China is as different a place from home as I’ve ever been. While I’ve been to China multiple times before, it’s difficult to be fully prepared for what is in store when planning a trip to China. Part of me believes I’ve been groomed for this. I’ve been on a collision course with China since electing to take three semesters of mandarin Chinese in college. When you include all the study and work time outside the classroom, three semesters of a college course is a substantial amount of time. Three semesters of a romance language might allow a student to travel and communicate effectively enough to get around, get their order right, and impress a few people in the process. Mandarin however, is a tonal language with the written form being transcribed in ancient pictures and multiple forms. Three semesters barely gets you past hello and thank you.
Fortunately, I continued to advance my base of mandarin knowledge after college having lived in Taiwan (where the native language is mandarin) and taking every opportunity to order Chinese food in the authentic language of the restaurant. I once thought mandarin to be a coarse language; difficult to listen to, beyond challenging to compose grammatically and structurally, and even harder to understand. As time passes and I continue to chip away at the thick barriers to the language however, I’ve discovered it to be a very sophisticated, mathematical and melodic language. This is to say that without this enhanced appreciation, I may never have opted to come back to China to pursue pro golf.
The PGA Tour has been busy planting their flag in the major growth areas for the game lately: South America and China being among them. PGA Tour Latin America and the newest stepping-stone venture, PGA Tour China. Both offer native and foreign players the opportunity to play a higher level of professional golf, a pathway to the PGA Tour and increased exposure for the game regionally. With CCTV 5 (the “ESPN” of China) covering PGA Tour China events and boosting a viewership of 1.4 billion people, and 5 web.com Tour cards offered to the top money winners, PGA Tour China is one of the best tours in the world for upcoming players.
The Kunming Wind Valley Golf Club played host for this year’s Global Qualifying. After a long flight from Honolulu, layover in Shanghai and 3 hour finale to Kunming, we still had a 1.5 hour cab ride up a mountain to arrive at the Nicklaus course. Situated at a high elevation and overlooking a gorgeous lake, the exceptionally long and modern design required long carries and precise irons to the sectioned, massively sloping greens. An approach shot on the wrong side of a slope was nearly an assured 3-putt. The course had elements of Chambers Bay (last year’s controversial US Open site) with its massive expanse of huge slopes and lake setting. Another thing was for sure: the course would live up to its name “wind valley” with a steady 25-30 mph wind, hurricane-style gusts and bitter, bone-chilling cold.
The tournament committee actually was quite merciful in their course setup. If you look at the final scores from the week only a handful of players broke par for 72 holes. If the tournament committee had decided to play the course “tipped out” (as long as it can play), I’d bet my golf clubs that no one would have shot under par.
The morning of the first day was perfectly calm. Of course, I had a later afternoon tee time in the large field of players and would end up on the wrong side of the draw. The wind started howling just before lunch and increased with ferocity as the day played out. I made bogey on my first two holes and on the scariest tee shot of the day, sent one sailing off a cliff en route to a triple bogey. Amazingly, I was able quickly compose myself despite being so far behind at such an early point in the tournament. I committed to getting the strokes back one shot at a time and remaining patient in the tough conditions. I played an amazing back 9 with three birdies and no bogies to finish the day with a +1 score. From there, I knew I would have a great week. I had weathered the internal inferno of crossing the world and being on the verge of losing control. I had a plan that worked and I’d carry it into the following three days, remaining patient and not allowing an inevitable mistake in difficult conditions to phase me. I was unflappable making clutch saves when I really needed them most for the remainder of the tournament. I finished with scores of 73-72-72 and capped it off with an amazing final round of 69 to finish tied for 4th.
The walk up the 72nd fairway knowing I was going to gain my full status and had accomplished the exact thing I set out to do was amazing. With Sarah right there by my side (my girlfriend and caddy) having helped me overcome the massive challenges of the course, cold and conditions, I felt like we had overcame a great hurdle and it was amazingly satisfying. Walking from the 72nd green to the clubhouse with a setting sun on the lake’s distant horizon, I felt pure joy.
That night, Sarah and I got together with what felt like the entire local staff of the golf course and a few other players. We ate dumplings, chicken gizzards (some heart, liver and neck mashed together…Its not as good as it sounds), noodles and drank “baijui” (chinese grain alcohol that makes the worst tequila taste like liquid gold). We danced the night away as fools trying to learn Chinese line dances and convincing the locals to listen to a few stray Justin Bieber songs (the Chinese do not have many Beliebers among them).
With full status on PGA Tour China this year, I’ll have the opportunity to gain a web.com tour card, improve my golf game and advance my world rankings points significantly. Improving at golf is much like improving at speaking a foreign language: it’s never complete, there’s always something to get better at and when you realize those improvements, you’ve done something worthwhile.