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Golf in China continuing to boom

With courses springing up all over the country, sponsors queuing up to associate themselves with the game and six events on the 2006 European Tour calendar, golf in mainland China is booming.

A proliferation of glossy magazines dedicated to the sport and "Golf" shops on what sometimes seems to be every street corner in Beijing pay testament to the grip the game has taken on urban China.

The first golf course on the mainland opened just 22 years ago and from that standing start, there are now in excess of 250 scattered over the country with more being carved out of the landscape each month.

The game received an unlikely boost from the 2003 SARS epidemic, when China's growing entrepreneurial class decided that doing business on the fairway was preferable to the office, where the risk of contracting the flu-like virus was higher.

Golf does not come cheap, however, with membership at the Nick Faldo-designed Honghua course in northeast Beijing, which hosted the China Open last weekend, costing $65,000.

The Chinese capital's most prestigious club, Pine Valley, costs an eye-watering $180,000 to join with an annual subscription of $7,500. That, in a city where average disposable income at the end of 2005 was around 17,700 yuan ($2,209).

There is plenty of money in the professional game too and Swedish carmakers Volvo, the first sponsors of golf in China in 1995, announced at the weekend that they had agreed in principle to extend their backing of the China Open until 2015.

They also announced that the prize pot would be going up by $200,000 to $2 million next year when the tournament returns to Shanghai after visits to Shenzhen last November and Beijing.

There are, however, a few flies in the ointment, not least the lack of a local Tiger Woods to capture the imagination of the population and fill the often sparse galleries at the top events.

Of 22 mainland Chinese in the draw for last weekend's tournament, 21 missed the cut with the Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong, the most celebrated of the country's professionals, finishing two rounds at three and 11-over-par respectively.

"The future for golf in China -- the real, long term future -- is not paying huge sums to bring the world's superstars to play here. It is creating our own stars," the China Golf Association's Jiang Xiuyun said at the launch of the domestic China Tour last year.

The China Tour has grown from four tournaments in 2005 to six this season and organisers hope to add a couple more each year and firmly establish it as the breeding ground of top local professionals.

India's Jeev Milkha Singh offered more basic advice to Chinese players after winning in Beijing on Sunday.

"What they need to do is keep practising and playing more with the Asian Tour and European Tour players," he said.

"When they do that, they can see how good these guys are and work at their games. If they put in the practice, they will catch up with them and be as good as them."

Singh's experience at the 11th hole on Sunday when his ball was picked up by a spectator -- who received a kick up the backside from another fan for his trouble -- illustrated another of the problems of Chinese golf.

Li Chao, the only remaining Chinese in the field for the final two rounds, blamed overenthusiastic galleries for a fourth round 78, which dropped him from even par to six-over for the tournament.

"I am very angry," the 25-year-old told the South China Morning Post.

"It was ridiculous. You think it would be good to have a lot of support, yet here it really disturbed me and worked against me.

"People were taking photographs just as I was hitting a shot. Mobiles phones were going off, there was lots of noise. It distracted me and I got really angry and that really affected my game."



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