Support the news

An Excerpt From 'The Forbidden Game'

This excerpt appears in "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream." The author also joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. See our interview and book review.

Excerpted from The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream by Dan Washburn. Copyright © Dan Washburn 2014. Excerpted by permission of Oneworld Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.


Soon, just being in the environment wasn't enough for Zhou. He was drawn to the game, and desperately wanted to be part of the action. This had nothing to do with money or fame – the concept of “pro golfer,” which had existed as an official vocation in China for less than two years, was still unknown to him. Instead, he wanted the challenge. Zhou had always been athletic – he grew up playing basketball on a dirt court in his village – and he was fiercely competitive. He wanted to give this golf thing a try. But he couldn't: security guards were forbidden to play.

It’s not uncommon for people from mainland China to speak openly about their distrust of the Taiwanese. Taiwan, the orthodox line goes, is a breakaway province, and the Taiwanese are traitors. This is what many are raised to believe, even if they’ve never actually encountered someone from Taiwan. Zhou thought differently. Sure, he held an irrational hatred of all people from Taiwan, but for Zhou it wasn’t political. It was personal. The one Taiwanese person he’d met in all his life – the general manager at Guangzhou International – was the only thing standing between him and golf.

Guangzhou International was a private club with a wealthy clientele, and keeping up appearances was important. Thus, the club’s manager made it a rule that non-managerial staff were not allowed to play the game or even use the driving range. Zhou, despite overseeing a large portion of the security force, was not officially a manager, and the rule proved torturous for him. One of Zhou’s duties was following playing groups around the course, and reporting their whereabouts back to the clubhouse via walkie-talkie. He studied the golfers carefully. The shapes their bodies made when they hit the ball. The way they dressed. The way they interacted. The strange etiquette of it all. He was fascinated. The more Zhou watched, the more he appreciated the nuances of the game. This was more than grown men hitting a white ball into a hole in the ground, more than trying to see who can make the ball go the farthest. There was strategy, and Zhou appreciated this. He started taking note when golfers reached into their bags to select a different club, and used his binoculars to try and make out the number printed on the bottom. He didn’t quite understand what they meant, but he knew they must be important.

Zhou spent his days watching other people play the game. “I loved it crazily,” he said. “I even dreamed of hitting balls in my sleep.” Often, his dreams were so vivid he could feel the softness of the fairway grass beneath his feet, the texture of the club’s rubber grip in his hands. Backswings gave him goosebumps, and the moment of impact – when clubface and ball would collide – was an explosion of excitement he could feel move from his fingertips to his arms to a place deep in his chest cavity. The elation would often jolt him awake. He’d sit up in bed, out of breath and sweating. Then Zhou would spot his security guard uniform hanging in the dormitory window. He’d see the cement floor and walls, the mosquito nets, the three roommates asleep nearby, the metal fan that did little more than move hot air around the room. He’d lie back down and close his eyes, hoping to be transported once again to a world where he was allowed to play.

“It was like having a delicious piece of meat in your mouth, but not being able to eat it,” Zhou said. “So bad.”

For two long years, Zhou walked and watched, hoping one day he’d get a taste of the game that captivated him so. Then, in 1998, representatives from PING, an American golf club manufacturer, visited Guangzhou International. At the driving range, the PING reps, the club instructors and the club’s executive team – led by the Taiwanese general manager – tested out some top-of-the-line drivers. Zhou, dressed in his security guard uniform, looked on as the men tried to hit the ball over a tree-covered hill about fifty yards behind the yardage marker that read “225.” A small crowd had formed, including Zhou’s immediate boss, Wang Shiwen, a serious-faced but friendly northeasterner. Nobody could clear the trees. Not even the Taiwanese GM, who often boasted about his credentials as a professional golfer.

Then, a voice from the distance. It was Zhou.

“Leader,” he said, addressing Wang. “Can I have a try?”

Several in the group responded by laughing. The security guard wants to take a swing? The general manager teased Zhou: “This is a really expensive club,” he said in a sarcastic, sing-songy tone usually reserved for children. “If you break it, can you afford to pay three thousand yuan on your salary?” Everybody in the crowd knew the answer to this question, especially Zhou, who worked the numbers over in his head: it’d take him a quarter of a year to earn the value of the club.

Wang knew of Zhou’s desire to golf. “If he breaks it, I’ll buy it,” he jumped in. “Give the boy a try.” Based on Wang’s tone, this was not a request; it was an order.

Years later, Wang would admit his actions that day were fueled in part by nationalistic pride. “At that time, for people like us, people from the mainland who worked at golf courses but didn’t have lots of money, it was rare to see such a good club,” Wang explained. “And if we did see one, no one would let us play with it. Usually we only played with old discarded or reassembled clubs.”

Zhou was a fixture at the driving range. Whenever he had free time, he’d carefully watch the instructors as they practiced. But Zhou had never hit a ball before. He was very much a novice, a greenhorn. And now he was going to take his first swings of a driver in front of a crowd? A snickering, unforgiving crowd? This was a gamble, to be sure. There was little chance that anyone would be losing three thousand yuan – something would have to go horribly wrong for Zhou to actually damage the club – but a loss of face seemed guaranteed.

This did not deter Zhou, who was just ignorant enough about golf to fail to understand how substantially the odds were stacked against him. Vegas would have had him a long shot even to make contact. But Zhou, seeing this as his only chance, stepped forward. He removed his hat. He removed his tie. He loosened the collar of his white button-down shirt. He took the three-thousand-yuan club in his hands, which were shaking.

Zhou’s world became distorted. Everything seemed so much bigger now. The driver was massive and unwieldy. The 225-yard marker was barely legible, it was so far away. The tree-lined hill seemed like a distant village, and the crowd surrounding him now numbered in the thousands. Everything was huge! Everything, that is, but the ball. The ball was a white speck of dust on the green mat beneath Zhou’s wobbly legs. How could he possible hit that?

“Come on, security guard, what are you waiting for?” the general manager taunted.

Zhou blinked repeatedly, trying to bring his world back into focus. He took a deep breath and settled himself the best he could. He lined up his shot, and swung.

Whiff.

Zhou missed the ball completely. He heard chuckles in the crowd. But he picked the ball up and carefully placed it back on the rubber tee. He swung again.

Whiff.

More laughter. Zhou felt his face go flush. The hill was no longer the goal. Contact. Just make contact, Zhou told himself. Again, he lined up the ball.

Whiff.

Baseball was another sport Zhou was unfamiliar with, so three strikes didn’t mean he was out. Although some in the crowd said they had seen enough, Zhou wasn’t going to leave unless someone forced the club from his hands. He had waited so long for this chance. He had to at least hit the ball. He couldn’t let Wang down.

Zhou called on his wushu training, one of the only things he remembered from his short stint at military police school. He focused on his yi, or intention, remembering something his instructor had said: It is the thought which guides the movement. He blocked out the crowd from his mind. Blocked out the jeers, the yardage markers, the hill and the trees. He focused only on the small white target. He just wanted to hit the ball. He stared at it with so much intensity his entire field of vision became white and dimpled. He saw nothing but the ball.

Zhou raised the driver and swung. At the bottom of his motion, he heard a pop. Suddenly, Zhou felt as though he had been transported to one of his dreams. His hands tingled. His body filled with warmth. He wasn’t exactly sure what had happened – but he knew he wanted to feel this again.

At first there was silence. Followed by a gasp or two. Then cheers. Any laughs were now those of disbelief. The security guard had done it. He had hit the ball. Long. Straight. And over the trees. No one, including Zhou – who stood there, dumbfounded, his hands still welded to his three-thousand-yuan weapon – could believe it.

“I was happy, and I was proud,” Wang recalled nearly a decade a later. “I was right about choosing him. But none of that matters. The most important thing is that he hit the ball over the hill! He had so much explosive force. To hit the ball past the trees on the hill, more than 280 yards – I’ve worked at the course for ten years and I’ve only seen three to five people do that.”

Some in the crowd thought it was just dumb luck. That’s what the general manager from Taiwan said. He told Zhou he’d never be able to do it again.

“I didn’t dare take another swing,” Zhou said. “To be honest, I was scared I’d have to pay for the club. It was much too expensive for me.”

Zhou retrieved his hat and his tie and floated all the way back to the workers’ dormitory. He sat on his metal bunk bed, his body still trembling.

“That was the moment I started thinking that, if I worked hard, maybe one day I could become good at golf,” Zhou said.

But there remained one problem: Zhou was still forbidden to play. He was determined not to let that stop him, however. He had caught a fever.

He started building up an arsenal, scouring the course’s wooded areas for lost balls, collecting broken clubs discarded by members. He dragged a worn-out driving range mat back to the workers’ dormitory, where there was narrow swath of grass just outside Zhou’s ground-floor window. It was a secluded area. On one side was the faded green wall of the dorm, on the other was a wall of thick topical trees and foliage. Beyond that, well, that was no longer the club’s property. In his free time, Zhou would steal back there with his mat, his balls and some clubs he’d repaired. He’d spend hours chipping and pitching in that constricted space, the fear of losing balls and breaking windows teaching him to drive the ball straight. This, of course, did not always happen – especially early on – and Zhou worked out an arrangement with the maintenance staff: He’d fix any windows he broke, in exchange for their silence.

At night, Zhou would hop out of his dormitory window and sneak over to a practice green with just a ball – no putter. Under the moonlight, he’d roll the ball, again and again, and study how it moved atop the curves of the closely cropped grass. He read any golf book he could get his hands on, and watched golf videos (John Daly’s Grip It and Rip It, to name one) in the driving range office when he was off duty. He may never have been a good student, but Zhou taught himself golf.

He took every opportunity to watch the golf instructors as they practiced at the driving range. He’d scrutinize their mechanics carefully, and then race back behind the dormitory and try to mimic them. On Monday evenings, club managers gathered at the driving range to drink beers and hit a few balls. Zhou, while not a manager, would often tag along, like a dog waiting for scraps of food to fall from the dinner table.

“He always went with me, and he always asked me to let him have a try,” Wang said. “I knew it disobeyed the rule, but I’d let him take several swings. At first I did not really see his talent – I only knew he had explosive power and could hit the ball very far.”

Even then, Zhou had a very compact, aggressive swing. Much of his power came from his strong legs, which he’d bend in an exaggerated fashion. This unique stance wasn’t something Zhou had picked up from a book or a video. It was a technique borne of necessity – many of the second-hand clubs he was using were much too short for him. He also swung with a certain amount of anger and resentment. He hated that other staff members were allowed to play golf, yet he had to practice in secret. During his infrequent opportunities to hit balls at the driving range, Zhou would picture the Taiwanese manager and swing with fury.

“I still didn’t know what a professional golfer was at that time, but everything about it was so interesting to me,” Zhou recalled. “The leaders sometimes played videos showing a guy called Tiger Woods. I said, ‘Wow! Look at the atmosphere.’ So many people watching. I wanted to be under the spotlight like Tiger Woods. I knew I couldn’t reach his level, but I wanted to attend my own tournaments. I wanted to have that feeling.”

In early 2001, when Zhou returned home to Qixin for the first time in more than five years, he brought back ten golf balls, and the villagers looked at the strange foreign spheres with wonderment and curiosity. His mother bounced one, and everybody clapped. Then some neighborhood children took the balls, and they played with them like marbles. Zhou figured he’d choose another time to explain his new dream to his family.

Excerpted from The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream by Dan Washburn. Copyright © Dan Washburn 2014. Excerpted by permission of Oneworld Publications Ltd. All rights reserved.

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news