World Am includes Chinese competitors

ablondin@thesunnews.comAugust 28, 2012 

— After 28 years, the Chinese have infiltrated the Golf.com World Amateur Handicap Championship.

And they’re planning to bring reinforcements in 2013.

As part of an agreement with tournament operator Myrtle Beach Golf Holiday to use the World Am brand for qualifying events in the People’s Republic of China, Chinese sports marketing company Olle Sports has brought nine golfers and a few accompanying executives to the 29th annual World Am.

They are the first golfers from China to ever participate in the week-long event being played over 60 Grand Strand courses, but surely not the last.

“The golf courses are beautiful, and the whole organization is very efficient. The whole arrangement is great,” said Chinese participant Wen Zhong Liu through an interpreter. “Next year if there is a chance I will definitely come back. I enjoyed the friendly atmosphere. Everybody comes from different countries but they’re all friendly everywhere we go.”

Olle Sports officials first became familiar with the World Am eight months ago from material provided by the Golf Holiday marketing cooperative though the U.S. Department of Commerce at a trade show in Asia.

Olle Sports finalized the agreement in May to use the World Am name for tournaments in China, and in June and July it held 10 events to qualify golfers for the Strand’s World Am, resulting in nine golfers making the trip.

Olle Sports vice president Winsen Qian said his marketing company plans 15 to 20 World Am qualifiers before the 2013 event, and Chinese tournament sponsor Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer 1844 intends to bring several invited guests to increase the contingent to between 30 and 50 people.

China is the most populated country in the world with approximately 1.35 billion people. India, with the world’s second largest population of more than 1.2 billion, has eight players in the 29th World Am, which features players from 24 countries.

“We are really excited about getting the Chinese golfers here, considering how fast golf is growing there,” Golf Holiday tournament director Jeff Monday said. “The same with India, because the game is growing just about as fast there as it is in China. That would give us hopefully more participants internationally. We love the number of countries, we just would like to have more players from those countries.”

The sport is relatively new in the communist country, considering the first modern course there was built in 1984. But it is rapidly growing, according to reports from Forward Management Group, a Chinese company that develops, designs, builds, manages and markets golf courses, operates golf tournaments and conducts golf-related studies.

Forward Management Group’s report on the golf industry in China found there were 543 18-hole-equivalent golf courses in the vast country at the end of 2011, with more than 600 either under construction or planned.

Renowned course designer Rees Jones said more than half of all current golf course design and construction contracts in the world are in China.

Kun Li, the chief representative in the U.S. for Forward Management Group, said there are 370,000 core golfers in China, and that number has been increasing 10 percent a year in recent years. Comparably, the U.S. has approximately 14.8 million core golfers (eight or more rounds per year) according to the National Golf Foundation.

“Just the expat population of the Chinese that play the game of golf is millions,” legendary golfer and course designer Greg Norman said. “Now you go back to the domestic Chinese who want to play the game of golf. So the grassroots program will be implemented and is slowly being implemented. Now you move that needle out 20-25 years from now when you have 1.3 billion people, you’re going to have the East overtaking the West with great players.

“You’ve seen it in a very short period of time with Korea.”

The Chinese World Am events and their Myrtle Beach affiliation appear to have a solid supporter in Pabst Blue Ribbon. The beer is famous in the U.S. but is also brewed and distributed in China, and is considered one of the country’s more quality brews.

Min Wang, the general manager of the south China region for Pabst, accompanied the golfers to Myrtle Beach and said Pabst is sponsoring the World Am events because the company likes the demographic the melding of the beer, golf and American culture provides.

“Because the beer originated from the U.S. it is targeted to upscale customers in China, and golf in China is also an upscale sport, not as popular as the U.S. where everybody can play,” Wang said. “The combination of the two makes for a good customer for us.”

Olle Sports is exploring ways to expand the relationship with Golf Holiday and Myrtle Beach, including golf vacation packages and instruction schools of up to a week with Strand teachers. Brad Redding of the Members Club at Grande Dunes, one of Golf Magazine’s top 100 instructors in America since 2001, has been involved in the discussions.

“We’re looking at different approaches to bring more and more Chinese golfers here to Myrtle Beach,” Qian said.

Qian also met Tuesday with Charlie Thrash, director of Coastal Carolina University’s Professional Golf Management Program, to discuss the possibility of Chinese students entering the program.

Among those playing in the world am is Ye Qiaobo, 48, the first Chinese speed skater to become a world champion, which she was in consecutive years in the early 1990s. She was also twice defeated by Bonnie Blair in sprint races in the 1992 Olympics and settled for silver medals – China’s first ever medals at the Winter Olympics.

Qian said several other famous athletes in China in sports including gymnastics, swimming and diving took part in the World Am events. “A lot of former world champions in different sports in China are now golfers,” Qian said. “A lot of them participate in tournaments.”

Qian and Wang exchanged gifts with Myrtle Beach mayor John Rhodes during a tournament sponsor appreciation event at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club on Tuesday.

“It is the first time any of us have come to Myrtle Beach and we really like Myrtle Beach a lot,” Wang said. “Golfers see this is a big international event and get to meet international golfers and exchange ideas and techniques. It’s like a big international golf family.”

The interpreter for the Chinese delegation was Myrtle Beach resident Jane Zheng, vice president of the Carolinas Chinese Chamber of Commerce based in Charlotte, N.C.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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