SHANGHAI (AP) — The graceful movement was enough to get the full attention of Adam Scott, who knows a good golf swing when he sees one.
Scott only remembers her name as Tina. She was one of several Chinese juniors afforded a chance to play with the pros for one hole on the eve of the HSBC Champions.
And she made quite an impression.
“I played with an 11-year-old girl this week who if she does nothing but continues to play, I’m sure she’ll be on the LPGA Tour in about five years,” Scott said. “She played off my tees on the 17th, 205 yards. Hit a 3-wood to 15 feet and lipped it out. Made an easy 3. Just looked beautiful.”
Four years ago, Tiger Woods was introduced to a 12-year-old on the same hole at Sheshan International. Woods was amazed at the poise the boy showed in hitting over the gorge and onto the green with the largest gallery on the golf course watching.
His name was Guan Tianlang, and two years later he became the youngest player to make the cut in the Masters.
Each year brings more advancement by Chinese golfers, and the inaugural year of PGA Tour China would appear to be accelerating that growth.
With three events remaining on the 12-tournament schedule, one of the top five golfers in position to get his Web.com Tour card is Li Hao-tong, a lanky 19-year-old who has shown signs of competing against stronger, more experienced players.
The China Golf Association gets limited spots for its players when tournaments are held in China, and Li is coming off two solid weeks.
He tied for 43rd in the BMW Masters on the European Tour (on his home course at Lake Malaren). A week later in the HSBC Champions, a World Golf Championship event featuring 40 of the top 50 in the world ranking, he closed with a 67 for the second-best round on Sunday. He tied for 35th with Jimmy Walker and Jordan Spieth.
“It’s a good opportunity,” Li said of PGA Tour China. “If not for PGA competition, I would not be able to have a chance to go to the U.S. to play.”
Li believes his game is technically sound enough to compete. What he lacks is experience.
And that was the whole idea of the fledgling tour in China.
“We’re seeing some good players, and some wins by Chinese players,” said Paul Johnson, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of international business affairs. “That’s the start of the process. They have to play a lot and win tournaments. We’ve been encouraged by the early success. That said, we have a very long-term view. Our hope is to have one or two players come through early. And if it doesn’t happen in the short term, we stay with the plan.
“The talent is there,” Johnson said. “It’s getting the competitive experience.”
The one setback on PGA Tour China was the other Chinese winner — Zhang Xin-Ju, whom the CGA banned for six months after he was disqualified for the second time for turning in an incorrect scorecard. He is leading the money list on the PGA Tour China, though the ban means Zhang cannot play on any tour until the middle of March. The PGA Tour will not comment on whether it plans its own sanction.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem described it as an “individual thing” and said the topic did not come up in two days of meetings with Chinese golf officials.
Finchem said the goal was to develop elite players, and the first gauge of true progress could come next year if Zhang and Li get to the Web.com Tour.
“Next year will be really good because it will be a combination of seeing how the guys who qualify for the Web.com do, and then we’ve got some growth going on here,” said Finchem, who expects an additional three events on the 2015 China schedule. “We’re not looking to change the world overnight. It’s a long-term project.”
China is still an infant in golf.
Zhang Lian-Wei was the first Chinese player to win on the European Tour in 2003 when he beat Ernie Els by one shot in the Singapore Masters. He was the inspiration for Liang Wen-chong, who shot 64 in the third round at Whistling Straits and tied for eighth in the 2010 PGA Championship.
Wu Ashun has qualified for the British Open the last two years. Wu wonders how much easier it would have been had the PGA Tour China been around earlier.
“It would help me develop my career better,” he said. “It’s very lucky for the Chinese players. They will benefit from the tour. They can stay in China to play tournaments, but it’s a passage to the PGA Tour.”
Finchem recalls the World Cup going to China in 1995 and a gallery that pressed against the ropes without truly understanding what they were seeing. The fans are more sophisticated each year, and some of the Chinese players had the largest galleries behind only the likes of Scott, Rickie Fowler and HSBC winner Bubba Watson.
“It’s early days since the start of the century that we started coming here,” Scott said. “Fifteen years isn’t that long to build world-class players. Maybe we’re five years away from seeing really great players.”
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