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Warren Bennett

Tiger Woods visits golfers in China

The Chinese kid couldn't have been more than 4, but he knew just what he wanted when he saw Tiger Woods.

The youngter headed straight for the golf star and gave him a big hug on the knee. The smiling Woods hugged right back.

``Let's see what you guys got,'' Woods told a passel of young golfers hand-picked for the instructional clinic Saturday at the lush Mission Hills Country Club.

If Woods isn't yet a phenomenon in China, as many insist, he will be shortly; the PR machine is operating in full gear. More than five busloads of reporters were shipped into the mountains outside China's vaunted Special Economic Zone city of Shenzhen to tell the country about the exhibition event.

Woods, making his first appearance in China, played three noted players from the region -- one from the mainland, one from Taiwan and one from Hong Kong, an emphasis on the ``Greater China'' idea that the communist government in Beijing is trying hard to promote.

Also being touted: the rise of golfing across China -- inaccessible to most Chinese though it may be.

``Today is a very special day for golf in China,'' said David Chu, chairman of the Mission Hills Country Club.

It's also a visible indicator of the once-unthinkable changes that have taken place in China since the 1976 death of Mao Tse-tung, who derided golf as a bourgeois distraction that exemplified what China didn't want to be. Mao undoubtedly would have been appalled at the scene Saturday.

Here -- in a country club, no less -- hundreds of wealthy, middle-class Chinese, many from nearby Hong Kong, paid a reported $138 each to see Woods in action. And on Sunday, even richer ones were set to fork over what some here said was $18,000 per hole to golf alongside the game's great.

Asian Golf Monthly called Woods' visit ``a historic occasion for golf in the region.''

``The dynamic growth of the Royal and Ancient game in the Middle Kingdom is unparalleled anywhere in the world today,'' it said.

And like golf elsewhere, it's big business. Sponsors' logos -- Motorola and Wilson among them -- were splattered everywhere.

Security was even tighter than usual for Woods -- a mixture, perhaps, of Chinese authoritarianism and post-Sept. 11 jitters. His golf-cart motorcade was followed by a jogging cadre of country club guards with berets and white gloves, talking into their sleeves.

``Tiger will be speaking. Be as quiet as possible,'' the loudspeaker admonished in English and Chinese. Metal barricades went up -- to hold back the reporters.

Mission Hills is beautiful, set against mountains and lined with palms. Many of China's earliest golf courses were built in balmy Guangdong province, where Shenzhen is located. Zhongshan, the first after the Cultural Revolution ended, was built in 1984.

China hosted its first professional tournament, the Pacific qualifying event for the Dunhill Nations Cup, in January 1988. Today, China has some 150 courses, 60 in Guangdong alone. Another sits outside Beijing, near the Great Wall and the tombs of 12 Ming emperors.

The First Tee, the World Golf Foundation-sponsored organization that tries to spread the golf gospel across the world and attract young players, sponsored the instructional clinic. Its senior vice president, Joe Barrow Jr., called the expansion of golf in China ``a long-term project.''

``I'm very confident that golf will be accepted here,'' Barrow said. ``The accessibility question is not only about China but all over the world.''

Woods, meanwhile, concentrated on the kids.

One got the compliment of a lifetime and walked away beaming.

``Sit down,'' the world's best golfer told him. ``You're too good.

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