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The army of tiny Tigers driving China’s young golf boom

Guangzhou, China: Lai Runci practises every day and looks very much the golfer as she pings the ball effortlessly off the tee. She is aged six.

Lai Yiyan has won so many tournaments that she has lost count. She is nine.

The two girls — who are not related — represent China's growing army of child golfers and the country's budding interest in a game that was banned under Mao Zedong because it was "for millionaires".

The sport was allowed to breathe again in the 1980s, but under current President Xi Jinping scrutiny has increased with authorities closing scores of golf courses in recent years after they became synonymous with corrupt officials and extravagant lifestyles.

None of that appeared to matter when a gaggle of snazzily dressed boys and girls aged between six and 10 competed at Guangzhou's Dragon Lake Golf Club in southern Guangdong, a province that considers itself the home of golf in China.

As their parents and grandparents sipped tea or lattes in the Spanish-themed clubhouse and discussed how to get into China's top universities, the children out on the 18-hole course displayed techniques that professionals would not be ashamed of.

Yiyan, who also uses the name Yvonne, soared to victory in her category, negotiating nine holes in 42 shots to win by a handsome eight strokes.

Hidden beneath a red cap and sun glasses, Yiyan practises up to five times a week.

"When I grow up I'd like to become a professional golfer," said Yiyan, who with her confidence, ability and golf attire already has the air of a star.

Looking on approvingly is her grandmother Zong Jinyong, who also looks the part with her cap and golf top displaying the Chinese flag prominently.

"When I was young I didn't know what golf was. I only knew what it was in 2002," says Zong, underlining how previous generations of Chinese grew up ignorant of the sport.

The China Golf Association had just 400 registered junior golfers in 2013, but that exploded to 35,000 by the end of last year and the organisation expects 100,000 within five years.

There are a growing number of Chinese on the professional men's and women's tours, and last year Feng Shanshan became the first player from her country to become a golf world number one.

Charles Wu, general manager of Dragon Lake Golf Club, which opened in 2004 to adult and junior players, treads carefully in attempting to explain golf's ambiguous status in China, emphasising that it is not about hobnobbing among the elite.

"We do youth golf here because our club has always regarded golf as a sport," he stresses, saying that the cost of playing is declining, though it remains the domain of the wealthy in China.

Wu appreciates that pushing a child as young as six to play golf every day is unpalatable to many — even if little Runci, who like many her age is exteremly shy, intimates that she enjoys it.

"Just one reason — China has too many people," he says, asked why some parents push their children to play so often, so early.

"You have a very (great) challenge in the same age — one million, two million, 10 million (rivals). How can you play (to be) number one?"

Wu does question whether someone as young as Runci should be out on the golf course practising every day. 

"Normally a six-year-old will go to bed about 8:30-9pm, but they don't, they go out to play golf until 11pm," he says.

"For a Westerner that is a Chinese 'miracle' because you can't let your child keep playing golf until 11pm and not sleep. 

"Chinese kids can do this because they are both willing and made to be willing to accept this kind of education."

The last word should rightly go to Runci — it would, if she was not so quiet.

Asked if she has any other hobbies aside from golf, she shakes her head.

She is upset that — with her father looking on — she came only second of four in her group.

Asked what she wants to be when she grows up, a woman's voice pipes up in the background.

"Be a golf star like Tiger Woods."

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