Li Haotong of China hitting a shot on his way to winning the Volvo China Open golf tournament in Beijing. China has long been viewed as the next great frontier for emerging golf talent, but that vision has been slow to materialise, at least in the men’s game. (Greg Baker/AFP)
SHANGHAI (AFP) – When Chinese golfer Li Haotong once dreamt about making headlines, he probably wasn’t envisaging the mocking recent coverage of his mother wading into a water hazard to retrieve his club.
Li, who turns 22 on Thursday, can giggle now because it’s his game that’s making the news, after a startling performance at the British Open saw him touted as a potential major-winner.
Li’s success at Royal Birkdale preceded the historic achievement of his bespectacled countryman Dou Zecheng, who won on the Web.com Tour on Sunday to become the first Chinese to earn a PGA Tour playing card.
China has long been viewed as the next great frontier for emerging golf talent, but that vision has been slow to materialise, at least in the men’s game.
But golfers such as Li and Dou, 20, are at the forefront of a new generation of talented young Chinese players waiting to break out.
Their emergence comes despite the Chinese government’s ambivalent attitude towards golf, which was banned under Mao Zedong and is traditionally viewed as bourgeois.
On the one hand, Chinese authorities have shut dozens of golf courses — many of them illegal — and curbed new construction, while also warning Communist Party members about playing the game.
But on the other, big tournaments such as the $9.75-million WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, one of the world’s richest golf events, are a regular fixture.
None of this is the concern of Hunan native Li, who had to contend with embarrassment in June after the video of his mother, knee-deep in water, swept the internet.
“Don’t remind me, please,” the often-smiling Li told reporters later.
Frustrated at a poor shot at the French Open, Li launched the club into a murky pond, only for his mother to roll up her trousers to go and fetch it.
As fellow players watched on in hysterics — apparently unaware it was Li’s mother — she fished out the club, only to toss it back in after realising it was snapped.
Dream come true
The incident did nothing to harm Li, who registered China’s best performance in a major after his final round of 63 at the British Open placed him third and earned him a spot at the Masters.
“It’s kind of a dream come true,” said Li, who is 66th in the world rankings and has been quietly making a name for himself in recent years.
He turned professional in 2011 and two years later was signed by Nike, joining the likes of Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods with the US brand.
Li captured his first European Tour victory at the Volvo China Open last year before finishing runner-up at the Turkish Airlines Open.
Tenniel Chu, vice chairman of Mission Hills Group in southern China, saw Li’s commitment first-hand when he spent his pre-season at the sprawling golf resort.
“The hard work he puts in and the way he dedicates himself to his game makes me believe he can win a major,” said Chu, also identifying Liu Yanwei, 20, and Zhang Huilin as possible world-beaters.
Groomed for greatness
Dou, who spent some of his childhood in Vancouver, grabbed a slice of history at the weekend by becoming the first Chinese to win on the Web.com Tour in the United States, the PGA’s development tour, earning his PGA Tour card in the process.
Veteran sports writer Spencer Robinson said that Li and Dou “have all the ingredients required to go to the very top, scaling golfing peaks that no mainland Chinese male golfers have previously come close to”.
Robinson, also chief communications officer at the Asian Golf Industry Federation, said the duo were distinct from “pioneers” Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong, two Chinese veterans who enjoyed success without getting to the very top.
“Li and Dou were exposed to the game at a young age and enjoyed top-level coaching,” said Robinson.
“Another huge advantage they have over their predecessors is that they have spent a considerable amount of time in America and have learned English, enabling them to blend in and not feel so isolated.”
Robinson said Li and Dou were just the start, mentioning also 19-year-olds Cheng Jin and Andy Zhang, and the even younger Ye Wocheng, as genuine talents.
And then there are the female golfers. Feng Shanshan was the first Chinese to win a major, and has a growing number of domestic rivals.
“Beyond that, it’s no exaggeration to say there are dozens of supremely gifted Chinese youngsters in their early teens, and even younger, who are being groomed for golfing greatness,” said Robinson.