Teenagers Kevin LeBlanc and Olivia Mehaffey had the honour of representing Ireland at the Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China, as golf re-entered the International Olympic Committee fold in a country described by one of the Chinese game’s most influential figures as “the next frontier”.
When golf last featured in an Olympics, at the 1904 Games in St Louis, only the USA, Canada and Great Britain participated. From three countries, the International Golf Federation expects more than 30 to be represented at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio and the global reach of the game was also on show in Nanjing as China hosted 64 athletes from 34 countries competing in three events, a men’s, women’s and mixed competition at the Gary Player-designed Zhongshan International Golf Club.
Ireland went into the tournament ranked second by the IGF behind Great Britain and had a strong team in The Island’s LeBlanc, the 16-year-old winner of last month’s Junior Open Championship, and Royal County Down’s Olivia Mehaffey, 17.
China, still finding its way in the sport, had one male entrant, 17-year-old Zecheng Dou, who passed up the opportunity to compete in the prestigious US Amateur Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club to play at the Youth Olympics.
Yet Tenniel Chu, deputy commissioner of the One Asia Tour and group vice-chairman of Mission Hills, the world’s largest golf resort built by his father, believes Chinese golf is only just beginning its path along the road to prominence.
And having become the largest promoter of junior golf events in the world as well as offering free access for youths at three of Mission Hills’s 12 courses at his luxury facility in Shenzhen near Hong Kong, Chu is confident there is a golf boom coming in the world’s most populous country.
“Our mission is to bring China to the world and the world to China and having the world’s largest population of 1.3 billion, all it takes is 3% of the country’s population to play the game of golf and you have the world’s largest golfing market,” Chu said.
“When you have the world’s largest golfing market, all the equipment, all the different suppliers, the whole golfing industry will rotate. When you have the world’s largest country playing the game there’s definitely a big role to take on to cater to the market and this is what Mission Hills has always been, as the window to help China connect to the world and help to grow the whole industry.
“It’s no longer about Mission Hills growing bigger and bigger. Okay, I have the world’s biggest golf club, I keep breaking my own record and we have five Guinness awards already. There’s no point in continuing to break new records, it’s about giving back and growing the game, making the game fun, accessible, youthful.
“Definitely people recognise the game of golf, how valuable it is in terms of their character development and as a business tool. They understand the concept now but now it is about making it accessible.
“The Youth Olympics take place in China and this is the first chance for golf on its return to the Olympic family so it will be interesting to see a lot of the youth who have gone through our programme, they will be representing China at the Youth Games and it’s good to see them involved and for it to become more of a breeding ground at the grassroots level.”
Joining the Olympic movement, both in Nanjing and at Rio 2016, can only accelerate Chinese interest in golf, particularly as Chu has helped bring on board global icon Greg Norman, one of his star course designers at Mission Hills, to oversee the Chinese Olympic golf teams.
“Once the game is part of the Olympic family I think it is seen as a common game, not for the elite or the wealthy, and the government will give it much more attention for funding and anything that could get a medal for the country.
“So definitely, golf in the Olympics is a big motivational drive and we are there for it. Both the male and the female Olympic teams are formulated at Mission Hills.
“That’s where they train and that’s where they were formulated and we invited Greg Norman in as a special consultant to the national team to assist in its development.”
Golf is clearly moving in the right direction in China, its growth underlined by the growing number of tournaments in the country being co-sanctioned by major tours, male and female, from other continents with the European Tour recently opening an office in Beijing.
“I think this year is only the 30th anniversary of China golf,” Chu said. “I was speaking to [R&A chief executive] Peter Dawson recently and he was saying there was no other country that has developed golf faster than China. “This is the next frontier and where the next big golf boom is happening.”