Liang Wen-chong
Most top golfers were inspired to pick up clubs by the leading names of the generation before them. But China’s current No. 1 player has a very different story.
In fact, Liang Wen-chong was completely unaware of legendary champions such as Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman when he was first exposed to the game in the early 1990s.
Back then, he was a peasant farmer’s son in Guangdong province, and he’d only ever seen a cartoon character playing golf.
"I was just a kid from the countryside," Liang told CNN’s Living Golf. "I didn’t know any of the rules and I didn’t know you could have a career in it."
Golf was banned by Mao Tse-tung when his communist regime took over in 1949, and it was not deemed to be an acceptable sport until the 1980s.
As fate would have it, the first golf course in modern China was built on Liang’s doorstep, and the local golf association was looking for players.
Initially, the 15-year-old was picked because he was keen and well-behaved. He made his own wooden clubs and woke at 5 a.m. to practice before school.
"Not even rain and storms could stop him from playing, and when everyone else thought it was too hot and couldn’t bear it, he was still practicing outside alone," his mother Jiefang Lu said.
Liang was in love with the game, but it was also a way out. If not for golf, he would almost certainly have been tilling the fields like his father or working in a factory — the family could not have afforded a university education.
But within a few years of those first schoolyard lessons, Liang had turned professional and banked enough prize-money to rebuild his parents’ cramped and dingy cottage into a gleaming four-storey family home. He has since donated some of his winnings to a golf foundation so that others can have the same chance he did.
Surfing the wave
Golf was about to boom in China, and Liang was in exactly the right place at the right time.
In 1993 he was considered to be in China’s second wave of golfers; today the fourth or fifth generations are earning their stripes. Within barely two decades, the types — and the numbers — of Chinese golfers have changed dramatically.
The first players worked on the courses, while the second were from the paddy fields. The third generation were born into money and likely raised on courses that their parents owned.
The fourth and fifth wave are the children of golfers who are learning the game and competing in a national structure. It is these players who will have the opportunity to compete internationally on a level playing field and in great numbers, thanks to the wealth of their parents.
Lucy Shi Yuting is a 12-year-old golfer from Shanghai. She’s three years younger than Liang when he first discovered the game, and already she seems destined for greatness. She looks diminutive, sweet and innocent, but has an iron handshake and is absolutely deadly on the course.
In the final of October’s HSBC National Junior Championship, Shi Yuting thrashed the field in her age group by a whopping 12 strokes and then took on an older girl in a playoff, whereupon she calmly avenged a defeat from the previous year. That gave her a place in the Shanghai pro-am, at which she matched American star Phil Mickelson and beat Australia’s former top-10 player Adam Scott over a par-three hole.
Dreams of America
Her coach, Scotland’s Mike Dickie, expects his prodigy to end up on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour.
"She’s got a great swing but she has a very calm persona, that’s her ultimate strength," he said. "She’s just finished third in a China LPGA tournament, so if she can do that at 12, what’s she going to be doing when she’s 22?"
Shi Yuting trains for three to four hours every day, and is absolutely focused on making it big.
"I hope to become an LPGA player but in China, players have to be 20 years old before they turn professional. Maybe I’ll fulfill my goal after I represent China at the Olympic Games."
The reintroduction of golf as an Olympic sport in Brazil in 2016 is another reason why China is expected to produce legions of top golfers, as the government will have a vested interest in backing it.
Dickie believes the students from his academy in Shanghai and elsewhere in China will soon be heading for the United States or Scotland and returning with the Green Jackets and Claret Jugs of major champions.
Right now, the 32-year-old Liang is flying the flag on his own — he’s the only Chinese player in the world’s top 100. He can feel the charge of China’s youth behind him, having helped fund some of them, but he believes his best days are still ahead of him.
A major goal
While lacking a role model in the early days, he now looks up to the likes of Irishman Padraig Harrington, South Korea’s Y.E. Yang and American Mark O’Meara — golfers who were older than him before winning their first major trophy.
He has every right to dream. In August, Liang fired an eight-under-par 64 in his third round at the PGA Championship to break the course record at the treacherous Whistling Straits.
Liang has a grounded and unassuming nature, and he was oblivious of his impending achievement. The first he, or his team, were aware of the feat was when he was lining up his final putt.
"If he makes this, we’ll need him in the interview tent," Liang’s agent was told. "Why?" was the innocent response — and soon the tournament organizers were desperately hunting for suitable translators.
He struggled home with a 73 in the final round, but still finished in a highly creditable eighth place, well ahead of top stars including Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.
Liang is now eyeing up a move to the United States, but nothing comes easy for a player of his background and generation. He admits it will be tough on his young family, and jokes about building an entourage — so familiar to every other top player in the world.
"I’d love to get a mind coach," he told me over lunch in his clubhouse. "Do you happen to know any that speak Chinese!"
That’s an indication of how fast Chinese golf has developed and how far it still has to go.
But the world’s top golf psychologists, caddies and fitness coaches might want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese — they could soon be getting an awful lot of work.
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