A 16-year-old in a floppy black fisherman’s hat and sunglasses leaned casually on his club on the first tee at Laurel Hill Country Club in Lorton before his quarterfinal match in the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship early Friday morning.
“Ready, Marty?” a marshal asked.
“Yup,” the teenager replied, not pausing to tuck in the other half of his teal polo shirt or fix the loose lace on his yellow-splashed spikes before setting up between the tee markers.
“Now on the tee, from the People’s Republic of China, Marty Dou.”
The laid-back Zecheng “Marty” Dou (pronounced “Doh”) is an unlikely face of a sport in a country of more than a billion people. But in an era of Chinese golf laden with young stars experiencing success abroad, he soon may be just that.
Despite shooting a 4-under-par 66, Dou fell, 1-up, to Jordan Niebrugge, 19. Niebrugge will face Cal junior Michael Kim, the reigning NCAA player of the year, in the 36-hole championship match Saturday after the Oklahoma State sophomore defeated James Erkenbeck, 3 and 2, in the semifinals later in the day. The winner of the tournament, which is always held on public courses and open only to players who don’t belong to private country clubs, earns a spot in the field at the 2014 Masters.
Dou’s quarterfinal finish marked another strong U.S. performance for young Chinese golfers in the past two years.
That stretch includes 14-year-old Guan Tianlang making the cut at the 2013 Masters and fellow 14-year-old Andy Zhang earning a spot in the 2012 U.S. Open.
Chinese youngsters are also impressing overseas; 12-year-old Ye Wocheng qualified and played in the European Tour’s China Open this spring.
Dou shined at that event, the youngest player and only amateur to make the cut with his 2-under 72 in the second round. A grizzled veteran by Chinese golf standards, he leads a breakout generation of world-class golfers from a country in which the sport was banned until the mid-1980s and has just three players ranked in the world’s top 500.
Chairman Mao Zedong banned the game in 1949 for being too bourgeois. He also dug up China’s courses, meaning that the country’s current courses are fairly new. Those courses still number fewer than 1,000, in large part because of a 2004 government ban on new construction supposedly in the interest of environmental concerns.
Despite the sport’s short history at home, Dou and his countrymen are quickly making up ground.
Golf “is getting better over there every year,” Dou said. Young Chinese golfers “practice a lot. They practice really hard. They concentrate. And they just practice a lot.”
Dou began playing in China when he was 6. He lives in Beijing and travels to nearby Zhengzhou to practice with his swing coach, though he and his family spent five years in Vancouver, where he honed his perfect English.
At 15, he advanced to the third round of the 2012 U.S. Junior Amateur and just missed match play at the 2012 Publinx, done in by a four-putt on the final stroke play hole. He finished 33rd at the China Open, the highest of any Chinese player.
Asked about that tournament, Dou played down his performance — “I only shot 2 under,” he said — while expressing surprise that “other scores were that high.”
“I played decent,” he said. “Not my best.”
Such performances show China is certainly paying attention to its young stars.
“The media really want us to be good, but we understand [those expectations], and we’re trying to do that,” Dou said. “There’s not much pressure from that. We want to do well anyway.”
Despite the millions of eyes watching him from across the globe, Dou speaks and carries himself with a dash of Southern California chill — fitting given that he spends significant time each year working on his game in Rancho Santa Fe outside San Diego.
Dou said he plans to play collegiately in the United States, though he hasn’t narrowed his choices yet. Asked about the next steps in his golf career, Dou paused, tilted back his bucket hat and said in candid analysis: “Well, this year I lost in the quarters and only by one hole — and [Niebrugge is] a really good player. If I come back next year, I’m going to try to win. And the U.S. Amateur. Everything. I’m going to go for it.”
If he succeeds, he’ll be making a statement for China’s top golfers: if you rise to the top against Chinese competition, you can play with anyone.
But the relaxed and realistic Dou, who named Tiger Woods as his favorite golfer, isn’t ready to anoint himself China’s version just yet.
Niebrugge “outdrives me by 40 yards,” Dou said when asked what he needs to improve on. “I need to work out a lot.”
He then pushed back his bucket hat a little further and scratched his head.
“But, um,” he said, “that’s about it.”