Teenage talents tee up bright future

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China's new generation of female golfers are on the charge thanks to a growing number of high-caliber domestic tournaments that allow them to test themselves against established professionals.

A case in point was last week's 2021 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Championship at Shanghai Lanhai International Golf Club.

Previously known as the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Orient Masters, the championship has this year been upgraded to the China LPGA Tour, the only women's professional golf circuit in the Chinese mainland.

As the flagship event of the China LPGA Tour, the four-day tournament offered a prize fund of 1 million yuan ($156,629), attracting a field of 72 professionals and six amateurs.

Liu Wenbo emerged victorious after a thrilling final round, beating 15-year-old amateur Zeng Liqi in a playoff after the pair had finished tied on 8-under scores of 280.

"This is a great chance for me to participate in such a high-level tournament, so I can play with our country's top pros," Zeng, who represented Shanghai at the National Games in September, told China Daily on Friday.

"Among all the tournaments that I have participated in, this championship is one of the best events, with great quality. It's also the first time I have experienced the feeling of being surrounded by cameras on the course. So, it's a really valuable experience.

"For me, the China LPGA Tour is a great platform where I can communicate with the top Chinese players. I now have a better sense of the gap between myself and the pros. Some veterans here are idols to us. We want them to share their stories, especially their experiences of playing on foreign tours."

Zeng said that each year her parents ask her to set targets. This year one of her aims was a top-three finish at a China LPGA Tour tournament. A runner-up finish at April's Nanshan Ladies Golf Challenge ticked that box, before she finished third at the Lanhai Ladies Golf Challenge in June.

"I'm satisfied with my form this year, and I hope to have better performances during the remainder of this season. But the experience is more important than the results for me as I strive to become a better player in the future," Zeng added.

That's exactly the sort of enthusiasm CLPGA managing director Li Hong wants to hear from the youngsters on the tour.

"Back in early 2004, when we first thought about organizing women's events in China, we were actually not clear about how to do it as we only had experience of organizing men's tournaments," said Li. "But we knew a group of talented Chinese girls were training in the United States and they didn't have tournaments to compete in back home.

"Our hope was that one day we could witness the Chinese national flag rising at elite-level international tournaments. And we wanted more Chinese talents to progress to the global stage via these domestic events."

Li is proud of how far the tour has progressed since then.

"At the very beginning, organizing these events was tricky due to our inexperience. And we faced shortages of all kinds of talents, including referees.

"Back then, I remember our players were very shy. So we added some special prizes to encourage them, such as an award for the most photogenic golfer. We asked our photographers to find the best smiles on the course. We also had the best outfit award to encourage our players to express themselves on the course."

Veteran Ye Liying, who played in the LPGA of Japan tour, was Zeng's Shanghai team leader at the National Games. The 43-year-old focuses on coaching these days but returned as a competitor at last week's championship.

"This is my first official tournament in about five years. I tried to prepare as best I could but it clearly was not enough compared with the more competitive youngsters," Ye told China Daily.

"I used to play on the China LPGA Tour. In the early days, the players were pretty limited and there weren't enough tournaments. But now we have more and more quality tournaments and we are seeing the emergence of more and more talented young players.

"The development of Chinese women's golf takes time, and requires the joint efforts of many aspects of society. The China LPGA Tour has grown a lot, but compared to other foreign tours, the number of players is still low."

Ye added that attracting more sponsors and, in turn, increasing prize money will be key to maintaining the tour's good momentum, pointing out that many players struggle to earn enough to make pursuing a career worthwhile.

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