Guan Tianlang offered a tantalizing glimpse of the future this year as a group of emerging teenagers showed how Chinese players could finally become a force in world golf.
Despite some difficulties in a “year of consolidation” for Asia, Guan provided hope of better times to come with a stunning appearance at the US Masters.
The Guangzhou schoolboy became the tournament’s youngest ever player, aged just 14, and then the youngest to make the cut and later the highest placed amateur.
With Andy Zhang also competing at last year’s US Open aged 14, and Ye Wocheng playing a European Tour event at the record-low age of just 12, it seems something is stirring in Chinese golf.
Golf in China has made huge strides over the past decade and the country now hosts one of the world’s richest tournaments, the US$8.5 million WGC-HSBC Champions.
Until now, players in the communist country, where golf was once banned as a bourgeois pursuit, have lagged behind, with just a handful ranked in the world’s top 1,000.
However, China’s new group of teenagers, backed by well-heeled “Tiger Dads” and trained by some of the world’s best coaches — often with the 2016 Olympics in mind — could be the start of something big.
“I think people getting to see [Guan] play around the world, especially the Masters, is great for the game,” the US’ Rickie Fowler said. “And there’s going to be, probably in the next 10 to 15 years, some good players coming out of China, more so than what there has been before.”
Women’s golf has long been dominated by Asian players, but another teenager stole the headlines this year in the form of New Zealand’s South Korean-born Lydia Ko, 16.
Ko, already the world No. 4, has been winning professional tournaments since the age of 14, when she became the youngest player of either sex to do so.
After missing out on millions of dollars in prize money due to her amateur status, Ko announced her long-awaited decision to turn pro on YouTube in October. She won her first event as a professional this month in Taiwan.
World No. 1 Inbee Park was player of the year on the back of six wins this season, while Taiwan’s Yani Tseng fell off the top ranking and plunged to No. 29.
Off the course, it was in some respects a tough season for Asian golf, with tournaments dropping off what has become a congested calendar.
The Singapore Open, once dubbed “Asia’s major,” took a break while it searches for a title sponsor, while the Hong Kong Open struggled on without corporate backing.
The Avantha Masters, India’s only European Tour event, fell victim to economic woes, and the OneAsia circuit canceled two events, the Charity High1 Resort Open and the inaugural OneAsia Championship.
The Asian Tour, locked in a bitter turf war with OneAsia and seeking out new markets, also postponed the inaugural Vietnam Masters, which is due to be its first event in the country.
With two rival circuits and expansion into the region by both the USPGA Tour and the European Tour, it is no surprise some events are being squeezed out.
“Whilst there are new sponsors out there, getting them on board, certainly in Asia, is not easy,” David Parkin, OneAsia director of tour operations, said earlier this season.
One Asia separately called it “a year of consolidation ... for the industry in general.”