Volvo China Open welcomes its first female player as young guns and veterans do battle in Shenzhen

Clockwise from top: Youngsters Zhang Jienalin, Dou Zecheng and veterans Cheng Jun and Zhang Lianwei are among the main attractions at this week’s Volvo China Open at Genzon Golf Club in Shenzhen. Provided to China Daily

History will be made at the Volvo China Open in Shenzhen this week when Zhang Jienalin becomes the first female player to ever compete in the tournament.

Henan-born Zhang, who turned pro in 2015, surprised herself by claiming her maiden title at the Hangzhou International Championship in October, not least because it was a co-sanctioned event with the men’s China Tour.

The victory was worth 180,000 yuan ($28,000) for the 24-year-old. The top six places at the mixed event all went to China LPGA players, with Benny Ye Jianfeng the best of the men in seventh.

“I thought I would have a surreal feeling winning my first professional tournament, but I just thought, ‘That’s it’,” Zhang said of her victory. “I wasn’t very excited, I did a great job, no heart racing, nothing more.”

The CLPGA players were competing from advanced tees in Hangzhou, but this week Zhang will tee it up on the same length course as the men at China’s oldest continuously held professional golf tournament.

Zhang expects to struggle over the 7,145-yard (6,533-meter) Genzon course, and said that finding the greens in regulation will be her biggest challenge.

“For me this week it’s all about driving distance. I failed to hit the green in two shots on many of the par-4s in practice today,” said Zhang.

“The greens here are also very difficult and are playing quite fast. My main aim is obviously to make the cut.”

The tournament is in its 26th year and under normal circumstances is part of the European Tour. However, COVID-19 has put paid to its international status and it is being sanctioned as a China Tour event.

Veteran former winners Zhang Lianwei and Cheng Jun are in the field this week, although neither expects to finish too high up the leaderboard.

Cheng, 51, became the pride of China when he won the third staging of the event in 1997 at Beijing Country Club. Cheng played superb golf that week to claim the title by five strokes and become the first home winner of the event.

“Winning the Volvo China Open was certainly the highlight of my golfing career,” said Beijing native Cheng. “I rarely play in tournaments these days but I’m still proud to be a professional golfer.

“Being one of the first generations of Chinese professional golfers, I very much appreciate Volvo’s consistent support for Chinese golf for so many years.”

Zhang Lianwei, 55, tees off on Thursday as the only player to have competed in all 26 China Opens.

The Zhuhai-born former javelin thrower enjoyed a stellar amateur career, winning the China Amateur Open three times before turning pro in 1994. A year later, he finished third in his first appearance in the China Open, and in 2003 in Shanghai went on to realize his long-held ambition of winning the title.

He has collected an impressive 21 titles in countries as far afield as Thailand, Malaysia, Canada and Wales. He was also a regular on the Japan Tour.

One of Zhang’s most memorable wins was his final-hole victory over South Africa’s four-time major champion Ernie Els at the 2003 Caltex Masters in Singapore.

That victory saw Zhang claim three historic milestones: He became the first Chinese golfer to win a European Tour event, the first to break into the world’s top 100, and the first to earn an invitation to the Masters, in 2004.

“Finishing third in my first Volvo China Open gave me a lot of confidence to step onto the world stage,” said father-of-two Zhang.

“After many years of constant hard work I finally made it with victory in 2003.

“I still work hard today. I practice regularly like I always have. Age is not a problem. In the US and in Europe there are many senior players who can still play well and compete well into their 60s.

“Today’s young professionals should understand that it’s their job to play in a tournament´╝Źtheir career is all about training and practicing well to win the top prize.”

Dou Zecheng is among a legion of young players in the field this week and is making no secret of his high hopes for the event. As a former PGA Tour player, Dou has good reason to be confident.

“I just want to hit every shot well this week,” said the 23-year-old, who now competes on the Korn Ferry Tour in the US.

“I’ve been working hard with my coach for the past two years and my swing is now much more solid and reliable. Hopefully I will get the job done. I came to win!