Chinese Players Chase Dreams on Futures Tour

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Futures TourWhen three Chinese women were handpicked two years ago to come to America to train as professional golfers, they never dreamed their personal goals would matter to anyone else or would bring such early success. But when Hong Mei Yang, one of the three selected to represent a population of more than 1.2 billion, won last week on the Futures Golf Tour, you could nearly hear the fireworks erupting an ocean away.
 
They will become like the Houston Rockets Yao Ming in basketball and they will have a very big impact in China for womens golf, predicted James Chen, who coaches the trio at Oak Valley Golf Academy in Beaumont, Calif. These three are the first, the pioneers.
 
The three players -- all from the Peoples Republic of China -- truly are the first to play professional golf in the United States, where all three qualified for the Futures Golf Tour last fall. Their supersize homeland has less than 40 women who are golf professionals and only three -- Yang of Si Chuan, Chun Wang of Beijing, and Li Chun Zhang of Ji Lin, China, earned the privilege to leave their country to pursue careers as touring professionals. That concept is difficult for most of their compatriots to grasp.
 
We are lucky, said Chun, 26, who studied foreign trade economics at Beijing University and speaks the best English of the three. We started to play golf at age 20. When we are in China, if we say we are pros, people say, Oh really? They are surprised.
 
Perhaps their countrymen will be more surprised at the result of their labor. Yang, 28 and Zhang, 29, are older than the average Futures Tour player, but their careers have just begun and their respective work ethic points to future successes that are guaranteed to kick down barriers and open doors for women throughout China. The trio could have the same impact on their nation as Korean LPGA pro Se Ri Pak had on her homeland back in 1998, bringing others to the game and to America to compete on the worlds largest professional womens tour.
 
Natalie Wong of Montebello, Calif., a first-generation Chinese-American who plays on the Futures Tour, traveled to China in February to play in that nations first professional womens tournament. The event, co-sponsored by the West Coast Ladies Golf Tour and Oak Valley Golf Academy, had 30 U.S. players and 30 from China.
 
Most of the Chinese players were teaching pros because they have no opportunity to play tournaments, said Wong, a fourth-year pro and Yale University graduate. This was the first tournament and the top players at that event earned scholarships to come to the U.S. to train. It was a big deal there and everybody knew who these three players were.
 
Yang won that inaugural event and made an impression on the American pros who traveled to China for the tournament.
 
They havent had much tournament experience, but all three of them are accomplished players, said first-year Futures Tour player Kim Rowton of San Antonio, Texas, who traveled to China for the event. They definitely are paving the way for others.
 
At the Futures Tour Qualifying Tournament last November, Zhang tied for fifth, Yang tied for 24th and Chun finished 81st of 300 players. Yang finished fourth in the LPGAs Sectional Qualifier in Venice, Fla., but missed the 54-hole cut in the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament. When she fired an 11-under-par score of 205 for a personal best to win last weeks IOS Futures Golf Classic in El Paso, Texas, a number of players were knowingly shaking their heads.
 
Im not surprised at all, said Futures Tour player Brenna Cepelak of Albuquerque, N.M., who also made the February trip to China. These players work really hard every day. Its a dream for them and they will make the most of this opportunity.
 
They already have. Chun was a swimmer and played badminton before she took up golf five years ago. Yang was a basketball player and has been playing golf for nine years. And Zhang began playing golf nearly 10 years ago. All three became professionals after working at golf courses as caddies or as attendants at driving ranges. When Yang caddied for the winner of the 1995 Volvo China Open, her supervisor at an electronics factory where she worked granted permission for her to pursue her interest in the game.
 
But it hasnt been easy. Golf is very expensive in China. Many families are poor and live in agricultural areas where golf is not available or they live in large, densely populated cities where space is too limited for proper training facilities. But what many of the nations women players lack in money, technology and opportunity, they make up for in determination.
 
These three players who are here now are very disciplined, hard-working women and their potential is unlimited, said Chen of his students, all of whom averaged scoring in the high-70s and low-80s as recently as two years ago. In Chinese society, women are treated as second-class citizens. This is a way for them to see that they can be more.
 
And when Yang won last week, Chen was particularly pleased. This tells us we are doing the right things to help them progress, he said.
 
Three more Chinese women professionals will arrive in California this week to train with Chen at the academy. Their goal will be to qualify for the Futures Tour or LPGA Tour this fall. The original trio, who plan to play a full schedule on the Futures Tour this year, hope to earn their LPGA Tour cards for 2005. They share an apartment in California and a car when they play tournaments. Chun, who helped Yang deliver her champions speech on the 18th green this past Sunday, says they help each other achieve their goals.
 
We have to go away from home and let others follow, said Chun. Thats our job. We tell our friends to come here and try ' to come here to be a professional.