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From Zhang to Kuang: golf's remarkable journey in China

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Shenzhen (China) (AFP)

When Zhang Lianwei became the first Chinese player to win a European Tour event in 2003, 14-year-old Kuang Yang hadn't even been born.

The pair, part of a record 45 home-grown players in this week's 25th Volvo China Open, illustrate just how far golf has come in the world's most populous nation.

Veteran Zhang, who turned 54 on Thursday, only started playing when he was 20 because golf, then deemed a bourgeois pursuit, was banned in China under Mao Zedong.

Zhang, the only man to have played in all 25 editions of the China Open, winning it in 2003, is now the daddy of Chinese pro golf, the precursor of a wave of young Chinese players hoping to make it big.

Precocious amateur Kuang, 40 years his junior, is just one of a horde of teenagers tearing up Chinese fairways -- and he made an impressive debut with a first-round one-under par 71 on Thursday.

"It's a different era and a different environment for these kids coming through now," a smiling Zhang told AFP after receiving a huge birthday cake from organisers at the end of his opening round.

"I'm not jealous of the opportunities they have now," added Zhang, who was unable to turn professional until 1995, when he was 30 years old.

"They have a better chance to learn the game, but they have much tougher competition than I did. When I began there was no professional golf in China."

While golf was banned during Zhang's formative years, Kuang has been swinging a club since he was two years old.

"I started playing golf at the age of 20," said Zhang, who began in the mid-1980s at Zhuhai Golf Club, across the Pearl River delta from Shenzhen, when Mao's ban on golf was lifted.

"But I had to wait a very long time to turn professional. It took 10 years because of procedures with the China Golf Association and the government."

- 'Very impressive' -

Chinese golf is now undoubtedly on the rise: Feng Shanshan has won a women's major, an Olympic bronze and been world number one. This week's China Open is the first full-field European Tour event where more than a quarter of the players are Chinese.

"I've been coming out here since about 1998 it has changed hugely in that time," said Ben Cowen, the European Tour's Deputy Chief Operating Officer International.

"The number of players we see coming through the ranks on the European Tour has been very impressive and now we see them playing PGA Tour and a lot on the Asian Tour."

Pint-sized Kuang, who looks every bit as young as his 14 years, isn't even the youngest player at the China Open, which is co-sanctioned by the European and Asian Tours.

That distinction belongs to 13-year-old amateur Ma Bingwen from Beijing.

However, many Chinese teenagers have shone all too briefly, none more so than Guan Tianlang who at 14 became the youngest player to make the cut at the US Masters in 2013, but has since dropped out of the limelight.

Current world number 39 Li Haotong, who has won twice on the European Tour and played the first two rounds of last month's Masters with Tiger Woods, is an exception and, now aged 23, he is tipped by many to become China's first men's major winner.

- School first, golf second -

"I think for Chinese golf, this tournament has been huge for us, especially as you can see other Chinese players are doing well on the bigger tours now," Li said. "So I think our game is going to grow and grow.

"I think Kuang needs to grab the chance to get the experience as the more you learn now, the quicker you will grow."

Kuang's biggest obstacle is not the burden of expectation, but his schoolwork.

"I didn't have a lot of time to practise this week as I have just finished my mid-term exams," said Kuang, who is naturally left-handed but plays right-handed. "School is still my main focus."

The landscape was very different in 1995 when Swedish car giants Volvo ventured behind the bamboo curtain and helped create the first China Open, just 11 years after the country's first golf course opened.

The same year also saw China's first international tournament -- the World Cup of Golf at Mission Hills, Shenzhen -- won by the American pair Fred Couples and Davis Love III.

Zhang had just turned pro and he made history in January 2003 when he became the first Chinese golfer to win a European Tour event, at the Caltex Masters in Singapore, edging out the great South African Ernie Els.

He then won the China Open title and a year later was the first Chinese to play at the US Masters.

"I'm very happy to have taken part in all 25 Volvo China Opens," said Zhang. "But the happiest thing for me is to see the good Chinese players coming through."

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