Will Golf Prodigy Guan Tianlang Popularize The Sport In China?

Golf Likely To Remain A Growing Luxury 

Guan Tianlang at the 2013 Masters Tournament.

Guan Tianlang at the 2013 Masters Tournament.

Although the top prize of this weekend’s U.S. Masters golf tournament went to Adam Scott, the name that had everyone buzzing was 14-year old Chinese wunderkind Guan Tianlang, the youngest player to ever make the cut for the competition’s finals. His rise through the ranks has many asking if his fame will help to spur the growth of golf in China, and the answer is probably a mix of yes and no — the sport has been rising in popularity on the mainland for years, yet only for members of the highest echelons of the upper class. Although Guan may bring more visibility to the sport, the economic and political climate for golf development appears set to keep it a luxury sport for the foreseeable future.

Guan joins an elite club of internationally famous Chinese athletes such as Yao Ming, whose success helped to increase the popularity of basketball in China. When asked by Reuters if his newfound notoriety might do this for golf, Guan optimistically replied that it is “good for Chinese golf, and good that more people get to know this game, to pick up this game.”

His positivity about the sport’s future may be well-founded if he’s referring to China’s ultra-rich golfers, whose numbers have been on the rise as the country’s golf industry expands at a rapid pace. Guan’s breakout comes at a time when the number of golf courses in the country has doubled in the past three years, and China currently boasts the world’s largest golf club at Mission Hills in Hainan. The Chinese government recently invested heavily in training young golfers for the 2016 Olympics, and Guan joins a notable peer group of other young Chinese golfers that includes 12-year old Ye Wocheng, who qualified for this year’s China Open on the European Tour.

Mission Hills, the world's largest golf club.

Mission Hills, the world’s largest golf club, is located in Hainan.

However, being a golfer in China still comes with a hefty price tag, leaving the sport out of reach for the country’s aspiring middle class.

“Golf is still a prohibitively expensive pursuit for nearly everyone in China,” said Asia Society Managing Editor Dan Washburn, who is writing a book about the development of golf in China for Oneworld Publications. “I’m sure some kids in China may hear of Guan Tianlang’s story and get inspired, but the question is: Is their family wealthy enough to even consider golf as a realistic option? It’s very difficult, almost impossible, for someone without money to gain access to the game.”

The high cost may be connected to the relatively low total number of courses in China, as well as economic and political obstacles to building them. Despite the recent increase in quantity of courses, the number currently sits at about 600, a far cry from the United States’ estimated near-16,000. Although there are hundreds more currently under construction, their developers must maneuver around government restrictions to have them completed. Course construction is technically illegal under a government-imposed moratorium in China, which is stated to have resulted from environmental concerns. In addition, deals to build courses have caused controversy over land rights in the past.

Building new golf courses is “a resource-hungry pursuit in a nation where arable land is at a premium,” according to Washburn, “so it’s kind of like political kryptonite.” Despite the rise of China’s professional golfers and the state’s newfound Olympics-related interest in the sport, the ban has not yet been lifted.

Although these issues serve as obstacles to a rise in golf’s mass popularity, the ban is often not fully enforced and the government has done little to suppress the sport’s growth among those that can afford it. As a result, high-end Chinese and foreign golf brands have been slowly eyeing the expanding Chinese golf market. As the country’s number of professional golfers grows, companies will also have increasing opportunities to advertise with local athletes. Earlier in March, IMG, a sports, fashion, and media company, signed a lucrative management deal with Chinese professional golfer Feng Shanshan.

While golf is mainly an upper-class pursuit for now, it could gain broader appeal in the future. “I think golf will eventually become more accessible in China, but the process is going to be a super slow one,” says Washburn.

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