|Fourteen-year-old Guan Tianlang is the youngest player in history to play in a Masters Tournament. (Xinhua/AFP)|
Golf may be the next big thing in China thanks to the fact that it will be an official medal sport in the next Olympics in Brazil. The startling success of a 14-year-old Chinese protege is also winning the sport new fans. Belle Taylor finds out more.
Song Huaxun from the China Golf Association proudly shows off the wall of plaques displaying each sport under the Multi-ball Games Administrative Center of the General Administration of Sport.
"We have two Olympic sports now," he says, pointing them out. "Rugby, and golf."
The fact that these two sports, played the world over by millions of people have been lumped in the same category as bocce (a type of Italian lawn bowls) and sepak takraw (a combination of soccer and tennis played mainly in South East Asia) gives some indication of how recently golf was considered a fringe sport in China. That's changing, and fast.
Golf has been slowly gaining popularity in the Middle Kingdom for the past 30 years, but there are two things which are now shifting the sport from the fringes and into the spotlight. One of those things is the Olympics, the other is an eighth grader.
"Golf is now an Olympic event and that's good news for us and the game," Song says.
A 2009 decision to include golf in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro has led golf from being played only by a small group of rich Chinese, to a sport that is enjoying government-friendly policies to encourage more children from all walks of life to pick up a golf club.
"Since golf became an Olympic game, every province with their own sports bureau has begun to set up their teams," Song says.
There is also a bigger focus on juniors.
CGA, in collaboration with a sponsor bank, runs the only officially sanctioned junior golf program in China - a series of golf camps across the country to encourage more young athletes at the grassroots to play. Since 2008, they have also run golf classes in 100 schools across the country, reaching thousands of children.