China’s first-ever Major champion may well be teeing off at next week’s TCL Classic. The tournament offers an unprecedented number of exemption slots – 23 to be exact – to up-and-coming players from the host country.
For one glorious week, Chinese youngsters who dream of being the next Zhang Lian Wei get to rub shoulders with the great man himself and plenty of other elite players from the European and Asian Tours.
It is a trend tournament title sponsor TCL is keen to encourage. “We want to offer talented young players, who have the potential to do well, a top class event in which they can hone their skills,” says Li Dong Sheng, chairman of TCL Corporation.
“This is in line with our objective to help develop golf in China. The more Chinese players are involved in top class events, the better they will become, and the easier it is for the sport of golf to charm the nation, especially the younger generation.
“We ultimately hope that such a tournament can contribute to the breeding of the next generation of world champions.”
The mainland’s top two players, Zhang and Liang Wen Chong, will lead the Chinese charge when the TCL Classic tees-off on March 16 at Yalong Bay Golf Club in Sanya on the tropical southern island of Hainan.
Zhang and Liang will be joined by 21 other mainland players – professional and amateur – for the US$1 million event, which is co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours and promoted by Parallel Media Asia.
None of the 21 are expected to be high up the leaderboard, but that is of no concern to electronics giant TCL who – appropriately, for a company whose products include TVs – are looking at the bigger picture.
“Our biggest aim is that TCL Classic becomes a top event in the region, with rich tradition and one that helps attract people into the game of golf, people who enjoy the quality of living that the TCL brand endorses,” explains Li. “With the rising standard of Chinese golfers, opportunities for them to win top class tournaments such as the TCL Classic will increase.”
With such powerful corporate commitment to developing golf in China, it is clear the mainland’s next golfing superstar won‘t have to take Zhang’s lonely road to the top. The trailblazer for Chinese golf turned professional 12 years ago after working as a caddy and teaching himself to play in an era when there were no coaches, golfing clinics or even tournaments on TV to help him.
He struggled by on meagre winnings before his big breakthrough at the Asian Match Play Championship in Jakarta in 1996, when he pocketed the US$40,000 first prize. He plied his trade on the Canadian Tour and then went to Japan – all in an effort to improve his game and his income.
His great reward came in 2003 when he became the first mainland Chinese to win a European Tour event, beating South Africa’s Ernie Els by one shot in the co-sanctioned Singapore Masters.
But times have changed and opportunities abound for young Chinese golfers, especially with high-profile corporations such as TCL – the first mainland company to title sponsor a European Tour event – involved.
Li is bullish about the future of Chinese golf in general and the TCL Classic in particular. “Through an excellent host venue, a well prepared tournament and a world class field, we hope the event will become a permanent highlight for players and fans,” says Li.
“As one of the top events in the region in terms of quality, we have begun to build a solid tradition around the event, with the aim of attracting more golf fans to enjoy the sport.”
The relevance of the TCL Classic to the development of mainland golf is emphasised by the China Golf Association.
“The TCL Classic is a very important, successful and high-level tournament which is sponsored by a well-known Chinese brand. It promotes the brand name and, at the same time, enhances the growth of golf in China, says Li Yong, deputy secretary general of the CGA.
“TV stations always broadcast this kind of big tournament to the whole country, which means young people have more chance to learn about golf. And a player like last year’s winner, Paul Casey, is a good role model. He is a talented golfer who has been successful.”
In contrast to the era when Zhang was just starting out, golf is booming in China. According to the CGA, the country has around 230 golf clubs and there are more than 100 professional players, including 40 women.