Yang Hongmei: Fairway Trailblazer

In October 2003, Yang Hongmei nearly became the first golfer from China to make the finals of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament in Daytona, Fla. It would have been a crowning achievement to an extraordinary year for the 27-year-old athlete. As it was, her success reflected China’s emergence as a major nation of golf players.

In August 2003, Yang won a tournament in Indio, Ca.—becoming the first person from China to achieve this distinction in a professional U.S. venue. She placed in two other U.S. tournaments in 2003.

In the past 20 years, China has become the world’s 5th biggest golf-playing nation.Once seen as decadent by the communist government, golf became an accepted way of attracting foreign investment in the 1980s.

“Many had hoped Yang Hongmei would make history by becoming the first Chinese golfer ever to enter the LPGA,” a government Web site commented. “Although in the end Yang did not make the cut, the very fact that she was chosen to play the qualifying tour in the United States is still a great step for China’s budding golf profession.”

Yang came to America in June with three other rising female stars, according to Beijing’s City Weekend. The group was chosen from a tournament at Beijing Links Golf Club and, with the help of the Chinese-American Golf Foundation, sent to Oak Valley Golf Course near Los Angeles.

Yang was born in 1976 into a farming family in the southwestern Sichuan Province, according to MinSheng Daily. Her parents were too poor to pay for her education, so she attended an athletic school that waived her tuition. Her first job was as a caddy at the Baori Golf Club in Shenzhen, a southern boomtown. She began training seriously after she was spotted by Baori’s manager. Yang went pro in 1997 and won the China Open Women’s Championship in 1998.

After a succession of wins in the United States, Yang looked set to gain her LPGA card at the Daytona tournament, but it wasn’t meant to be. She missed the cut by a single stroke.

“I think that I played really well this year,” she said. “But just at the end I couldn’t make the proper adjustments to my game.”

Yang isn’t brooding. In November, she made the qualifying tournament of the LPGA Futures Tour, and the same month, she won the China Ladies Elite Golf  Tour.