International golf returns to China with LPGA Shanghai

By AFP   October 10, 2023 | 06:38 am PT
International golf returns to China with LPGA Shanghai
China's world number two Yin Ruoning will be among the headliners when the LPGA Shanghai tees off on Thursday. Photo by AFP
International golf returns to China after a four-year pandemic hiatus when the LPGA Shanghai tees off on Thursday, with the host city hoping a hometown hero might be crowned champion.

China has thrown itself back into hosting major competitions since the abrupt end of its strict zero-Covid policy in December 2022 in an attempt to cement a reputation as a sporting superpower.

International sports bodies have jumped at the chance to re-enter the world's second-largest economy.

"Having an event like this in a strategically important market for the LPGA is important not just from a commercial tournament standpoint, but also in terms of really growing the game," the LPGA's Sean Pyun told AFP.

"Having Shanghai, one of our key marquee events, back on our schedule makes us feel we're whole again."

The $2.1-million tournament had only been running for two years when the pandemic struck.

It suffered the same fate as most other major sports events in China and was called off for the next three years.

The headliners for its return include current world number two and Shanghai native Yin Ruoning.

Yin, 21, won the Women's PGA Championship in June, becoming only the second Chinese woman to win a major title after Feng Shanshan in 2012.

Competing against Yin will be Lilia Vu, the American who overtook her as number one last month.

Vu's compatriot Danielle Kang, who won in Shanghai in 2018 and 2019, will defend her title.

Yin was still a junior player and Vu wasn't able to qualify when Kang won four years ago.

Pandemic golf boom

The emergence of a potential Chinese champion is not the only thing that has changed since then, chairman of the China LPGA Tour (CLPGA) TK Pen told AFP.

"Actually, the pandemic was good for golf (in China)," he said.

In contrast to restrictions on indoor activities, people were still allowed on courses outside peak Covid waves.

"There's so many new players," Pen said. "We thought this year this was going to go down but it didn't."

Young people are taking up golf "super fast", with the number of young players registered with the China Golf Association jumping by 20,000 this year.

The sport is now considered trendy, Pen said, with golf wear seen more on the streets and influencers flocking to courses.

"We actually don't like it because they slow down the pace of play," Pen chuckled. "They're like, taking pictures all the time."

'Global powerhouse'

China still lags behind other countries when it comes to the professional sport, Pen said, particularly when it comes to the number of female players.

"We obviously need new and more golfers, especially women golfers, (because they) retire so early and so frequently," Pen said, although he noted the latter was a worldwide phenomenon.

Golf has a complicated history in China, where it was outlawed by the ruling Communist Party until the 1980s.

The government banned new courses in 2004 and has since shut many others, causing a shortage that has hampered talent development, Pen said.

What it lacks in players, China makes up for in rankings.

It has two players in the top 10 women in the world -- Yin, and her friend and landlord Lin Xiyu.

"I'm not sure China really understands at this moment how great the young talents that they're going to be producing for the next five to 10 years are," said the LPGA's Pyun.

"I think China could really be a global powerhouse in women's golf, starting now."

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