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Zhang Lian Wei carries the hopes of China

Zhang Lian Wei is the trailblazer for Chinese golf - the man who carries the hopes of the world's biggest nation whenever he plays.

The Maybank Malaysian Open star has a string of "firsts" to his name - the first mainland Chinese to win a European Tour event; the first from his country to play in the Masters; the first to beat world-class players in match play.

But it can be a lonely battle, both on and off the course. Often, he is the only Chinese player in contention on the back nine of a tournament, his countrymen either having failed to make the cut or faded in the final rounds.

"It's time for the young guns to stand up," says Zhang, 40. "I don't want to be the only player out there. It's difficult to have the flag on your shoulders all the time. Many young Chinese golfers today have it so easy, as they are sponsored by rich parents."

Away from the course, he struggles to find mainland backing, either from the government or private companies.

"It's tough, it's difficult and it's lonely," he admits. "I know golf is not an Olympic sport, but I think the sports authorities should at least have shown some kind of support, like air tickets or something, to show their appreciation for my contributions to Chinese golf.

"Over the past 20 years I've made a lot of money, if you look at the cheques, but you don't know how much money I have spent to support myself. My sponsorship all comes from foreign companies.

"In fact, I don't feel comfortable being supported only by foreign brands. Wherever I go, people look at me and think I represent China. But they don't know that I haven't received support from China."

When fans at the Maybank Malaysian Open - to be staged at Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club on February 16-19 - watch Zhang in action, few will be aware of the efforts he has made to reach the top.

A promising javelin thrower, he was a state-funded athlete living in Zhuhai, southern China, when he discovered golf in 1985, just one year after the country constructed its first modern golf course.

Zhang will never forget walking into Zhuhai Golf Club for the first time. "It was just so beautiful," he says. "I had never seen anything like it: the trees, the bunkers, the greens - it was a fantasy land.

"Back then, there was nothing for young golfers in China. No coaches, no academies, no money. But I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to play golf."

He worked as a caddie and - with no coaches around - taught himself to play. "There was no golf on TV back then. There were no instructional videos; no way to learn how to play from the experts. I just had to go to the course when I heard there were good players around, and I would watch them play."

It was the beginning of a long, hard road to the top. "At the start, I was making about US$20 a month. It was hard to feed myself properly. But I kept going."

Zhang won the China Amateur Open three times before turning professional and his first big break came when he won the Asian Match Play Championship in Jakarta in 1996, collecting US$40,000. "Everything changed with that money in my pocket. I knew I had enough to keep going," he recalls.

He spent two years on the Canadian Tour before heading for Japan, where prize money was much higher, meaning he could be financially secure while honing his skills in a more competitive environment.

When he returned to the Asian Tour, he began racking up victories, including back-to-back Macau Opens in 2001-02, the latter of which saw him beat Zimbabwe's Nick Price on the fifth playoff hole. He also recorded wins over Price and Colin Montgomerie in the Alfred Dunhill Cup at St Andrews.

His finest moment came in 2003, when he became the first mainland Chinese to win a European Tour event, beating South Africa's Ernie Els by one shot in the co-sanctioned Singapore Masters.

Zhang went toe-to-toe with the great South African in the final round and birdied the 72nd hole for an incredible victory. "Ernie Els is a great golfer and it was a great pleasure to play with him," he says. "We had a great day and I just kept trying my best. To be honest it wasn't until the 18th green that I thought I had a chance to win. The pressure on that final putt was incredible."

That same year he fulfilled a career goal by winning on home soil at the China Open in Shanghai. His achievements were enough to earn a rare invitation to play in the 2004 Masters, making him the first Chinese player to tee up at Augusta National.

Last season, as usual, Zhang finished as the leading Chinese player on the Asian Tour Order of Merit and he heads for the Maybank Malaysian Open - promoted once again by Parallel Media Asia - as the flag bearer for his country.

He is realistic about the prospects for other Chinese golfers following in his footsteps and says that they - like he - must learn their trade. "It is like studying," he insists. "You can't leave secondary school and go straight for a PhD."

Zhang, of course, has graduated with honours. Fans at the Maybank Malaysian Open can expect a golfing masterclass from a player who, on a long and lonely journey, has learned what it takes to be a winner.

February 11, 2006

 




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