Ultimately, it was blue jeans that brought down the Soviet Union. Decades of austerity under Communist rule finally wore out the people of the Soviet Bloc who cast an envious eye toward Western creature comforts denied them. Take a pair of blue jeans to Moscow in the 1970s and you could easily trade them for tickets to the Bolshoi. The Soviet people demanded change, and they got it. Now, it could very well be sports that changes China.
Serving as host of the Olympic Games puts the country on the world's center stage. In the run-up to the Beijing Games, China has had to defend its policies toward Tibet, its attitudes about dissidents in general and its problems with pollution -- among other things. And China, it seems, is trying to change, both as a matter of pride and for the potential profit. Golf is one way to do so.
The government imposed a moratorium on golf course construction in 2004, but that was a political ploy to appease protesting farmers who had land confiscated. While courses are not being built as rapidly as they would without a moratorium, they are being built, especially in areas where China wants to develop tourism.
But the real key to the growth of golf in China will be the competitive aspect. The success on the world stage of men and women pros from Korea, Japan and Taiwan has wounded the regional pride of the economic giant of Asia. All indications are the China Golf Association will be under increased pressure after the Olympics to produce more world-class players.
Tennis, basketball and track already have shown how quickly China can turn out top performers when it tries. A few Chinese men will play college golf in the United States beginning this fall, and a couple of dozen younger players are studying at U.S. golf academies. These are the children of the rich. Once China figures out how to tap into its talent pool, champions will surely emerge.
This process will speed up significantly if golf's governing bodies are successful next year in their bid to get into the 2016 Olympics. Seven sports are competing for two spots and insiders are optimistic because, for the first time, the PGA Tour has supported the effort, giving the International Olympic Committee hopes the game's top players (meaning Tiger Woods, who will be 40 for the 2016 Games) will compete.
The European Tour already has tournaments in China, the LPGA holds its first there in October and the HSBC Champions in Shanghai is going to become a World Golf Championship event in 2009. By allowing the world inside its borders, China has made an implied commitment toward allowing greater freedom within those borders.
In the grand scheme of things, golf is only a game. But sport has served as a useful common ground in the past on which to bridge political differences. Remember the role Ping Pong played in re-establishing normal diplomatic relations between China and the United States nearly 40 years ago? It's a different little white ball this time, but the result can be the same.
China is a culture of staggering creativity that for thousands of years has been hidden behind walls, both physical and ideological. The world is a better place if those walls are removed. Perhaps golf can help.