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Monday, June 30, 2014
Updated: July 1, 3:28 PM ET
The Forbidden Game

By Dan Washburn
Special to ESPN.com

The following excerpt comes from Dan Washburn's new book "The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream," which follows the lives of three men caught up in China's bizarre -- and, in some cases, illegal -- golf scene. The passage below focuses on Zhou Xunshu, whose inspiring underdog story takes him from peasant farmer to security guard to professional golfer.


"You have to think like a businessman," Zhou Xunshu said. "Itemize everything."

But a quick look at his books would suggest the business side of Zhou's competitive golf career was, to put it simply, failing.

Zhou Xunshu
Zhou Xunshu went from working the fields in rural China, to security guard at a course, to golf professional as the game exploded on the scene in the world's most populous country.

By a friendly accounting, Zhou estimated he had lost nearly 20,000 yuan playing on the China Tour in 2006. Although he made the cut in four of the six tournaments, he had never placed better than twenty-first, and never earned more than 10,800 yuan ($1,350).

He had finished on average twenty-six strokes behind a tournament's winner -- a mountain in golf numbers. With tournaments taking place in all corners of China, his travel expenses trumped his winnings. If the trend continued, "I try to find more students," Zhou said, matter-of-factly.

As a golf instructor, Zhou's methods -- specifically how he charged for lessons -- might, if he were lucky, help him break even.

He rarely charged by the hour. Instead, he'd assess your abilities and ask you your goals. Then he'd quote you a lump sum, and he'd be your coach until you attained those goals.

"That way, I am less bothered and I don't need to keep track of how many hours and how many lessons," he said. "My price may be a little bit high, but I don't want too many students. I just want several dedicated students."

One student paid Zhou ten thousand yuan, and once he starting shooting in the 70s, he was so happy with the results that he gave Zhou another thirty thousand yuan on top of it. So why even bother competing, since the odds were so surely stacked against him? He was too old to be starting an athletic career. He had no sponsors, no coach and a mounting deficit.

"Even if I lose, I want to join the competition," Zhou explained, "because I want to have something to look back on when I quit playing. I want to be able to tell people, 'Look, I played in that tournament against the best in China.'"

But he knew he needed some pragmatic goals for the coming year. He wanted to finish 2007 ranked in the top 12 on the overall China Golf Association money list. That would earn him his "professional player" classification.

"And then I can attract some sponsors," he said. "Being a certified pro golfer is the highest honor in golf in China, and once that happens, sponsors will find you and sign a contract with you."

If Zhou were to finish near the top of a tournament or two, there was little doubt in his mind what he'd put the winnings toward. He wanted to buy an apartment, so he and Liu Yan could start a family. And he felt the pressure to buy soon -- property prices in Chongqing, like many cities in China, were rising fast.

Only a handful of Chinese golfers had traditional sponsorships -- money from a major brand in exchange for using a product or wearing a logo -- like those enjoyed by golfers in the United States or Europe. In China, usually a sponsorship came in the form of free gear or clubs, but no money.

Cash sponsorships would come from a golf course that employed the golfer, or simply a rich businessman who happened to take a liking to a certain player. Most of these sponsorships covered only the golfer's tournament travel expenses, maybe 80,000 to 160,000 yuan a year.

That was a drop in the bucket for a wealthy business owner, but a potentially career-changing sum for someone like Zhou, desperate to have his mind focused on golf and not the bottom line.

"If I could find someone to support me financially, my performance will improve in a straight line," he said, pointing his finger up and to the right.

Sponsorship or no, almost all the golfers on the tournament circuit needed a second job to survive. They also had to be conscious of every yuan they spent.

For the season opener of the 2007 China Tour in Nanjing, Zhou had traveled to the tournament via a two-and-a-half-day train ride. Had he traveled by plane, he wouldn't have been able to bring his own caddie, a luxury for most Chinese golfers, who usually use a young female caddie assigned to them by the course.

He also never stayed at the official tournament hotel. He rarely ate his meals at the clubhouse restaurant; too expensive.

"This place is very cheap, right?" he would say after dinner in a town or village outside the golf course grounds. "Four of us can eat for the same amount one person would pay at the clubhouse."

Little victories like this seemed to keep him going.

Zhou was not the only one. In the days leading up to tournaments, a separate competition would inevitably break out among the players -- who could find the cheapest hotel? Word would spread around the practice green that one golfer found a room somewhere for 30 yuan a night, including hot water, and dozens of other golfers may try to follow him to the same place that evening.

It was not uncommon for Zhou to change hotels one or two times in the lead-up to an event. Wasn't this distracting?

"It's no problem," he always said. "I only have one bag. I just put it on my back and go."

When playing with one eye on the bank balance, the seemingly mundane could turn into migraines.

For example, in the days leading up to the Shanghai leg of the China Tour -- which was about 37 miles to the west in Jiangsu province, since no Shanghai course wanted to give up a week of business for the domestic golf tour -- Zhou noticed that the sole from one of his Nike golf shoes had come unglued, so much so that it flapped when he walked.

For most pro golfers this would be no problem. Just go back to the hotel and unbox a new pair. But these were the only golf shoes Zhou had with him on this trip. He wore them off the course, as well.

"These were 1,000 yuan," he noted ruefully. "They're not fake."

The concern on Zhou's face was obvious. He couldn't afford a new pair of shoes. The tournament started the following day. How was he going to compete?

The small, country towns that bordered most Chinese golf courses -- the places where Zhou usually stayed during tournaments -- may have been ugly and boring, dirty and unrefined, but they featured an abundance of practical conveniences unavailable to those who paid the extra cash for the official tournament hotel.

Out on the street, he found a cobbler, an old man sitting on a stool, wearing an apron, ready and willing to put his shoes back together -- although the man may have never dealt with golf shoes before. Zhou left his shoes with the man, who assured him he'd have them fixed and ready for action by the time Zhou got back from dinner.

When Zhou returned, the cobbler was nowhere to be found. A vendor nearby said the shoe repairman wouldn't return until 6 a.m. Zhou started to get anxious. He headed back to his hotel, wondering what he'd do if he couldn't find the cobbler in the morning.

The man at the front desk stopped Zhou and said, "I think these are yours." He handed Zhou a plastic bag containing his mended shoes.

"The old man wanted to make sure you got these tonight. You can leave his payment with me."

"How much is it?" Zhou asked, relieved.

Zhou's tournament was saved for two yuan.

"My girlfriend's mother always asks me how much money I make, and whether I can afford to buy an apartment or car," he said during that year's tour. "I'm honest with her and tell her I will try my best. But anyway, it's free love. My girlfriend has the right to leave me if I don't have enough money for her."

Money, Zhou said, was not really the main thing that concerned Liu Yan's mother.

"Her real worry is that we have been together three years and we aren't married yet."

The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream." By Dan Washburn. Oneworld; 320 pages; $18.99. Buy from Amazon.com. 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.