China is likely to become a international golf powerhouse within the next decade, says Major legend Peter Thomson, and it is only a matter of time before a mainland player is ranked among the very best in the world.
The Australian five-time Open champion, in Shenzhen to captain an Asia-Pacific Select side against Team China in this week’s Ryder Cup-style Dongfeng Nissan Cup, said every time he visited the world’s most populous country he left more impressed than before.
“It is as if they have been asleep for 40 years and then woken up to say ‘come and get us’,” he said at the CTS Tycoon Club, venue for OneAsia’s season-ending team event.
Like the Chinese idiom “crouching tiger, hidden dragon” — which means ‘talent hidden in plain sight’ — Thomson said there was no question the country would unearth some remarkable golfers in the years to come, as evidenced by the current crop of teenage prodigies who have taken the golf world by storm.
“It used to be that golf was an old man’s game,” said the 84-year-old, “but these days they are getting younger and younger. It’s very impressive.”
The first of China’s precocious talents emerged last year when Andy Zhang, then 14, made it into the U.S. Open via regional qualifying to become the youngest player in the field in the tournament’s history. Born seven months after Tiger Woods won his first Major, Zhang missed the cut but won admiration with his pluck and attitude.
Earlier this year compatriot Guan Tianlang went one better at the same age after qualifying for the U.S. Masters and then making the cut right on the line despite being penalised a shot for slow play.
And another young talent on display this week is 16-year-old amateur Dou Zecheng who made the cut at OneAsia’s Volvo China Open earlier this year before finishing in the middle of the field with defending champion Branden Grace.
“When I was that age, you may have a dream of playing in a tournament like that, but it was a dream for the future. You didn’t expect to actually play at that age,” he said.
Thomson won the first of his five Open Championships in 1954 as a 24-year-old, repeating the feat for the next two years and for a fourth time in 1958.
As one of the sport’s first roving ambassadors, he won 82 tournaments around the world — including one last Open Championship in 1965 — and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988.
“Players today have so many more opportunities available to them but there is also a lot of competition,” said Thomson. For China’s golfer’s, they need to find their place but it will come.”
Thomson said tournaments like the Dongfeng Nissan Cup were important for the development of golf in the country because fans could unite behind a team rather than an individual and get to know the game better.
“If the interest from fans and amateurs continues to grow like it is in the professional ranks, then there is a bright future ahead,” he said.
The Dongfeng Nissan Cup tournament pits 12 Asia-Pacific players against a China national team over three days of matchplay competition. The visitors won the inaugural 2011 tournament 12 1/2 – 11 1/2, and retained the title last year with a 14 1/2 – 9 1/2 victory.