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Golf a growing phenomenon in China

"Green opium", as the Chinese refer to the lure of golf, is a growing phenomenon in China.

Previously banned by the old Communist Party leadership as unacceptably bourgeois, the royal and ancient game originating in Scotland is burgeoning in the new China.

For several years, golf has been regarded as an ideal leisure activity by the country club set and many businessmen, an appeal which is beginning to attract a much wider audience.

The golf club manufacturing sector already uses up a 10th of the country's annual titanium demand, although golfers make up less than 0.1 percent of China's population.

Years of economic growth, however, have swollen the ranks of the middle class and the game is gaining popularity so rapidly that government authorities fear it is displacing valuable farmland.

At the forefront are the country's playing professionals who are poised to gain more exposure than ever before with four events on the 2005 European Tour schedule being staged in China.

The first of these was the 10th China Open, co-sanctioned for the first time by the European Tour, which took place last month at the Shanghai Silport Golf Club.

European Tour deputy executive director George O'Grady expects the tournament to become a landmark fixture in future European Tour schedules.

"It is very significant for us going forward and represents an opportunity for a united international tour to match and complement the U.S. Tour in time," O'Grady told Reuters.

"And if golf spreads in China as it should, it will be seen as a sport that can represent for a greater section of the population all the things that golf stands for in terms of integrity and behaviour."

Mel Pyatt, president and chief executive officer of Volvo Event Management, was instrumental in establishing the Swedish company as the first corporate golf sponsors in China in 1995.

With the Asian country's European Tour connection growing, he is excited about the possibilities.

"It will take awareness to a much higher level in China," Pyatt said. "It will stimulate interest in the game as a sport, and not just as a leisure activity.

"It will mean a change in attitude from golf being just a pastime of the wealthy and middle-aged to being a more serious sporting activity that can be started at an early age."

Since the inaugural Volvo China Open was staged in 1995, Pyatt has seen golf establish a firm foothold in the world's most populous nation.

"In those 10 years, China has undergone a mind-boggling transformation, and that includes golf," he said. "There are now over 200 golf courses, and the projections are that 50 new courses a year will come on stream over the next five years.

"Media coverage is very good with many television stations having their own weekly golf magazine shows and golf supplements appearing in the good circulation newspapers.

"There will be a definitive shift of golfing power in the future, the only question is when," he added. "Market forces will determine how quickly the game will expand in China.

"It has a long way to go to match the 15,000 golf courses of the United States but, with more and more Chinese companies moving into the Fortune 500 and the executive ranks swelling so rapidly, it won't be far behind in the next 10 to 15 years."

Asian Tour chief executive Louis Martin also expects great things from Chinese golf, but has one concern about co-sanctioned events.

"We have to be very careful not to get carried away with ourselves with regard to co-sanctioned events," he said.

"My role is to promote more full-field Asian Tour events to help promote the Asian players, and the Chinese specifically.

"The more co-sanctioned, or limited-field, events we have, it greatly reduces the opportunity for Chinese players to take part because they are still improving and on a long learning curve," he added.

"We are getting pretty much to saturation point with limited-field events on the Asian Tour."

The China Open, as a co-sanctioned event, has an entry list split between Asian Tour and European Tour players.

Overall, though, Martin believes China's golfing potential could reach unprecedented heights, given the special lure of 'green opium'.

"These are very exciting times," he said. "With virtually every other sport they have taken up, it hasn't been long before China have created world-beaters.

"The mind boggles at what could happen here. There seems to be almost no limit to what is possible."

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