Zhang debut puts a hole in one barrier at Augusta

April 09, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

AUGUSTA, Ga. - In the wee hours, the Yankees and Devil Rays were beamed across the Pacific last week, making for some very early mornings in this global sports village.

It was about 4 a.m. across most of China yesterday when Zhang Lian-Wei walked off the 18th green at Augusta, Masters scorecard and history in hand.

Zhang, 38, only started playing at age 18 - China not exactly a hospitable place in those days for too much, let alone golf. But he is China's No. 1 pro now, so he was no more pleased with his 5-over 77 first round than any of the other top pros who found Augusta National taking more than it gave yesterday, especially the double bogey on 15.

"I didn't expect it to be in the water. I was too eager. That was one of the worst shots of the day," Zhang said.

The near hole in one on 16, which he did birdie, was of little consolation.

"I wasn't thinking about it. I was still thinking about the water on 15," Zhang said through his interpreter and personal assistant, Tomy Lam.

But whereas major-less Phil Mickelson was dejected after giving back two strokes on that dreaded 15th hole and Tiger Woods was 4-over when play was suspended; whereas John Daly made a bummed-out beeline for the parking lot after his 5-over 77, Zhang withstood pelting rain and perilous lightning to explain why, despite his risk of not making the cut, his was a good round.

"It's only the last 20 years golf is played in China. After 20 years to put someone in the most prestigious event in the world, that is an honor," Zhang said.

In other words: Who cares if he took a two-stroke penalty on 15 or had to use an 8-iron to dig out of the fine white sand on the first hole? This was a good round - for him, for Augusta, for China. His first appearance in the United States, and it's here.

The so-called inclusiveness of Augusta National was pushed through an important barrier yesterday. And to think it didn't take a half-baked group of protestors, or assorted Elvis impersonators in a weed-riddled field to make it happen.

No, Martha Burk didn't tee off with Hootie Johnson and the guys, nor was teenage phenom Michelle Wie or LPGA super-champ Annika Sorenstam paired among the 2004 Masters groups.

Augusta is what it is: A manicured bastion of hushed privilege, not to mention maleness and other monochromatic tendencies - white, not green.

A year after Burk staged a well-publicized protest - thanks to us in the liberal media - over Augusta's exclusionary membership policy as a symbol of corporate gender inequity, the equilibrium of the place has returned, all flowering and green and genteel - to a point. The collective mind of corporate big-wigs and captains of industry is made up here, at least until the 73-year-old Augusta National chairman steps down.

In the meantime, chalk one up for Hootie. The old codger refuses to budge and revisit Augusta's all-male membership policy at any outsider's behest - let alone a feminist from Washington who suffered the indignity of local sheriffs and judges showing her who's boss around these parts.

But Johnson did something fairly progressive: extend an invitation to Zhang, making him the first citizen of the People's Republic of China to play in The Masters.

Zhang "has proven his ability on the European Tour and in Asia. We are excited to have an outstanding representative from China in our field," Johnson said.

A pro since 1994, Zhang has won many tournaments in Asia, but it was his PGA European Tour win at the 2003 Singapore Masters, where he beat Ernie Els by a stroke, that made him a candidate for a long-anticipated U.S. event.

Johnson's invitation was sent March 17, leaving Zhang's major sponsors scrambling to make arrangements.

"He called me two weeks ago and said, `I'm in the Masters. What are we going to do? We have only two weeks,' " said Elinda Cheng, marketing director for Omega in China and Hong Kong.

"Three of his sponsors are here to support him. His wife and daughter are home, since his wife is pregnant. We found two houses, so there are 10 of us," she said.

Omega granted Zhang a special request. On his way to the Masters, he wanted to stop in Houston. China's top golfer had special interest in a fellow citizen of the People's Republic of China who happens to play basketball for the NBA franchise there.

Now Zhang can be called the Yao Ming of golf.

Funny how it is these days. Two sports greats from the most populated country on the planet, and they have to meet for the first time on U.S. soil. Less than 20 years after Tiananmen Square, where a more important political revolution was dramatically symbolized, the pipeline for athletes is officially open, too.

Goalkeeper Gao Hong and forward Sun Wen were two of the first Chinese athletes to cross over, taking the Women's World Cup stage and parlaying their skills into starring roles for the Women's United Soccer Association.

Then it was Yao, the 7-foot-6 center whose passage from Shanghai to the NBA has made David Stern's league flush with lucrative visions of globalization.

For Zhang, there was no question: This cultural connection with Yao was necessary to make, even if it required a detour.

"He's very tall," Zhang said.

If Zhang must pay the Chinese government the same way Yao must pay - upward of 50 percent of his earnings - Zhang would not say.

"It's personal," he said.

What's not private was the joy Zhang and his entourage took at imagining, in the tradition of Augusta, what sort of meal Zhang would order up if this Cantonese-speaking gentleman were to ever win.

The new flavors might not go over big in the Augusta dining room, but across the world, a billion people can see and smell this flavorful golfing buffet.

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