Chinese talents teeing up bright futures with NCAA

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Joining the ranks of the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the US is an increasingly popular choice for China's budding young golfers, offering them the chance to advance their skills on the fairways in an elite academic environment.

Six Chinese NCAA players will participate in this weekend's two-day Ryder Cup-style Sina Cup in Beijing. Among them is 19-year-old Cao Yijing, who is raring to start a new chapter of her life at Yale University.

"I'm looking forward to the NCAA and competing along with my teammates. During my high school time in the US, I was also a member of the school's golf team and I was the captain. So I'm no stranger to matches between schools," said Cao.

"Training with the school team is very different from training alone. Winning a tournament requires the joint efforts of the team. Victories are a personal honor but also come with the pride of the team. I love this feeling.

"Playing in a team, first we need to believe in ourselves, and we also need to trust the teammates. So the NCAA is a great platform and that's where I will grow."

Stanford University junior Ye Lei is another young Chinese NCAA talent at the Sina Cup. The 20-year-old experienced her first NCAA season this spring. Due to the pandemic, Ye lived and trained with her teammates for a number of months to reduce interaction with the outside world.

Ye recalled that each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the team would have strength training and golf practice. Tuesdays and Thursdays were reserved for selection trials for NCAA tournaments.

With the pace of the NCAA a lot faster than Chinese tournaments, Ye admitted that getting up to speed was a challenge.

"At domestic tournaments, usually my parents would accompany me and I would have more time to adjust to the golf course. I was used to preparing more comprehensively with a slower pace in China," she said.

"But in the NCAA, the pace is much quicker. There's no time for anyone to prepare too much. We only can adjust to these challenges by ourselves."

Ye draws inspiration from her idol, former women's world No 1 Feng Shanshan, who will next week spearhead China's challenge on the golf course at the Tokyo Olympics.

"I really admire the mentality that big sister Feng shows on the course," said Ye of the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, who last year attended the Sina Cup.

"She doesn't care too much about the outcome of each swing, and now my mentality is just to accept how things pan out."

Ye took up golf when she was 6 years old, playing her first official tournament six years later. She plans to turn pro next year, although for those that don't go that route, playing on the NCAA circuit is certainly not time wasted.

"For now I don't have plans to enter the LPGA and become a professional player, but golf has been an important part of my life. The sport can be very beneficial for one's growth. Golf players have more perseverance, I reckon," said Cao.

Smart choice

Encouraging more players like Cao and Ye to develop in a more competitive environment is key to the future of Chinese golf. The China Golf Association (CGA) is happy to see the emergence of more young Chinese talent on the international stage.

"There are many top golfers in the world such as Tiger Woods, who have experience in the NCAA. To become a top golf player in the world, one normally has to progress through three stages-youth, amateur and professional careers," said Li Hong, a CGA member and managing director of the China LPGA Tour, which co-organized the Sina Cup.

"The experience of university leagues such as the NCAA is a great choice for a player during his or her amateur days. The experience can help nurture a player's team spirit and teach them what the sport of golf really stands for. That is a vital stage before a player turns pro.

"China's youth golf has been developing fast in recent years with more tournaments to participate in. But we still don't have a university golf league in our country. So in the NCAA, young Chinese players can combine quality golf training with academic studies at the same time. This is a really well-rounded development model for them."

And whether turning pro or not, Li reckons the NCAA can benefit whatever career path student athletes choose.

"Golf gives the younger generation more choices," she added. "In many university systems around the world, coming from a golf background opens up more opportunities to good universities, especially in North America."

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