The Green of Greens

Teen Golfer Changes the Face of Chinese Sport

Duncan Robinson in London and Julie Zhu in Hong Kong
Tianlang Guan of China plays during the second round of the 77th Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia.
Jewel Samad | AFP | Getty Images

Guan Tianlang has become the latest Chinese hero to make sporting history after the 14-year-old golfer played his way to the distinction of being the youngest ever competitor in Masters history.

But the teenage amateur's background is far from the typical rags-to-riches, product of a state sporting system story usually preferred by the Communist party. And that has not escaped the notice of many Chinese social media users.

His achievement drew the usual congratulations and expressions of national pride on Weibo, the Twitter-like microblogging site which has millions of users in China. "@guantianlang, you are the hope of golf in China," offered one user on Friday.

There were, however, also those who saw a different significance in Guan's success in capitalism's favourite game.

"This is rich people's playthings," grumbled one Weibo user on Friday.

"He has got to be a rich family kid," said another.

The plush surroundings of Lion Lake Country Club in Guangzhou, where Mr Guan took up the game and has worked hard to perfect it, are indeed in stark contrast to the bare walls of the government academies where China churns out its Olympians.

The course is a playground for China's swelling country club class. A single weekend round at the club costs about a quarter of the province's average monthly salary. "Almost all [members] are middle class or above," said Bao Jiuhui, deputy manager at the club.

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According to Susan Huang, a reporter for Golf Digest's Hong Kong edition, Guan Tianlang is part of a new generation of teenage golfers in China. In the southern city of Shenzhen alone there are 70-80 teenage golfers competing regularly, she says, and teenagers are a common sight on the links in other big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

But the young Guan remains unusual, according to Ms Huang. He started professional training at an early age and has been competing with adults for years.

That pedigree has shone through at the Masters. The gangly teenager shot 73 in his first round on Thursday to remain in contention for the weekend's final two rounds, despite being penalised a shot on Friday for slow play. His partner – two-times Masters winner Ben Crenshaw – shot 81. "He played like a veteran today," Mr Crenshaw declared afterwards.

Mr Guan is not wholly unknown in his homeland. His 20,000 followers on Weibo is impressive for a 14-year old but he lags far behind China's sporting superstars, such as tennis player Li Na, who has more than 21m followers.

As a new affluent class has grown in China over the past two decades so too has the popularity of golf. Amid controversy over shady land deals, the government has repeatedly tried to ban the construction of new courses at times. But that has done little to stymie the growth of the sport.

With golf set to feature at the 2016 Olympics, both the sport and its sponsors will be hoping Guan Tianlang is another catalyst for growth.

The course ahead is likely to have its challenges. Golf is riddled with tales of teenage prodigies who promised much but failed to cut it as professionals, often wilting under the pressure of sponsor expectations.

"He has to play the long game from a commercial point of view, and do fewer, bigger endorsements," says Andy Sutherden, global practice director at Hill Knowlton, the branding consultancy. "Put golf first, second and third."

Tiger Woods' own path from prodigy to a veteran trying to overcome the disintegration of his personal life offers one cautionary tale.

The career of Michelle Wie, an American of Korean descent who qualified for her first major amateur tournament on the ladies tour aged 10 and turned professional at 16, offers a less dramatic example. She has signed multimillion-dollar deals with the likes of Nike and Sony. But she has not won a major championship.

Keeping the number of commitments in check may end up being the key to future success for Guan Tianlang. He should concentrate on signing a small number of deals with large sponsors, warns Mr Sutherden. "If he ends up with 15 different sponsors off the back of this, the next thing you know, he'll be another boom and bust case study."

- Additional reporting Li Wan in Beijing

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