Chinese spectators got their first glimpse of Ian Poulter’s tartan trousers and pink shirts at Shanghai’s Sheshan golf club eight years ago. Since then he has teed off at courses as far apart as Jinsha Lake in Zhengzhou, Red Flag Valley in Dalian and Sun Kingdom in Chongqing. But Poulter enjoyed his greatest success in China last year when he triumphed at the WGC-HSBC Champions at Mission Hills in Guangdong. Next week he defends his title at Sheshan. Poulter spoke to WiC about the growth of golf in China, the chances of it producing top players in future, and why he can find the greens but not the Great Wall.
Your triumph at the WGC-HSBC Champions last year must stand out, given you came from so far behind. Do you have high hopes of defending your title at this year’s event at Sheshan?
It was a great moment – winning a World Golf Championship is a big deal and the WGC-HSBC Champions is the biggest event in Asia so it was pretty special. I love playing all around the world but I must admit I particularly love playing in China where the fans are so enthusiastic and grow ever more knowledgeable about the game each year.
So yes, in answer to your ques tion, I do have high hopes for defending my title. It’s a different course to where I won last year but Sheshan suits my eye and I have played well there in the past so I am really hoping to end my season with a win.
There is no doubt when you stand on the tee you stand a little bit taller when you are announced as the defending Champion.
How many times a year do you travel to China to play or participate in promotional activity? Does it feature regularly now as a destination for you?
It really depends on my schedule each year but I definitely look at any events in China that work given my PGA Tour commitments. It has become a crucial part of the international circuit and that is illustrated when you realise that two of the four events that make up the European Tour’s Final Series are being played in China.
When did you first play in China? Have you noticed much change in its golfing infrastructure?
Well I played in Hong Kong first – I think it was in 2004 but I missed the cut! My first event in mainland China was actually at the 2005 HSBC Champions in Sheshan, funnily enough. I finished in the top 20 but it was so different that first year – the crowds were keen and eager to learn all about golf and it felt exciting that it was all so new.
Even then, the course and club were in great condition but the area surrounding the course wasn’t built up and I remember the hotel we stayed in only opened on the day that we arrived.
It felt like a pretty groundbreaking move that HSBC was taking by bringing such a big golf tournament to Shanghai and when you see what has happened since then, you realise how significant it was. The event has developed so much from that first year that it was awarded the status of ‘World Golf Championships’ a couple of years ago and it is the only one of the WGC series to be held outside the US.
More broadly, each year it is pretty amazing to see how many new courses are being proposed in China, how many European Tour events are being held there and, most importantly, seeing the participation numbers growing so fast through all the grassroots initiatives.
How about the crowd’s understanding and etiquette? Last year it was reported that spectators were grabbing balls off the practice area as Woods and McIlroy were warming up for their “Duel in Zhengzhou”! Not to mention constantly ringing mobiles…
I can’t comment on the Woods-McIlroy match but I would say that watching an exhibition match is pretty different to an actual tournament and players will be a lot more relaxed.
I think that, all in all, the crowds in China are amongst the best in the world. From the first event in 2005, they have become more knowledgeable each year and it is a pleasure to play in front of them. I love the buzz and the atmosphere at Sheshan.
As for the mobile phones – that is a problem all around the world and you are just as likely to come across a phone ringing in America as you are in China!
Some very young Chinese players are now turning up on the international tour, with Guan Tianlang getting huge attention at the Masters in Augusta this year. Out of interest, when you were 14, which course were you playing most and what was your handicap?
Guan’s scores at the Masters were unbelievable considering his age and the course length off the tee. The fact that he went on to make a few cuts on the PGA Tour in the following weeks shows what a talent he is and I am certain there will be plenty more Chinese juniors coming through the ranks.
I originally started playing golf at Stevenage Municipal and hadn’t been playing long at 14 so my handicap (if I had one) would be nothing to write home about. At that age I loved all sports, especially pole vault, soccer, cricket and snooker, as well as working a few weekends at the local market. But I can tell you I was down to a four handicap by the time I was 18 when I decided to turn professional.
You took part in the Shui On Land Golf Challenge, playing in seven Chinese cities with Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Liang Wen-chong. How was that?
It was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience and really fun jumping into a jet and dashing around China with three great guys. I think they fixed the schedule really well which enabled us to see a nice blend of different types of courses, with different designers. We got to see what China has to offer to the golfing world, as well as meeting loads of amazing people and golf fans.
From some of the tweets sent at the time it sounded like you had some fun nights out too, including with a tank full of sharks?
You know the saying what happens on Tour stays on Tour, right? Just kidding – it’s safe to say we all had an amazing time and were made to feel so welcome in sampling just a fraction of what China has to offer.
In the documentary about the event, one moment saw you get lost on a trip to the Great Wall. Have you managed to see it since?
I was disappointed that I didn’t get to see it as we got pretty far up one of the hills but then they said we could only go up the rest of the way on horseback, which we didn’t have time for.
Unfortunately I haven’t managed to go there since but Liang [China’s leading golfer] did say that next time that I am in Beijing he would help me find it, so I am going to hold him to that.
China must be the Holy Grail for golf merchandisers – could you talk about how it features in your commercial plans, particularly your clothing line?
Thank you for asking. Obviously I am very passionate about IJP Design and as we build the brand and the business we would certainly hope to take it to key markets such as China.
I love the fashion in China – it is funky and colourful and I would hope they would enjoy all of our clothing range as I believe it caters to everyone. I am sure the Ian Poulter tartans will be very popular!
Ahead of the tournament at Sheshan you’ll also be celebrating your inaugural course design, with a match-play challenge against Justin Rose at Mission Hills in Guangdong. What’s the background to this?
Justin and I are very good friends and have been for a long time. We thought we could add something exciting to the existing set-up that they have at Mission Hills. When Justin and I partnered each other in the World Cup on the Blackstone Course in Haikou we liked the bunkering and the rugged style of some of the holes and thought if we designed a course we could incorporate something similar.
When I won the Champions event last year at Mission Hills on the Olazabal course we thought that we should go for it. So we have done our best to create a similar set-up of tree-lined fairways, long vistas and plenty of changes in elevation around the course.
What were the priority features that you wanted to incorporate?
We were very aware that Mission Hills has already got some superb courses, designed by some of the true greats of the game, so we wanted to be a little bit different. Among the key features to our course that make it exciting for match play are that we have tried to promote aggressive play by enlarging the tee boxes and offering more variation on tee placements, as well as going for shorter par 4s to present a drivable opportunity and incorporating various speed slots in the fairways and feeder slopes on the greens that roll the ball to difficult pin placements. There are also more punishing penalties if you go offline at any point in the round.
Risk-and-reward thinking sounds like a good investment philosophy for China in general. So do you have any other plans for the Poulter brand in the Middle Kingdom?
As I said, I love visiting China and will play there any chance that I get. For now I have to find a balance between my golf career and building my business interests without impacting on my performance on the course. But it is definitely a market I would love to expand into in the future.
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