BEIJING -- Chinese youth are embracing golf as a pastime and springboard for success as junior golfers from the country make the cut at world-class tournaments.
Guan Tianlang, a 14-year-old boy from Guangzhou, capital of south China's Guangdong Province, made history at this year's Masters Golf Tournament, held in mid-April, as the youngest player to compete in a major championship, with the amateur playing against a host of professional senior stars.
Half a month later, 12-year-old Ye Wocheng from Dongguan of the same province became the youngest player to compete in the Volvo China Open, part of a European golf tour.
Guan and Ye represent a growing community of junior golfers in China, according to Song Yingchun, deputy secretary-general of the China Golf Association (CGA).
The CGA launched the China Junior Golf Program in 2006, aiming to introduce golf to Chinese youngsters through tournaments and training camps.
Yet only 31 kids across the country signed up its first tournament in 2007. The CGA had to scout more kids around Beijing to keep the matches going.
But the program has since caught on. The junior tournament in 2012 attracted more than 800 kids from the Chinese mainland, and the CGA had to ask each participant to play only three out of its nine matches.
Guan is no stranger to the tournament as he has won in many of its matches over the years.
However, while widely popular in the West, golf is still considered a privileged pursuit in China. The popular perception of golf as a game reserved for the rich weakens its chances of really taking root among the public.
Experts say one of the biggest obstacles facing the sport's development in China is the lack of public golf course.
Construction of courses has come in for strong public criticism over their alleged encroachment of farmland and excessive use of water. The State Council, China's cabinet, has suspended approvals of golf course projects since 2004.
Despite strong opposition, developers have sidestepped regulations to build private golf courses, many of which open exclusively to members paying high fees for their use of the facilities.
Han Liebao, director of the golf education and study center at Beijing Forestry University, said the government should take the lead in building public golf courses.
"The government should grant preferential policies in taxes and prices for public courses to make golf more affordable for ordinary people," Han believes.
Golf courses in China should also strip themselves of unnecessary services, according to Liu Yanbin, vice principal of Beijing Shichahai Sport Training School,a place known for having produced many Olympic champions for China
"Caddies, golf carts, and other additional services provided to members will drive up the cost, but all these are not must-haves to play golf," he said.
In the basement of the school's building complex in central Beijing, coaches teach a dozen first- and second-grade students how to swing golf clubs and putt balls into holes on portable putting greens.
The training sessions last two hours and cost less than 100 yuan (16.25 U.S. dollars), compared to the 400 to several thousand yuan charged by golf clubs situated around the outskirts of the capital.
"I hope I can be as good as Guan Tianlang some day," said an 8-year-old boy surnamed Tian after the session.
Despite the success of Guan and his ilk, The CGA's Song urges parents to keep a cool head when charting the future path of their children.
"We hope golf can facilitate the healthy growth of Chinese youth and advise against playing golf at the expense of their study," he said.