China’s golfing industry is teeing off
Golf is a multibillion-dollar global industry with lucrative sponsorship deals and high tournament prize funds – and a sport that China is increasingly keen of joining.
Next year, a 12 tournament golf tour begins in China aimed at developing young Chinese talent. The winners of the new tournaments, jointly organized by the PGA Tour and the China Golf Association, will share in a prize fund of $200,000 per event, with end-of-season winners qualifying to play in U.S.-based tournaments.
The tournament highlights the appetite in China for golf, which commentators say is driven by the sport being reinstated as an Olympic event to be featured in Rio 2016.
"Chinese sport has always centred on the Olympics. Since golf got the green light to be an Olympic sport, the Chinese think it is worth investing in," Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider told CNBC in a TV interview.
Golf was banned in China up until the mid-1980s under the communist regime for being too bourgeois. But golfing numbers have since grown quickly. According to Dreyer's research, there were around 100,000 golfers in China in 1995. That figure now tops 3 million.
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A growing middle class with more disposable income is behind China's desire to golf.
"It's an expensive sport all around the world, but particularly in China, so it really is the elite. But as these middle and upper classes have a lot of expendable, disposable income, they are turning to golf just as a friendly pursuit," Dreyer said.
The world's second largest economy hosts some of the golf industry's biggest tournaments, including the BMW Masters in Shanghai.
But while other sports in China have notable big-name players, golf is still lacking the Chinese equivalent of Tiger Woods. One player to make an impact so far is 14-year-old Guan Tianlang, who qualified for the prestigious Masters at Augusta National in Georgia, U.S, this year and was heaped with praise by some of the game's veterans.
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China's golfing industry still faces tough challenges. There is ban on the number of golf courses due to environmental concerns and in October, golfers had to wear masks to protect themselves from the smog during a women's LPGA tournament.
Professional players need to throw their weight behind China's golfing scene for it to push forward.
"The players need to be on board because if they start deserting and saying, 'we're going to skip the China stops', then the tour plans for the European tour and the PGA tour can't grow," Dreyer said.
—By CNBC's Arjun Kharpal: Follow him on Twitter