China: Golf's next superpower
In its long and illustrious history The Open has not produced a winner from Asia but it is increasingly apparent that anomaly will not last much longer.
With the likes of Hideki Matsuyama, Shubhankar Sharma and Si Woo Kim all among the world’s best players, it seems only a matter of time before an Asian player masters the world’s oldest major.
At the front of this charge is China, a nation that has played a huge part at the Olympic Games for decades but not quite matched those dizzying heights on the golf course.
But all that looks likely to change and, with the WGC-HSBC Champions event taking place at Sheshan Golf Club this week, excitement is growing that a Chinese player could be on the verge of breaking through.
Haotong hints at a bright Open future
Of course for Open fans, Li Haotong is already one of the most electrifying players on tour – with that final-day score at Royal Birkdale in 2017 one of the best in recent memory.
When he walked off the famous 18th green, he had just hit the lowest score by a Chinese player in major championship history – a superb 63 that would have equalled the lowest ever in a major had Branden Grace not hit a 62 the previous day.
The final day battle between Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar overshadowed Li’s performance but the Chinese star quickly became a household name – even if he took him a few days to grasp the magnitude of his achievement.
“I didn't realise how big it was for myself,” the 23-year-old said.
“But after a couple days I realised this was a huge thing for me and gave me a lot of confidence. When I play, I just say, ‘Oh, I can finish third on the major, I can play well anywhere.”
He has proven he certainly can. With European Tour wins at the 2016 Volvo China Open and the 2018 Dubai Desert Classic, where he held off 2014 Champion Golfer of the Year Rory McIlroy by one shot, plus three wins on the PGA Tour China, Li has shown that Royal Birkdale round is no fluke.
At Carnoustie this summer, he finished in a tie for 39th – ten shots off eventual champion Francesco Molinari – after another solid four days.
The young pretender
To reach both the Masters and The Open at the age of 17 takes a special effort and there is no doubting the incredible potential of Yuxin Lin, who made his Open debut at Carnoustie.
The Chinese sensation claimed victory at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in October 2017 to book his berth on the Angus coast.
158 years on from The 1st Open Championship 🏌️ pic.twitter.com/fZopoba5wu— The Open (@TheOpen) 17 October 2018
The measure of a player is not necessarily how hard they hit the ball or how creative they are from the bunker. It’s how they cope under pressure and Lin has the perfect temperament.
He was tied for the lead with Andy Zhang with two holes remaining in the Asia-Pacific Amateur, before birdieing the 17th and firing an eagle on the last to win by three.
“I’m very, very happy I got the chance to win this event and play two majors,” said Lin. “I’m very proud of myself. It means a lot to me to play in the Masters and The Open. It’s a great experience.”
Augusta National and Carnoustie are two of the most intimidating courses around but Lin looked right at home, despite missing the cut both times.
On the rise
Golf in China was once banned but it is now compulsory in every school, with its core values of discipline, sportsmanship and etiquette identified as key reasons.
Since the Chinese Golf Association was established in 1985, the game has grown organically and The R&A has played its part.
In October 2017, The R&A was represented at the first-ever meeting between golf officials and high-ranking members of the Government, addressing the development of the game and Olympic golf.
But the relationship goes back further than that, with Chinese golfer Liang Wen-Chong an ambassador for The R&A Working for Golf campaign.
How many of these 62 bunkers would you find your ball in? 👎 pic.twitter.com/rG5UgTUKdr— The Open (@TheOpen) 10 October 2018
In 2015, The R&A held its Sustainability Seminar in Beijing, while Rules of Golf Mobile App was launched in Chinese in February 2017.
Now set for its 14th edition of the WGC-HSBC Champions, Chinese fans are used to seeing the very best in the world strut their stuff – with previous winners including Champion Golfers Phil Mickelson and Francesco Molinari.
With Li, Lin and a host of other emerging talents all steadily climbing to the top, it won’t be long until they will be crowning a home winner – and then perhaps a Champion Golfer of the Year.