Listen to this article
Like many 14-year-old girls, Li Gengshan will next month celebrate Chinese new year with her family. But unlike most other teenagers, it will probably be the only time this year she goes home to see them.
This is because Li’s life now revolves entirely around playing golf. Just a few years after she first picked up a club, she is already a member of China’s junior girls’ team, living at the country’s new, state-of-the-art national golf training facility. The Nanshan International Training Center is a sprawling complex in the mountains of northern Shandong province, with sparkling crystal chandeliers in the clubhouse and a view overlooking identical red-roofed golf villas and industrial chimneys in the distance.
Taking a break between practice sessions, Li already looks like a professional golfer, dressed in bright blue golfing trousers and with her long ponytail pulled through the back of her cap. In three or four years’ time, she hopes to actually be one.
“I want to become a famous professional golfer and maybe play in the Olympics,” Li says. “Since I’ve started to gain more confidence on the course, I think a medal is a possibility.”
During the summer, her training days are long and programmed down to the minute. She wakes at 5.30am, grabs her clubs and heads to the green for putting practice. At 6.45am she has breakfast, and an hour later she’s on the driving range or the course for a round of 18 holes. After lunch, there is fitness work in the gym and then it’s back out to the range for more practice. At night she has Chinese, maths and English lessons for an hour before falling into bed — doubtless exhausted — at 10pm. She has a half-day off on Sundays but would rather rest than catch up with friends. “I just want to sleep,” she says with a nervous giggle.
The Rmb500m (£53m) training centre opened in 2012 to turn China into a force in a sport that was banned after the communists came to power in 1949 because of its bourgeois connotations. The sport was virtually unknown until the country’s first golf course was built in 1984. But now that golf is finally being reintroduced to the Olympics at next year’s Rio Games after a 112-year hiatus, China has gone into overdrive. Although the country has already had a modicum of success at the majors — Shanshan Feng won the LPGA Championship in 2012 and Guan Tianlang famously became the youngest player ever to make the cut at the Masters at age 14 — one of the Nanshan centre’s main goals is to groom the next generation of golfers to win Olympic medals, a major source of national pride in China. The Olympic rings formed out of hedges near the practice greens are a none-too-subtle hint of the centre’s aspirations.
What makes the elite training centre different from other state-run sports academies is the unique collaboration between the public and private sectors. The China Golf Association had to think creatively about how to develop a national team without the state funds provided to traditional Olympic sports. “We had to go to the market to seek a partnership,” says Wei Qingfeng, the national amateur team manager. It found a willing partner in the Nanshan Group, a manufacturing conglomerate whose main interest is in aluminium but which also owns a textile subsidiary, a vineyard, hotels, half-a-dozen golf courses in China and Australia, its own university with some 20,000 students, and a majority stake in a commercial airline, Qingdao Airlines. Nanshan, which wanted to expand its reach in the golf market, footed the bill for the training centre, while the CGA is stumping up the funds to house and train the members of the three-tier national team system — the pros, amateurs and juniors.
As well as the national team members, who are selected by the CGA on the basis of rankings and tournament results, the facility is home to a separate, onsite private boarding school with more than 60 students from mostly local, wealthy families who pay their own tuition fees of up to Rmb68,000 (£7,300) per year.
The goal of the CGA and Nanshan wasn’t just to establish another private golf academy but to create the most technologically advanced and best-coached training centre in China. The problem, however, was where to start. “We didn’t know what we needed for our players,” Wei says. “We didn’t know how many holes we needed — 18 holes, 36 holes — or what different styles.”
Golf is still very much in its infancy in China — there has been an official ban on the building of new courses since 2004 due to land and water scarcity and environmental concerns. Yet, according to state media the number of courses has nonetheless increased from 170 in 2004 to 600.
To get up to speed, officials behind the Nanshan centre sent a team to witness first-hand how the leading training centres in Europe and the US developed elite talent. (One stop, the PGA Village resort in South Florida, was put on the itinerary because, as Wei says, “we heard that Tiger Woods trains there in the winter”.) The driving range was stocked with high-tech gadgetry that uses ultrasound and 3D technology to analyse a player’s putts and swings. All that remained was to hire a top coach, which the CGA did in March 2013, when it appointed Australian Greg Norman, a two-time British Open winner, as exclusive advisory coach to the Chinese national team.
“The system they’ve got for the amateur players who are turning pro — the pros who are trying to qualify for the Olympics — the level of support they’ve got is unmatched around the world,” says Michael Dickie, the Scottish former coach of China’s women’s national team, who now runs a private golf academy in Shanghai.
The question remains, however, whether the Nanshan programme will have the same success as the intensive state-run sports academies which have been churning out gold-medal winners in gymnastics, table tennis and diving for years. “At the end of the day, this place is really good,” says Peter Cote, a Canadian who coaches the national junior boys’ team and students at the centre’s onsite boarding school. “Anybody with a little bit of talent is given the best possible opportunity to develop further, and you just can’t do it any better. But until they get some [player] who does any good, they won’t believe what they’re doing is right.”
There is no doubt Nanshan has an abundance of young talent to work with. Early in the morning, a group of excitable kids, aged between eight and 10, lines up at the driving range to whack ball after ball toward the perfect rows of red-roofed golf villas in the distance. The youngsters, armed with drivers nearly as tall as them, have come from a sports school outside Beijing to attend a summer golf camp at Nanshan. At one tee, a coach patiently corrects the posture of an eight-year-old with matching neon-orange shoelaces and cockeyed Nike cap and watches as the boy strikes the ball cleanly past the 125-yard marker. The students are all remarkably well-behaved with the exception of one boy who walks too closely to his neighbour’s backswing and is punished with a set of push-ups on spindly arms — a source of great amusement for his friends.
On the course nearby, Cote is watching as a trio of lanky teenagers tees off, each one cracking the ball at least 200 yards. “A couple in the group hit it 300 yards — that’s ridiculous,” he says. But what’s lacking among some of the young golfers at the centre is an understanding of the finer points of the game, as well as a solid work ethic. “Because they come from more wealthy families, they get looked after very well,” he says. “[But] it takes passion for the game and they don’t quite have it. They think, ‘Oh this will be cool, I’ll be a pro and I’ll make some money,’ but it’s more than that. It takes that passion.”
Cao Yi, a new member of the national men’s team, didn’t have that love for the game at the beginning. He started playing relatively late, at 14, when his dad took him to the driving range for the first time. “I thought it was really boring,” the now-24-year-old Cao says, speaking English with a flat North American accent from his upbringing in Vancouver. “I saw all these old people around me on the driving range, so I thought it would be nice to play basketball or soccer with my buddies.” He is clearly more dedicated these days. Chipping a shot from a bunker, he gets a perfect amount of backspin on the ball and it stops two feet from the hole. His next shot rolls even closer. “Hao qiu,” his coach says in Mandarin. “Nice shot.”
While Dickie says elite players such as Cao are getting the right kind of support at Nanshan, he believes China’s long-term golfing success depends on developing the game at a grassroots level. He thinks the CGA should be providing more support to clubs at the provincial level to expose a greater number of young players to the game. “If you look at the UK, Australia, South Africa — places that produce a lot of really good golfers — that’s the kind of network that gets set up,” he says. “The province should be supported by the club and then the national team should be supported by the province. It gets a sort of feeder system.”
While it could take years, the centre is holding out hopes of producing a future Olympic champion — and believes doing so could change the perception of golf as a luxury sport and be a catalyst for growing the game further, as happened for tennis in China after Li Na became a national hero by winning the French Open in 2011.
Zhang Jin, one of the country’s top young hopes, believes a Chinese golfing star could soon emerge. A softly spoken 19-year-old with an easy smile, he joined the national amateur team last year and, after representing China at the Asian Games in South Korea in the autumn, turned pro. “Right now, there’s a lot of good players [in China]. We always go to America and play some tournaments and we’re not really different from them, we’re pretty close actually. If we play good, we also can win the tournament,” he says. Does he see himself playing in the Olympics? “Yeah, I hope so,” he says, suddenly animated. “If I can make it.”
Justin Bergman is an Asia-based correspondent for Monocle magazine
Photographs: Bakas Algirdas
Slideshow photographs: Bakas Algirdas
Get alerts on FT Magazine when a new story is published