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Gaoyefu, anyone? China joins the club. YOUNG TOM WATSONS AT US LINKS

ZHENG WEIN JUN addressed the ball, waggled the club, then unleashed a 240-yard drive down the left-center of the first fairway at the Thorny Lea Golf Club here. The tall, agile young man is a top-rate golfer, playing to a four handicap. Until a little over two years ago, however, he'd never heard of the game.

That was when Peter Tang, pro at the recently opened Chung Shan Hot Springs Golf Club in China, and club manager Aylwin K.C. Tai showed up at Mr. Zheng's high school in the village of Sanxiang.

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``Who would like to come out and play gaoyefu?'' Mr. Tang asked the assembled students. A lot of blank stares.

He demonstrated the swing. More stares. But finally, Tang says in his spotty English, ``a few came out.''

Of those few, 25 were chosen as the most likely to excel at this contest between an unwieldy stick and a tiny ball. With these Tang began an intensive course in how to play low-handicap golf in two years - something most golfers fail to accomplish in a lifetime. Instructional videos by American golf star Tom Watson figured prominently in the curriculum, as did hours of work on the practice range.

The goal: formation of a Chinese National Golf Team to compete in the 1990 Asian Games, to be held in the People's Republic of China. Ten members of that team are just finishing up a tour of North America.

A less spectacular aim, but also important, was production of a home-grown cadre of golf professionals to staff and care for the resorts that may someday lure a significant number of sports-minded tourists to China.

But capitalist-style golf courses in the People's Republic? Isn't that a contradiction in terms?

Not too long ago it was. Golf had a slight grip on Chinese life in earlier decades, a remnant of colonial days and diplomatic communities. But that was ripped loose in the late 1960s by the Cultural Revolution, whose leaders banned the sport as a bourgeois excess. Today's bureaucrats, by contrast, recognize that golf may have a place in a country interested in Japanese and Western tourist and business contacts.

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The Chung Shan Hot Springs Club, home to the national team, opened in 1985 as a joint venture of the government of China's Guangdong Province and Hong Kong businessman Henry Fok. It was laid out by the American course design firm headed by golf legend Arnold Palmer. Tang, a golf professional from Hong Kong, was tapped to be pro at the new club and, later, coach of the new national team.

In the latter capacity, Tang began building with very few tools. The team had only one set of clubs (Tang's) for 25 people and about 100 balls that had to be shagged every 15 minutes. For them, the phrase ``slow play'' had new meaning.

That, however, was a minor concern to a group of eager teen-age novices who'd never experienced any kind of play, slow or otherwise.

Wong Lai Yu, a lithe 19-year-old whose hair hangs in even bangs across her forehead, describes golf's appeal for her.

``It's a very interesting game, and a lot of challenge,'' she says, with help from Mr. Tai's translating. Miss Wong's parents are farmers; she has three sisters and one brother. Would any of them, or perhaps other friends, like to try their hand at golf?

``Of course,'' she says, ``but they don't have the opportunity.''

That matter-of-fact comment underscores the privileged position of these young athletes. Their lives have been radically recharted by a game that most Chinese have never heard of.

As club manager Tai explains it, they can now look forward to to a career in the sport - whether as touring pros (still a very remote possibility), club pros, or even as greenskeepers.

They also have ``a wonderful opportunity to represent China,'' he says. ``In other sports, such as gymnastics or basketball, they would have millions to compete with for a place on a national team, but they have only themselves.''

The team size, by the way, is down to 17, since eight have left it. But there will soon be others, says Tai. Twenty more aspiring golfers have been sent to Japan for basic training in linksmanship.

The team's current North American trip, which began in British Columbia, then jumped to the East Coast, is giving the young Chinese ``good exposure to what the game is like here,'' says Tai. By the time they fly back to China tomorrow, they will have played such testing courses as Baltusrol in New Jersey, a past US Open site, and tested their skills against top collegiate golfers here.

As the foursomes at Thorny Lea get ready to tee off, a few club members cluster around, curious to see how these slim youngsters, many of whom play to a five handicap or lower, stroke the ball. Cries of ``nice shot,'' or ``good hit,'' ring out.

``They need the pressure,'' Tai whispers. ``Back home there's nobody watching. It's good for their competitive development.''

As the sets of golfers get into their motorized carts, someone shouts, ``We have a problem - some of the team have never driven a cart before.'' In fact, none of them have, but they get the hang of it quickly.

The foursomes, for the most part, are made up of two Chinese players and two representatives from the Massachusetts-based Titleist and Foot Joy companies, major producers of golf equipment. Those American businesses have a special relationship to the Chinese National Team. When John Ludes, president of Acushnet, the parent firm of both, heard about the team during a trip to the Far East, he promptly volunteered to supply it with clubs, balls, bags, clothes, and all the other accouterments of golf.

The new gear from the US saved coach Tang's clubs from early decrepitude and gave the team the means to work even harder at the game.

But will golf ever really ``catch on'' with China's millions?

Tai shakes his head. ``It's still seen as a game for the wealthy; it's very difficult to make it general,'' he says, adding wistfully, ``maybe in 100 years, or 150 years.''

For now, golf is making a very modest comeback from the days when a Shanghai course was turned into a zoo and no one would dare be seen in public carrying a five iron. There are six courses in the country at present, with a largely Japanese clientele. Native Chinese golfers may be in short supply, but their competitive opportunities are gradually growing. There will be an ``all China competition for golf'' in November, says Tai. Some 45 to 50 entrants are expected.

Last year, Chung Shan was the site of the first China Amateur Open. Billions of Chinese viewed portions of the tournament on national TV, says Tai. A government film crew is accompanying the team on its US tour.

Eventually, perhaps, more and more Chinese will have the thrill of getting their first par. ``Very exciting,'' says a smiling Jin Jiang Wu, recalling the first time he played a hole in ``regulation.'' A five handicapper, he now rarely plays holes any other way.

And what was the hardest part of mastering the game? Without hesitation, the genial young man observes, ``learning to control myself.''

It's hard to think of any words more universal than those when it comes to golf.

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