For the first time since golf was re-introduced into China in 1984, the mainland has a genuine nationwide structure through which to develop its stars of the future. Tim Maitland reports from the Zhengzhou leg of the HSBC National Junior Golf Championship.
"I can play better! I just didn't play good," explains the weary golfer, having plopped himself into the first available chair in the clubhouse. It's a familiar refrain that could have come from anyone from the weekend hacker to a European Ryder Cup player.
Born in Hong Kong, but now qualified to play for China, Benjamin Huang Shuaiming’s Camilo Villegas impersonation demonstrates how internationalized some of the Chinese children are. [HSBC China Junior Golf Program]
On this occasion, however, we're in the opulent surroundings of the Henan Synear Golf Club, close to the banks of the Yalu River and half an hour's drive from China's twelfth largest city Zhengzhou. The post-round post mortem is being conducted by Wu Suowei, aged eight and a half.
"I had doubles and triples. I wanted birdies and pars. My score was 44 but maybe I could have got 39 or 40," said Wu, whose frown briefly belies a name that sounds like the Chinese for "never mind" until he shrugs and smiles. "It's OK, but I could have done much better."
Wu, who hails from Beijing, has just played nine holes in the eight-to10 age group of the Zhengzhou stop of the HSBC National Junior Golf Championship, but quickly turns his attention to the previous day's post-round activities – fun-orientated, target games and skills competitions.
"I like the little games and I can win some prizes. They give me things like some toy cars and a water bottle," he says, before entering into the kind of detailed explanation that anyone with small children will instantly recognize. "We play a game called poison. You can putt other people's balls away. Our balls our poison and if they touch someone else's ball they are dead, but if I am poison and my ball goes in the hole then I am dead. If I putt and get theirs, they are dead and that's game over!" he concludes satisfied that the rules and regulations are now fully understood by all.
The fun element is an integral part of attending the six events that lead to November's final in Shanghai for the younger age groups. They are part of a philosophy that backs the HSBC China Junior Golf Program – long-term sustainable youth development. In this case the aim is to avoid dulling the passion of kids who, in general, have started golf earlier than any other generation of Chinese golfers. Remember, Zhang Lianwei didn't even know what golf was until he was 20. Liang Wenchong was 15 when he first picked up a golf club, Li Chao was 16. No wonder China's next great hope Hu Mu, who is just starting a golf scholarship with the Florida Gators, has already predicted that this generation will produce at least five golfers with his talent.
One of those golfers, as cute and charming a little girl as you could hope to meet, has just hauled herself onto a tall stool and sits with legs dangling and head and shoulders only just visible above the table. Ten-year-old Shi Yuting has just won the Girls Group D (ages 8 to 10) competition at the Zhengzhou Stop and taken her haul to five of the six legs; not that you'd be able to tell from her assessment of her day.
"I'm not very satisfied," she says sweetly. "I made some putting mistakes and I made a mistake aiming at the 14th green. But I've been doing OK. I've won eight tournaments this year, five HSBC tournaments," she adds, carefully and systematically ticking off the stops: "….Wenzhou… Taicang… Beijing… Kunming and here, Zhengzhou. I won another tournament in Chongqing... and Shenzhen… I can't remember the other one."
Simultaneously shy at being grilled by a "wai guo ren" (foreigner) and yet quietly confident and friendly enough to make eye contact, Shi could hardly be more different from the winner of the Boys Group E (ages 6-8) section, Benjamin Huang Shuaiming. Hong Kong born, the eight-year-old moved with his businessman father to Beijing two years ago. Playing as an invited guest he'd posted the best score for his age group at each of the previous five HSBC National Junior Championship events, but now qualified to enter formally he'd just earned the right to claim his first winner's certificate and gift… not that the difference seemed that high on his list of priorities.
"I enjoyed putting, because the greens are very fast. I could really putt today. My approaching was good too. Lots of my approaches were six feet from the hole. They were all stopping close to the hole," he said in fluent English, picked up at the international school he attends in the capital.