Sport

Driving around China

Rory McIlroy finds going tough during Chinese golf odyssey

Very clubbable chaps: McIlroy and Liang

“Leave it on the ground” was Rory McIlroy’s wry remark, when a caddy accidentally knocked a tile with his score off the leaderboard. McIlroy had just finished the Shui On Land China Golf Challenge with a score of six-over par, a figure he’d rather not be reminded of.

The incident in question (see photo) occurred when the Northern Irish golfer posed for a post-match photo, next to his playing partners Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Liang Wen-chong. The four had just spent a week playing in China as part of a whistle-stop tour of more than 5,600 kilometres, teeing-off at some of the country’s best courses.

The final day’s play took place at Caesars Golf in Macau on Sunday and WiC was invited to watch. Perhaps showing his frustration with his score – McIlroy was eight-over after eight holes – the US Open champion absolutely belted his final drive. To the delight of spectators he almost reached the green at the 356-yard par four, far out-driving Westwood, Poulter and Liang.

The final day was always going to promise some drama, with China’s top golfer Liang tied with Westwood for first place at two-under.

And so it turned out – although the drama got a bit closer to spectators than they’d anticipated. With the pair still tied after 18 holes, they returned to the tee for a play-off. Westwood made the green after playing an inspired bunker shot. Liang on the other hand overhit his shot. Standing at the back of the green, Poulter was first to realise it and cry out ‘four’. The ball then narrowly missed McIlroy – which would have been a bizarre end to his unfortunate week – instead hitting a nearby spectator.

After that error, Liang gave the initiative to Westwood. The Englishman – who has twice been world number one in the last 12 months – then birdie-putted from 12 feet to win the inaugural China Golf Challenge event.

Seven days earlier, and most pundits would have favoured the in-form McIlroy to win this event. He was clearly quite excited by the prospect when he landed in Shanghai. “To play eight different courses, 18 different holes, in seven cities all over China is going to be a very unique experience,” the 22 year-old said at the outset. “To have these opportunities to discover new parts of the world, to discover China, to discover different cities that I haven’t been to, are things that not a lot of people get to do.”

WiC first reported on this golfing extravaganza in issue 119. The idea was based on an American concept, where four top golfers jetted around the US playing the country’s 18 greatest holes. The idea of doing something similar in China was hatched by golf pro and entrepreneur Marc Boggia. He approached Vincent Lo, the boss of property developer Shui On (and a keen, low- handicap golfer). But logistics dictated that the tournament would have to be modified. Rather than 18 different courses, only eight would be played, even that a challenge within a one-week timeframe.

The eventual winner Westwood wasn’t even slated to play. Ernie Els was to make up the four but had to pull out in September for personal reasons. As it turned out, Westwood stepping in meant that two of the world’s top four golfers would make the trip.

For Shui On the event offered the chance to promote the game of golf in China. And for Lo there was an added benefit: a TV documentary to accompany the tournament gave the opportunity to showcase his real estate developments in cities like Shanghai and Dalian.

For example, after playing at Sun Kingdom Golf Club, Lo took the players to his Chongqing Tiandi complex, where he has a bar featuring three nine-foot long tiger sharks. Poulter was sufficiently impressed to dance on stage with a troupe of girls, with the sharks staring on in the background.

“I’d usually rather have a couple of drinks in me before I start cutting some shapes, but it was a very cool bar,” he later explained.

One of the attractions of the documentary – which will air next month – is to see what top players talk about off the course. Watching their reactions as they visit places that they have probably never heard of should also make for an entertaining travelogue.

Poulter was the early leader of the China Golf Challenge, before ceding the lead to Liang on day three. This was an unexpected bonus for local crowds and likewise for Liang, who probably rated his chances of beating the higher-ranked players as low. But as China’s leading golfer, Liang’s inclusion was critical: playing the part of host, he said his role was not just to compete but to introduce his playing partners to his native land.

Perhaps thanks to home advantage, he nearly won. Westwood only joined Liang at the top of the leaderboard after 16 holes had been completed. And the Briton was keen to emphasise how challenging the event had been, including the massive 678-yard par-five at Sun Kingdom (presumably McIlroy would endorse that view, especially with respect to the tough par-three at Beijing’s Topwin which he triple-bogeyed).

The geographical spread of the trip also made the weather an issue. Said Westwood: “All the players were commenting about how much the temperature and conditions have changed over the last few days, but when you think about it, there are thousands of miles of flying involved. It’s like going from Scotland to Spain, so you wouldn’t expect the same weather.”

Westwood also says the trip has been an eye-opener on China’s potential to produce golfing winners of the future: “If golf booms in this country, then it will be huge and they will be a force to reckon with.”

McIlroy agrees, seeing the event’s broader significance.

“The Shui On Land China Golf Challenge is about spreading the game in China and letting people see what golf has to offer over here. That’s the most important thing. I couldn’t care if I was eight-over or eight-under.”

In fact all four have expressed interest in playing again in the China Golf Challenge in 2012. For Poulter there is an added incentive: a chance to see the Great Wall. He’d tried to visit it with Liang last week, rising at 6.20am. But their chauffeur, somewhat unusually, couldn’t find China’s leading tourist attraction. So next year Poulter will return with two goals: to win the tournament and locate the world’s longest wall.


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