's under pressure, she lifts her game. She's a born winner."