Peasant farmer’s son to China’s golfing No. 1
By Don Riddell
Most top golfers were inspired to pick up clubs by the leading names of the generation before them. But China’s current No. 1 player has a very different story.
In fact, Liang Wen-chong was completely unaware of legendary champions such as Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman when he was first exposed to the game in the early 1990s.
Back then, he was a peasant farmer’s son in Guangdong province, and he’d only ever seen a cartoon character playing golf.
“I was just a kid from the countryside,” Liang told CNN’s Living Golf. “I didn’t know any of the rules and I didn’t know you could have a career in it.”
Golf was banned by Mao Tse-tung when his communist regime took over in 1949, and it was not deemed to be an acceptable sport until the 1980s.
As fate would have it, the first golf course in modern China was built on Liang’s doorstep, and the local golf association was looking for players.
Initially, the 15-year-old was picked because he was keen and well-behaved. He made his own wooden clubs and woke at 5 a.m. to practice before school.
“Not even rain and storms could stop him from playing, and when everyone else thought it was too hot and couldn’t bear it, he was still practicing outside alone,” his mother Jiefang Lu said.
Liang was in love with the game, but it was also a way out. If not for golf, he would almost certainly have been tilling the fields like his father or working in a factory -- the family could not have afforded a university education.
But within a few years of those first schoolyard lessons, Liang had turned professional and banked enough prize-money to rebuild his parents’ cramped and dingy cottage into a gleaming four-storey family home. He has since donated some of his winnings to a golf foundation so that others can have the same chance he did.

Surfing the wave
Golf was about to boom in China, and Liang was in exactly the right place at the right time.
In 1993 he was considered to be in China’s second wave of golfers; today the fourth or fifth generations are earning their stripes. Within barely two decades, the types -- and the numbers -- of Chinese golfers have changed dramatically.
The first players worked on the courses, while the second were from the paddy fields. The third generation were born into money and likely raised on courses that their parents owned.
The fourth and fifth wave are the children of golfers who are learning the game and competing in a national structure. It is these players who will have the opportunity to compete internationally on a level playing field and in great numbers, thanks to the wealth of their parents.
Lucy Shi Yuting is a 12-year-old golfer from Shanghai. She’s three years younger than Liang when he first discovered the game, and already she seems destined for greatness. She looks diminutive, sweet and innocent, but has an iron handshake and is absolutely deadly on the course.
In the final of October’s HSBC National Junior Championship, Shi Yuting thrashed the field in her age group by a whopping 12 strokes and then took on an older girl in a playoff, whereupon she calmly avenged a defeat from the previous year. That gave her a place in the Shanghai pro-am, at which she matched American star Phil Mickelson and beat Australia’s former top-10 player Adam Scott over a par-three hole.

Dreams of America
Her coach, Scotland’s Mike Dickie, expects his prodigy to end up on the U.S.-based LPGA Tour.
“She’s got a great swing but she has a very calm persona, that’s her ultimate strength,” he said. “She’s just finished third in a China LPGA tournament, so if she can do that at 12, what’s she going to be doing when she’s 22?”
Shi Yuting trains for three to four hours every day, and is absolutely focused on making it big.
“I hope to become an LPGA player but in China, players have to be 20 years old before they turn professional. Maybe I’ll fulfill my goal after I represent China at the Olympic Games.”
The reintroduction of golf as an Olympic sport in Brazil in 2016 is another reason why China is expected to produce legions of top golfers, as the government will have a vested interest in backing it.
Dickie believes the students from his academy in Shanghai and elsewhere in China will soon be heading for the United States or Scotland and returning with the Green Jackets and Claret Jugs of major champions.
Right now, the 32-year-old Liang is flying the flag on his own -- he’s the only Chinese player in the world’s top 100. He can feel the charge of China’s youth behind him, having helped fund some of them, but he believes his best days are still ahead of him.

A major goal
While lacking a role model in the early days, he now looks up to the likes of Irishman Padraig Harrington, South Korea’s Y.E. Yang and American Mark O’Meara -- golfers who were older than him before winning their first major trophy.
He has every right to dream. In August, Liang fired an eight-under-par 64 in his third round at the PGA Championship to break the course record at the treacherous Whistling Straits.
Liang has a grounded and unassuming nature, and he was oblivious of his impending achievement. The first he, or his team, were aware of the feat was when he was lining up his final putt.
“If he makes this, we’ll need him in the interview tent,” Liang’s agent was told. “Why?” was the innocent response -- and soon the tournament organizers were desperately hunting for suitable translators.
He struggled home with a 73 in the final round, but still finished in a highly creditable eighth place, well ahead of top stars including Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk.
Liang is now eyeing up a move to the United States, but nothing comes easy for a player of his background and generation. He admits it will be tough on his young family, and jokes about building an entourage -- so familiar to every other top player in the world.
“I’d love to get a mind coach,” he told me over lunch in his clubhouse. “Do you happen to know any that speak Chinese!”
That’s an indication of how fast Chinese golf has developed and how far it still has to go.
But the world’s top golf psychologists, caddies and fitness coaches might want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese -- they could soon be getting an awful lot of work. – [CNN]


Hurley planning romantic New Year with Warne

MELBOURNE: Liz Hurley, who has revealed that she and her multi-millionaire husband Arun Nayar had split months ago, is planning a romantic rendezvous in Sydney with Shane Warne.
Hurley is expected to arrive Down Under before New Year’s Eve if a deal can be finalised.
Warne’s new talk show’s production team has been working to get the British glamour and cricket tragic for the fifth Test at the SCG from January 3.
Hurley is a global advocate of breast cancer awareness and is keen to promote the Pink Test, which supports the Jane McGrath Foundation.
News of the reunion plans came as Warne confirmed on his website that his on-off relationship with ex-wife Simone Callahan, the mother of his three children, was over.
“Sadly and unfortunately, Simone and I split up a while ago. It is a private matter so we did not make it public. We remain friends,” Warne was quoted as saying. – [ANI]


Wish Gibbs had the discipline of Steve Waugh: Ali Bacher
NEW DELHI: Herschelle Gibbs and Makhaya Nitini may have been two of the most fascinating cricketers to have played for South Africa but were contrasting characters, feels former South African cricket board boss Dr Ali Bacher.
“Herschelle is one of the most talented cricketers to have ever played for South Africa. If he had the dedication, determination and discipline of Steve Waugh, he would have been one of the game’s greats,” Bacher said on the sidelines of the RSD World Cricket Summit organised in memory of the late Raj Singh Dungarpur.
“He was a phenomenal talent but then people in South Africa are not surprised with his shocking revelations because they know that’s how Herschelle is,” he added.
Talking about Ntini, Bacher was a touch emotional. “Considering the humble background from which Makhaya came, he has achieved a lot. He became one of the finest fast bowlers of his generation. He was an epitome of hard work and dedication. Not only for the black cricketers but also for the white South Africans. He was a totally contrasting character from Herschelle,” Bacher said.
As the discussion veered towards cricket administration, the former United Cricket Board of South Africa (now Cricket South Africa) president welcomed former Indian captain Anil Kumble’s entry into cricket administration.
“It’s nice to know that people like Kumble, Javagal Srinath have entered cricket administration. It’s good for the game. Kumble is one of the finest gentlemen to have graced the cricket field. He is knowledgeable, sober, educated and will certainly make a difference,” stated Bacher
Bacher, during whose tenure India first toured the Rainbow Nation in 1991-92, feels that the upcoming series will be an exciting one considering both the teams have some world class batsmen.
“If you have (Graeme) Smith, (Jacques) Kallis and (Hashim) Amla on one side and (Rahul) Dravid and (VVS) Laxman on the other hand, you can expect a great contest,” Bacher said.
“I don’t believe that only fast bowlers will win you Test matches in South Africa. If you look at the England vs South Africa series, it was off-spinner Graeme Swann who emerged as the best bowler,” he said. – [PTI]


2011 F1 champ to be crowned in Delhi

CHENNAI: It could be Jenson Button, Fernando Alonso or even Michael Schumacher. If one of these stars become the F1 champion next year he will be remembering New Delhi for the rest of his life as the 2011 season-ending big bash of international motorsport will be held in the capital in December next year.
India is fast becoming the preferred destination for the hottest events in the world of motorsport. With the Indian GP set to make its debut in the Formula One calendar next year and FIM checking out prospects for a MotoGP race in 2012, the country is clearly in the spotlight.
And it seems the fun is just beginning as New Delhi will hog the limelight usually reserved for the ‘playground of the rich’ (Monte Carlo). The capital will host the most glamorous event of them all -- the (FIA) Gala Awards. – [TNN]


Brazil’s World Cup heroes swap football for politics

By Helen Chandler
When one of Brazil’s newly-elected congressmen rose to give their victory address, his speech was delivered with all the confidence of a political pro.
“The 150,000 people who believed in me can rest assured that I will become a great politician,” he told Brazil’s Globo TV network.
But the man elected as a federal deputy in Rio de Janeiro was anything but the stereotypical statesman. It was, in fact, Romario, one of Brazil’s most feted and controversial footballing legends who helped his nation win the 1994 World Cup.
The former Barcelona striker is now a member of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB) and, despite having relatively little political experience, won a seat in the country’s lower congress with the sixth-highest number of votes in the city.
If that was not unusual enough, Romario’s former international teammate Bebeto has also completed the move from pitch to politics in the South American nation’s most recent elections, securing 30,000 votes for the governing Democratic Workers’ Party (PDT) and a place in Rio’s state legislature.
The pair are heroes for many Brazilians, with the so-called “Diabolical Duo” having helped to secure the country’s fourth world title at the 1994 finals in the U.S.
And they are just two of the new wave of politicians who have been elected in Brazil, including the country’s newly-appointed President Dilma Rousseff.
Both have said they want to improve participation in sport as well as the lot of the poor in their country, and voters seem willing to back the unconventional politicians despite their lack of experience.
“Romario and Bebeto made a big number of fans during their career, and for many they are idols. They did well in the soccer fields and won many championships -- so why not give them a chance to become politicians?” said Julio Sobral, a voter from Sao Paulo.
“The population are tired of the same old story: professional politicians promise lots during the campaign, then never deliver.”
But Mariana Menezez, another voter from Sao Paulo, disagrees and describes the situation in Brazil, where voting is compulsory and many unusual candidates are often elected, as “embarrassing for Brazilians that take the elections seriously.”
“Romario and Bebeto are very popular footballers, so most people don’t even care about their proposals -- their popularity is enough,” she said.
Simon Kuper, football author and sports columnist for British newspaper The Financial Times, believes that the reason such former players are elected without any experience is because voters can relate to them in a way they cannot with career politicians.
“Footballers have not historically got into politics because they are not often educated -- Romario is not educated but he is associated with the poor as he came from a poor background himself,” Kuper told CNN.
“Even before he decided to become a politician he had said he wanted to help the poor and many people identify with that.”
It is this perceived connection with the poor that perhaps explains the allure of footballers who turn to politics. Many have tried with varying degrees of success.
Despite being raised in the slums of Liberia’s capital Monrovia, George Weah -- a national hero following a career that saw him play for AC Milan and Chelsea, as well as becoming the first and only African winner of FIFA’s World Player of the Year award -- was very nearly elected president of the African nation in 2005.
George Brock, a former International editor of British newspaper The Times, thinks the political climate in developing countries like Brazil also contributes to footballers and other candidates from the world of sport being voted into office.
“Some political systems have existed unchanged for decades and insist that candidates have years of experience, so it wouldn’t happen as easily there,” Brock told CNN.
“In Brazil the political parties have been shaken up over the last few years by the victories of former president [Luiz Inacio] Lula [da Silva]. They are not as well entrenched so it allows different candidates to get in.”
But Brock also believes that those sports personalities can compete against more sophisticated and experienced rivals because they gained their popularity outside the political sphere.
“Coming from outside the political class works as an advantage. Those that are extremely well-known have an enormous advantage as they don’t have to establish themselves.
“You have to show some aptitude to get there though -- lots of famous people decide they want to be involved in politics but then they realize that they aren’t suited to it.”
Yet the career move is common among footballers. Romario and Bebeto are following in the footsteps of Pele, arguably football’s greatest star, who was Brazil’s Minister of Sport.
Other footballers who have enjoyed notable political careers include Albert Gudmundsson, the first professional footballer from Iceland, who in the 1980s served as his country’s minister of finance and minister of industry.
Kaj Leo Johannesen of the Faroe Island’s also succeeded in swapping football for political office. The current prime minister of the Danish autonomous region enjoyed a 15-year career as a goalkeeper from 1986 until 2001, representing his country four times.
Elsewhere, Gianni Rivera, the former AC Milan and Italy player, is currently a member of the European Parliament while Tottenham Hotspur’s Russian forward Roman Pavlyuchenko won a seat in regional council elections representing Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2008.
Back in Brazil, only time will tell whether the duo of Romario and Bebeto can enjoy the same success in politics as they did on the football pitch. The ever-confident Romario certainly has every belief he will score as many goals in politics as he did for his former football teams.
“I’m still learning the trade. I’m not a full politician but I was the best in my profession and was always under pressure. Now it’s the same thing, but in a different area. The people can rest assured I will score a lot of goals in Brazil.”