From ball-breaker to Olympic dreams - China's latest golf starlet

Daniel HICKS
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Yuan 'Carl' Yechun is China's third-ranked golfer

He began by driving golf balls to destruction against a wall because it was too cold to play outside, but now China's big-hitting number three Yuan Yechun has an eye on the Tokyo Olympics.

As a 10-year-old, during the long sub-zero winters that grip his native Dalian in northern China, the only practice available was in the relative warmth of a small room just a few metres long.

The young Yuan, who likes to be known as 'Carl', would spend all day busting his balls.

The drill, pummelled into him by a "super strict" Japanese coach, helped him develop the power off the tee that has propelled him to being China's number three, despite only turning professional six weeks ago.

It served him well.

"I'd just pick a golf ball and be hitting towards the wall," Yuan, 21, told AFP before the pro-am for this week's Clearwater Bay Open in Hong Kong, the season-ending event of the PGA Tour Series China.

"At the beginning of the day there'd be like a little crack on the golf ball.

"All I would try to do is hit the ball as hard as I could and break it into two -- you can learn to hit it straight when you get older," said Yuan, whose average carry off the tee with a driver tops 300 yards, putting him amongst the longest hitters around.

"Using muscles and power to get the ball far is an ability you've got to learn at a younger age."

In August, Yuan won an Asian Games team silver medal for China in his final tournament as an amateur, but he had already made his mark among the pros.

- 'He's got a big future' -

Victory at July's Qingdao Championship put the former University of Washington student in elite company as just the second amateur to win on the PGA Tour China Series, after his Asian Games teammate Cheng Jin who won at the Nine Dragons Open in 2014.

Promotion to the US PGA Tour's second-string Web.com Tour is stake for the top money winners on the Chinese tour, making it a potential career pathway to the sport's highest levels.

China has produced several promising young golfers in recent years, including Li Haotong who was player of the year on the inaugural PGA Tour Series China in 2014 and now plays on the European Tour.

"Being away from my country for seven or eight years living in the United States was a good experience but being able to play for my country is a bigger honour than anything," said Yuan, who went to high school in Florida.

"That's why I turned pro at this time with two years to go until the Olympics. If I could play in that it would fulfil one of my big ambitions."

As an amateur, he received no prize money in Qingdao, but he has already made it into the top 25 of the PGA Tour China Series money list after just four counting events.

He kicked off with second place at the Suzhou Open and has had two other top 10s since.

A first professional win at Clearwater Bay this week would see him end the season in the top 10, despite having been able to bank prize money from just five of the 14 events on the 2018 tour.

Even more remarkably, Yuan has shot to 520th in the world from outside the top 2,000 at the start of the year and is now ranked behind only multiple European Tour winners Li (ranked 54th) and Wu Ashun (171st) among China's golfers.

"It a little more than I expected how fast I moved up the rankings," he admitted.

"I'm moving towards the right direction and if I play as best as I can I have a good chance to be in the top two (in China) to play in the Olympics in two years' time."

Yuan's attacking, no-holds-barred game is exciting to watch and he is tipped to go all the way to the top by many, including PGA Tour China Series executive director Greg Carlson.

"He's a great player and I think he's got all the skillsets to advance to web.com and hopefully to PGA Tour," Carlson said.

"He's got a big future ahead in playing higher level golf, for sure."