As China readied to host a $7 million WGC event, local pros who pioneered the sport face a new reality: The party may be winding down for them
China's most unlikely golf champ took his seat at a neighborhood restaurant in the dark, sooty suburbs near Beijing's international airport and declared, "I like to drink." Before long he was chugging cold Yanjing beer and gnawing on stewed pig intestines. He closed the place down, outlasting even the shirtless kitchen workers who were smoking cigarettes and playing cards at a corner table.
This is how Jian Chen unwinds the week of a tournament. But it's a safe bet the 33-year-old was eating and drinking like this long before he ever heard of golf, a serendipitous discovery that happened less than a decade ago.
Chen's rise from farmer to head waiter to obscure pro golfer -- now, slightly less obscure -- mirrors the random trajectories followed by the majority of the Chinese men who toil on their country's domestic golf circuit. Most of them stumbled into the sport accidentally and relatively late, bringing personal histories almost unheard of in the Western world of contemporary professional golf.
For example, the first-round leader board of the Luxehills Golf Championship, a $150,000 event Chen won in June, featured in its top 20 a former security guard, a former soldier, a former stunt motorcyclist, a former kung fu champion and at least a half-dozen guys who spent their formative years swinging a harvesting sickle, not a 6-iron. For them working at a golf course or a driving range was just a job, a way to make money, an attractive, and slightly more lucrative, alternative to some other form of menial labor.
"When I was young, our village didn't have electricity -- it still doesn't have running water," says Chen, who grew up in tiny Chen Xiang Cun, a farming community in poor eastern Anhui province. "When I was old enough to work in the fields -- about 10 years old -- I worked in the fields. It was hard work, too hard, and I did it for several years. I vowed to get out of the village, find a job, any job, and never come back."
Chen pauses, using his chopsticks to scrape some flesh off the side of a steaming fish, and adds, "Of course, back then I had no idea that job would be playing a game called golf. Why would a farmer in Anhui know what golf is?"
Even the four Chinese golfers going up against pedigreed players such as Tiger Woods in this week's glitzy $7 million HSBC Champions tournament at Sheshan International GC in Shanghai adhere to the Walt Zembriski storyline -- humble origins and a haphazard path to golf.
• Lian-wei Zhang, 44, the first Chinese golfer to win a European Tour event, was a 20-year-old washed-up state-system javelin thrower when China's second course opened near his home in 1985. He wasn't familiar with golf, but Zhang still accepted a $20-a-month job caddieing and doing odd jobs. His rice-farmer parents thought he was crazy.
• Wen-chong Liang, 31, the 2007 Asian Tour money leader and China's top-ranked player, was one of a few dozen teenage farm boys plucked from the rice paddies near Zhongshan Hot Spring GC, China's first course, and instructed to take some test swings for club administrators looking to start a youth team.
• Ashun Wu, 24, China's top talent under 30, didn't know what golf was until 2001, when reps from a new golf academy visited his high school looking for potential talent. Eight years later, this son of a truck driver and a municipal worker posted three top-10 finishes on the Asian Tour.
• And then there's 41-year-old Weihuang Wu, the aforementioned martial-arts expert who practiced wushu for 15 years starting at age 8. He's the only member of this foursome who plies his trade almost solely on the decidedly unglamorous, and increasingly unpredictable, China Tour. Wu started golfing in his late-20s because he thought it would advance his family's construction business. After only seven months, however, he was shooting in the 70s. Within two years he was considered the best golfer in Xiamen, a city of 2.5 million people on China's southeastern coast.
Wu, like most of his peers, is self-taught. His swing is stiff and stabby, reminiscent of a hockey slap shot. He strangles the shaft and swings with such fury that all the muscles on his slight, sinewy frame ripple and pop. Jian Chen also would be playing in "Asia's Major," which earlier this year was elevated to World Golf Championships status, had a rule change not cut in half the number of Chinese players eligible for the '09 event. The inclusion of Chen, who eight short years ago thought golf consisted solely of what he witnessed at the driving range -- he had yet to see a course -- would have been a fitting tribute to his gritty generation of pioneering pros whose window for competitive success appears to be closing.