Tiffany aims to sparkle on LPGA Tour after making Hong Kong golfing history


Hong Kong (AFP)

Tiffany Chan says she is still coming down to earth after becoming the first golfer from Hong Kong to qualify to compete with the world's elite on the lucrative US LPGA Tour.

The 24-year-old finished second last week at the final stage of the LPGA Tour's qualifying school in Florida behind Japan's Nasa Hataoka, earning a coveted tour card for 2018.

It means she will now rub shoulders with superstars such as New Zealand's Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson of the US and China's world number one Feng Shanshan -- and has put Hong Kong on the golfing map.

"This is my dream -- I spent a lot of time and energy preparing for it. You can say the last four or five years had been dedicated to this goal," Chan told AFP. "I haven't calmed down yet."

Softly spoken and self-possessed, Chan describes the sport as mentally demanding due to a host of variables, from the weather to her overall condition, but she hopes her new-found status will encourage other Hong Kong youngsters to give golf a try.

The bustling southern Chinese city of seven million people has just six golf clubs with 10 courses, and most are exclusive members-only facilities perched on picturesque coastlines and islands.

But Chan disputes the notion that golf in Hong Kong is only for the rich -- and says her own story shows that anybody in the city can take up the sport.

Chan first learned to love golf at a public driving range near her home in the northwestern suburb of Tuen Mun.

It charged just HK$6 (US$0.77) per hour for children at the time, Chan recalled, in a city where golf club memberships often change hands for millions of dollars.

What started as a way to have fun at the weekend with other children became a more regular pursuit when she took up free classes offered to young players at the age of eight.

"I hope to use my results to show that golf is not just something for businessmen or a game for the rich," Chan said. "I want to inspire kids from any socio-economic background to fight for their own goals."

- Home-grown talent -

Chan's burgeoning talent earned her sponsorship as a teenager by Swiss private bank EFG who continue to support her career.

She went on to win US national titles in 2014 and 2015 at the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) golf championships while attending Daytona State College in Florida.

She transferred to the University of Southern California and graduated earlier this year before turning professional.

Mainland China has long been hailed as an important future market for golf and has produced players such as women's number one Feng, and recent European Tour winners Wu Ashun and Li Haotong.

Feng, a multiple winner on the LPGA Tour also took Olympic bronze in Rio 2016, where Chan competed as an amateur and finished 37th ahead of some notable professionals such as Lin Xiyu of China and a 14-time winner on the Ladies European Tour, Gwladys Nocera of France.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong has never produced a golfing household name. Chan's rise could change that.

"Tiffany's our first ever homegrown talent to qualify for a major tour," said Brad Schadewitz, Chan's former coach.

"Everybody knew that it's possible but actually having somebody do it -- I think it gives even more inspiration especially to young girls in Hong Kong," added Schadewitz, who is lead coach at the Hong Kong Golf Association.

Chan says her next challenge is to break into the top 50 in 2018 and maintain her status on the tour in the coming years.

She will be facing tough competition from other Asian stars such as number one Feng and second and third-ranked Sung Hyun-Park and Ryu So-yeon from South Korea, a country which dominates women's golf with 22 players currently in the world's top 50.

"I will need to keep up the same spirit as I did in the qualifying tournament," Chan told AFP. "I don't want to relax or slacken after an achievement."