October 29, 2013: World No. 1 Tiger Woods and former World No. 1 Rory McIlroy were united in their belief that China will establish itself as a major force on the fairways, after spending time with some of the country’s top youngsters at Mission Hills Haikou on Hainan Island.
Woods and McIlroy conducted a clinic with members of the China Junior Team, whose ages ranged from 11-13, and teenagers from the women’s China Amateur Team ahead of The Match at Mission Hills on Monday, when McIlroy shot 67 at the par-73 Blackstone Course to edge Woods in the 18-hole showdown.
The two multiple major winners also participated in a short-iron skills challenge with 15-year-old Masters sensation Guan Tianlang, the Guangzhou schoolboy who made the cut and finished low amateur at the Masters Tournament.
Woods, who first travelled to China in 2001 when he visited Mission Hills in Dongguan, believes the country has made giant strides in golf development over the past decade and in particular since it was announced that the sport would be included in the 2016 Olympics.
“Over the last 12 years, I've seen the growth and development of these junior golfers. Guan making it to the Masters at age 14 just goes to show you what's going to happen and what's going to come down the pipeline the next 15, 20 years down the road. It's going to be quite amazing to see,” said the 14-time major winner, who was visiting Hainan for the first time.
“From the first time I came to China, there weren’t really any junior golf programmes at the time and now 12 years later, it’s great to see the initiatives and what Mission Hills has done and how all of China has got behind golf in general, especially junior golf.
“Guan is a perfect example of that. It's just pretty remarkable to see the development and growth of the game over this time.”
Woods, 37, predicted a bright future for China, but emphasised that the rapid growth in junior development would take a generation to show results at the highest level.
“It's going to be really amazing to see over the next 15, 20 years, what the landscape of golf is going to look like and how many people from China or Asia Pacific are going to be playing at the world class level. A lot of it is going to be due to what the Chus have done in Mission Hills and their development program,” added Woods, referring to Ken and Tenniel Chu, Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Mission Hills Group.
“I’m most impressed by just the number, the sheer number of kids that basically started playing, and to see an entire country and entire nation get behind the sport. It's just phenomenal seeing it. So I think that China over the next few decades is going to be a dominant force in golf, and it's neat for us to be able to see the development at the beginning stages.”
McIlroy believes the time he and Woods spent with the junior golfers goes beyond the tips they shared with them. The enormous crowd watched his showdown with Woods, including over 70 youngsters who played in the weekend’s junior tournament at Mission Hills Haikou.
“I think [young golfers] can benefit a lot from an event like this. More than anything else, I think spending time with us might inspire them to keep playing and keep trying to improve,” McIlroy said. “Every time I come here, the junior golfers swing it so well and their fundamentals are so good and technically they’re very sound, so I think giving them the chance to meet us is good.”
Woods remembers how watching the top pros when still a junior himself inspired him.
“It’s just like when I was a kid going out to the LA Open and watching those guys play. You get to see the top pros and it’s played at a different level and that’s what I aspired to, so hopefully we can inspire these kids to come out and play at our level and beat us,” Woods said.
“It’s going to be fun to see the next generation of kids coming out of China. We know they’re coming.”
Both players were united in their praise of the initiative to offer year-round free golf for under-16 players on two courses at Mission Hills Haikou, where all 10 layouts are open to members of the public.
Woods believed the scheme should be replicated across the globe to encourage more participation in the sport.
“The fact you have two golf courses where kids that are 16-and-under can play for free … that's how it should be and should be like that around the world. With facilities like this, with two courses where children under 16 can play every day for free, they’re making golf accessible,” Woods said.
“We're trying to include more people into the game of golf, and as with the inclusion of the sport in the Olympics and the initiatives that they have here at Mission Hills, I think it should be duplicated around the world. It’s definitely a model that people should be looking at.”
McIlroy also praised the policy and said it would help to erode the image of golf as purely an elite pastime.
“I think this is such a great initiative; it's incredible. It will bring more and more people, more and more junior golfers to play golf,” McIlroy said.
“I wish that even when I was growing up, which wasn't that long ago, we had places like that where we could play golf for free. It doesn't happen very often. To make golf more accessible, especially in a country like China where it's seen as a rich man's game, is just phenomenal. It's absolutely incredible, the growth of golf here.”
Both players agreed that the sport’s admittance into the 2016 Olympics was a huge spur for the overall growth of the sport in China.
McIlroy said: “I think the inclusion of golf in the Olympics is a great thing. It's great for the growth of the game. It gets countries like China interested in golf. And not just to develop Olympic champions, but just being an Olympic sport, it means something. It just means something more.
“With golf being a fixture in the Olympics, golf is going to get bigger and Chinese players are just going to be getting better and better. You are going to see a lot of new people, new countries and junior golfers come into golf because it's an Olympic sport.”
Woods concurred: “I think the inclusion of golf in the Olympics is only just going to grow the game of golf in countries like China and other places around the world that don't have the tradition to play golf. It's fantastic. So many young kids are going to be introduced to this great game.”
The Match at Mission Hills was the latest event to be hosted by the Mission Hills Group, which has staged over 100 international tournaments and been at the forefront of developing golf in China since staging of the World Cup of Golf in 1995.