Tiger tries to sell golf in China

Posted: Sunday, November 11, 2001

SHENZHEN, China -- Tiger Woods pulled at his cap and gazed down the fairway toward the mountains. The ceremonial Cantonese dragon was hardly hidden: All 300 feet of it were dancing quite obtrusively around the first tee.

This sort of odd mix is bound to happen when you bring China and golf together -- and add the world's best and most famous player to the mix.

On a course in the mountains outside China's vaunted Special Economic Zone city of Shenzhen on Saturday, there was ''Taige Wuzi,'' or simply ''Lao Hu'' (old Tiger), making his first trip to China.

Woods conducted a teaching clinic with children and played an exhibition round -- and didn't win.

The surprise winner -- one stroke better than Woods -- was 29-year-old Chen Yuan-chi, a pro from Taipei, Taiwan. He was not in Woods' foursome, but in the first group to tee off, 45 minutes earlier.

''So maybe I wasn't as nervous as my three counterparts,'' Chen said. ''And maybe there was a little bit of luck.''

If Woods isn't yet a phenomenon in China, as many insist, he will be shortly; the PR machine is in full gear. More than five busloads of reporters -- nearly all Chinese -- were brought in to tell the country about the exhibition event. Throngs of Chinese tromped across the course to pursue Woods, their cameras and camcorders and children thrust into the air.

It all contributed, players and organizers said, to the rise across China of the game called ''gao'er fu'' -- inaccessible to most Chinese though it may be.

It was a visible indicator of the once-unthinkable changes that have taken place in China since the 1976 death of Mao Tse-tung, who derided golf as a bourgeois distraction that exemplified what China didn't want to be. Mao undoubtedly would have been appalled at the scene Saturday.

Here -- in a country club, no less -- hundreds of wealthy, middle-class Chinese, many from nearby Hong Kong, paid a reported $138 to watch Woods. On Sunday, people were set to fork over what some said was $18,000 per hole to golf alongside the game's great.

Much of President Jiang Zemin's new China -- punctuated by his July 1 speech welcoming entrepreneurs into the Communist Party -- either would have felt at home here or seen this as something to aspire to as China tries to show it can be capitalist and communist at the same time.

''Today is a big day. We have two new landmarks in China. China is now a member of the World Trade Organization. And now we welcome the world's best golfer,'' said You Jun, mayor of Shenzhen, aptly mixing the athletic, the political and the economic.

Asian Golf Monthly called Woods' visit ''a historic occasion for golf in the region.''

And like golf elsewhere, it's big business. Sponsors' logos were everywhere.

Security was even tighter than usual for Woods -- a mixture, perhaps, of Chinese authoritarianism and post-Sept. 11 jitters. His golf-cart motorcade was followed by a jogging cadre of country-club guards with berets and white gloves, talking into their sleeves.

''I just heard a mobile phone,'' the loudspeaker admonished in Chinese as Woods prepared to tee off.

Many of China's earliest golf courses were built in balmy Guangdong province, where Shenzhen is. Zhongshan, the first after the Cultural Revolution ended, was built in 1984.

China hosted its first pro golf event, the Pacific qualifying event for the Dunhill Nations Cup, in January 1988. Today, China has about 150 courses, 60 in Guangdong alone. Another sits outside Beijing, near the Great Wall and the tombs of 12 Ming emperors.

Woods tutored youths in a clinic sponsored by The First Tee, a Florida-based group that tries to spread the golf gospel across the world and attract young players. Its senior vice president, Joe Barrow Jr., called the expansion of golf in China ''a long-term project.''

Woods, meanwhile, concentrated on the kids -- and sent one away beaming.

''Sit down,'' the world's best golfer told the boy. ''You're too good.''

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