GUANGZHOU (AFP) – China is mobilising the state behind golf, but 13-year-old Ye Wocheng, the youngest player to compete on the European Tour, says officials should turn instead to the country’s “tiger’’ parents to find the next Tiger Woods.
Golf was once banned in Communist China as a bourgeois indulgence, but its return to the Olympics has seen Beijing build a high-tech $80 million training complex and enlist its rigid education system in a search for new stars.
While officials are looking to satisfy the national urge for medals, a wave of child prodigies is already emerging, tutored by foreign coaches and ingrained with an insatiable desire to succeed by their wealthy, highly-disciplined parents.
Ye made history earlier this year when he played at the Volvo China Open aged just 12 years and 242 days.
The schoolboy smashed the record set by compatriot Guan Tianlang, who astonished the world in April when he made the Masters cut at the age of 14.
The rise of golfers like Ye and Guan outside China’s sporting infrastructure throws up potential challenges for Beijing, which presents individual talents as state-moulded patriotic champions, rather than self-motivated sports stars.
China has now introduced golf into its Soviet-like sports school system for the first time, and its ultra-modern training centre in Shandong province is expected to be a production line for future champions, with an eye on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
But Ye – who still wears braces – believes China’s future as a golfing superpower will be down to individual hard work, along with a dose of firm parenting.
“There will be lots of great (Chinese) players in the future,’’ he told AFP, predicting half the world’s top 100 will come from China in 20 years, a huge improvement for a country which currently has only six in the PGA’s top 1,000, with its top player Liang Wenchong at 107.
“This is because in China a lot of children play golf and they are all conscientious and hard working. They train hard and also the parents are very strict.
“Sometimes, if the kids don’t play golf well, the parents will hurl abuse at them or even hit them,’’ he added, with a serious stare belying his age.
Strict parenting is common in China, particularly with regards to education, and sometimes sport.
The tough approach became a media phenomenon in 2011, when Chinese-American professor Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’’ detailed how she insisted on top marks from her kids.
The best golfer of recent years, Tiger Woods, a child prodigy who was on television aged two, has often praised his ex-military father and Thai mother for helping develop his competitive edge, and said in 2007 he would be a “disciplinarian’’ with his own children.
Ye lives with his parents – who he says are “not strict’’ – in the southern city of Dongguan in Guangdong, China’s most affluent province, although the family are considering moving to the US to focus on his golf.
His father, a wealthy interior designer, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Ye’s training, and has recruited British former professional David Watson, who coached Lee Westwood and Justin Rose when they were amateurs.
Ye trains at Lion Lake Country Club near Guangzhou, a lavish dual-course complex containing China’s largest inland yacht club and a “southern California-style’’ clubhouse.
Guan also trains there, and his image is everywhere, with his trophies on show in the restaurant.
“We have an exclusive putting green just for Guan,’’ said club president Zheng Jingfen. “And we don’t charge him to use the course, as youngsters need an environment to develop their skills.’’
Club officials say several families have moved into the local area purely to develop their children’s golf.
A few hours away is the enormous Mission Hills complex in Dongguan, the world’s largest golf club with 12 sprawling courses.
Ye won an under-18 tournament there in June, carding a two round two-under-par total of 142 on its World Cup course, designed by golf legend Jack Nicklaus.
Its Mission Hills Golf Series Junior Tour is open to children as young as nine, and competitor Chen Geyi, 14, was born Beijing, 2,000 kilometres to the north, but said he moved to Shenzhen when he was a toddler because ‘’you cannot play golf in the winter in Beijing’’.
His father Chen Daxin says the family relocated to warmer climes for “work reasons’’, but admits he has spent a fortune on developing his son’s golf.
‘’Parents basically don’t bother too much about cost when it comes to children’s interests,’’ said the 43-year-old, brushing off suggestions he was a strict parent.
Some “give up their career and life to throw everything into their children’s future’’ Chen added, before taking his son’s clubs on his shoulder.