Outside of China’s once-every-four-year Olympic gold medalists, China is starved of global sports stars. When one of their own does make it, the patriotic Chinese are quick to elevate them to Messiah status, with the riches inevitably following. Much of the NBA’s runaway success in China can be attributed to Yao Ming’s presence in the league, which helped him become one of China’s youngest yuan billionaires. When Li Na won her first Grand Slam title at the 2011 French Open, almost overnight, sponsorship deals saw her become the 2nd highest paid sportswoman in the world and tennis’ popularity soared in China.
Golf in China is looking like it could produce a lot more international stars than basketball and tennis. Last month, 14-year old Guan Tianlang became the youngest player in PGA tour history to qualify for the final two rounds of the Masters – two years younger than anyone before him. Barely a teenager, he already has 183K Weibo followers. Ye Wocheng, at 12-years old, recently became the youngest to play in the European Tour. 14-year old Andy Zhang gained entry to the 2012 US Open. But the real depth of golfers from the Far East was on display at the Junior World Golf Championships. Last year, 11 out of 12 age groups were won by Asians or players of recent Asian descent. In 2011, it was nine.
Golf is ideally suited to the Chinese gene pool. It doesn’t require the fast twitch muscle fibres of a Jamacian sprinter, brawn of a Polynesian rugby player, flair of a Brazilian footballer or the mongrel of a Mexican boxer. Golf is less about physical attributes and more about constant practice, dedication and commitment, much like playing the piano, memorizing Chinese characters or the general way Chinese kids learn from a young age.
As an individual sport, golf is suited to the one-child generations who don’t take as well to team sports as some cultures. And with parents treasuring their one-child, the non-contact nature of the sport holds a lot of appeal.
Some would say Chinese golf is being held back by its inaccessibility. Although a new golf course opened every 10 days in China last year, developing golf courses is expensive and plagued with red tape. There are less than 600 courses in China; more than 2 million people per course. New Zealand’s 4.4 million people, by comparison, enjoy almost 400 golf courses.
However that inaccessibility translates to exclusivity. In the same way Chinese are ravenous consumers of luxury goods and services as a way to demonstrate their success and status, one of golf’s biggest strengths in China is that it is an aspirational sport. There are already one million golfers in China, and with the fast-growing affluent classes and more international successes, that number will grow.
Growth will be further helped by China’s Citic Bank, one of Golf’s biggest supporters in the land, who together with Forward Group, sponsor a golfing project called “Stick for Kids”, offering free golfing lessons for 30,000 kids. Golf will also be an Olympic sport again in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. China invests in Olympic sports where it stands a fighting chance at bringing home golds, and the recent results of China’s rising golfing stars will see some money channeled its way.
Although the expansion of golf courses in China has slowed down from the frenzy a few years ago, we expect golf to be one of the fastest growing sectors in China in the coming years. The market for personal golf equipment is expected to be worth $1.4 billion in China by next year, but that’s just the start of it. Everything from golf tourism, to merchandise, to brand association through sponsorship, to smartphone games and apps is on the rise. Expect a China golf explosion.