Finland’s Mikko Korhonen may have been crowned 2019 Volvo China Open but it was the performances of two Chinese teenage amateurs that grabbed the global headlines during a week that underlined the strength in character not only of Chinese golf but also Chinese youth
From the Chicago Tribune to the Hindustan Times, from the Daily Mail to Le Figaro, golf was making all the right noises in the world’s press thanks to the performances of a talented youngster at the recent Volvo China Open in Shenzhen.
Sky Sports, ESPN and the Golf Channel continuously ran TV footage as the slightly built young man coolly holed a putt from over 20ft before acknowledging the roar of the crowd with a confident fist pump.
So, who was this focus of media attention? Brooks Koepka? Jordan Spieth maybe? Or perhaps Ricky Fowler or any number of young, superstar golfers dominating the world’s golfing stage?
The answer is a lot closer to home. Step forward Shenzhen schoolboy Kuang Yang, the 14-year-old who captured the sport’s heart with a cool and masterful performance at the 25th Volvo China Open at Shenzhen’s Genzon Golf Club.
On the opening day, the youngster – playing in a European/Asian Tour event while other teens were glued to their gaming consoles – stepped on to the first tee as just one of a record 45 players from mainland China competing in the RMB 20 million tournament.
Two days later, Yang’s name was recognised by golf fans around the globe after that superb putt on the 18th hole of round two not only saw him through to play the final two days, it also secured his place as the second youngest player in history to make the cut in a European Tour event at just 14 years, six months and 12 days.
And he wasn’t the only Chinese kid showing the big boys he could play. Liang Enqi, just 17 himself, was also cutting a swathe through the pros as he too played his way into the weekend.
The boy from Guangdong eventually finished as the best placed amateur in the field just ten shots behind overall winner Mikko Korhonen, a 38-year-old professional from Finland who has won more than three million Euros in prize-money alone.
Once the dust had settled and the two youngsters were reunited with their families, they could at last reflect on what they’d achieved.
“I only heard about the media coverage on the Saturday and it made me very happy,” says Kuang, who finished in the top 55 and qualified to play in the event after winning the Volvo China Junior Match Play Championship. “My only aim when I started the tournament was to learn from it and perhaps make the cut. I was so relieved and happy when I made that putt on 18 – it was my dream and I wanted to celebrate.”
Like Kuang, Liang is a quiet, well-mannered teenager with a big smile and an even bigger game.
“Before I played this tournament I never thought I’d get to the final round – I feel really amazing. I’m so surprised and happy,” he says. “I want to learn from the experience and I now feel a little bit more confident… but maybe not too much!”
The performances of both youngsters underline the massive strides made in the game of golf thanks to the work done by Volvo and the China Golf Association not only with the staging of the Volvo China Open – the country’s National Open Golf Championship – but also with the support provided to grass roots golf and the encouragement of young players.
“I’d love to turn pro in three years when I’m 20,” adds Liang, who secured his playing place in the field by winning the Volvo Amateur Qualifying Final. “If I can get the chance to play NCAA college golf in the US then I will but if I can’t then I’ll definitely study here in China.”
Both youngsters have their golf shoes firmly on the ground and have the support of their families as they try to make their way in a sport that can be as cruel as it can be rewarding.
“I had my father as my caddie this week which was great,” smiles Liang. “He’s a terrific caddie and used to play golf a long time ago. When I’m out on the course and maybe get angry or frustrated after a bad shot, he’s there with advice and helps me focus.”
As expected, getting to the top also takes a lot of time and effort.
“Golf probably takes up about 50% of my time when I am not studying,” says Liang. “The rest of the time I’ll work out in the gym or read. I like books about Buddhism as I think they’re good for me and my game.”
As for Kuang, the boy who took up golf at the age of two and learned to play right handed simply because that was the way golfers played on the DVDs he watched, he may appear laid back but in that tall, lean frame beats the heart of a true competitor.
“There was a lot of attention around us once we made the cut but I really enjoyed it,” he says with a shy smile. “I enjoy having the crowd around me. I just have to enjoy the noise and have fun, you know? I like the cheering and the noise and the way the crowd shout “woooooaaaah” – it’s fun!
“I want to be a pro but I’ve no plans right now as it’s all about studying and playing golf. In my free time I like to play games on the iPad and, play the guitar… Do I play the guitar left handed? I wanted to but my teacher said I wasn’t allowed!”
With the likes of Li Haotong – the top Chinese player in the Volvo China Open with a fourth-place finish – and Wu Ashun doing well on the world stage, Chinese professional golf is in a healthy place. The fact that a record ten players from mainland China (including three amateurs) made it to the final two days of the event also speaks volumes.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we see a Major winner coming from China within the next ten years,” says European Tour Chairman David Williams. “The work done in China over the past 25 years is remarkable.”
He may not have finished as high in the field as his older Chinese compatriots but with rounds of 71, 71, 69 and 73, 14-year-old Kuang Yang left an indelible mark on the 25th Volvo China Open.
The tournament’s first Finnish champion is certainly a fan.
“I’m so impressed a 14-year-old can perform like that in a European Tour event,” said Korhonen just moments after collecting the trophy from Volvo China Open Board Chairman Sven de Smet. “When I was 14 I’d have been lucky to break 80…”
By Alan Ewens