WHILE China-based golfer Brian O’Donovan doesn’t know when he will be able to set foot in Ireland again, he is at least happy that life is back to normal.
The Bandon native is a professional at Mission Hills, a 12-course resort in the province of Shenzhen, more than 1,000km from Wuhan, where Covid-19 first emerged. While there was quite a bit of downtime during 2020 as people limited social contact, there was a silver lining for those who enjoy getting out on the course.
‘It was the most golf we’ve played as coaches since I’ve been here!’ O’Donovan laughs.
‘I’m was getting to play three, four times a week because there wasn’t much else really to do.
‘The courses were still busy because a lot of the factories and stuff had closed. People were about and they were getting bored of doing nothing, being outside was as safe as being anywhere else.
‘When it first slowed, things were quiet, but after a few weeks, when people realised that Wuhan was where it was most serious – we didn’t have many in Shenzhen, according to the official numbers – it picked up.
‘In terms of lockdowns, the situation at home is far worse than we ever had.’
In 2018, O’Donovan secured his PGA Tour-China card and competed in a number of events that year, finishing in a tie for 22nd at the Haikou Championship. Unfortunately, with the tour on hiatus – and Brian and wife Li Ru Lin having welcomed baby Cormac five months ago – he is focused on teaching for now.
‘The PGA Tour-China didn’t happen last year and they released a statement last week saying that the 2021 season wouldn’t be going ahead, either – it’s just not viable,’ he says.
‘The China Tour, which is run by the China Golf Association, nobody knows anything, they haven’t released any details or said anything.
‘I’ll play the odd event here and there if it’s close by but there’s not much happening and I can’t be off for a week anymore, just blowing money. I’ll stick to the day-job now a little more.’
More so than most countries, golf is a very rich man’s game in China, but O’Donovan has noticed a greater uptake in the time he has been there.
‘It’s probably getting better,’ he says.
‘There are a lot more schools getting involved, either sending students here after school or we’ll send a coach downtown to basically give PE classes.
‘It’s becoming more popular, it’s not as frowned-upon, which was mainly down to corruption. It’s super-exclusive and the schools involved are all private, foreign-language ones with large annual fees – they’re not your average school!
‘It is still very expensive here and I don’t think that that will ever change, it won’t be like it is at home.’
Those differences manifest themselves in different ways.
‘The biggest would probably be the overall perception,’ he says.
‘People playing back home would understand what it’s about but there’s not the same sense of history here or they’re not tuned in to the rules – they make up their own half the time! It’s just newer here.
‘Teaching them can be tricky at times because 95 percent of the people you’re dealing with are successful multi-millionaires who aren’t usually told, “You’re wrong”!
‘That takes a little bit of adjusting, but I’m here now seven and a half years and I just tell them things straight, no beating around the bush – I’ll pass them on to one of the other lads if they only want someone who’ll agree with them. It sounds odd but it works, they start listening then and they’re fine.
‘Otherwise, they’ll just walk all over you – it took me four or five years to figure that one out!’
And it’s the next four or five years that are likely to dictate whether O’Donovan stays in China long-term.
‘Once Cormac gets to the age where schooling becomes an issue, we’ll have to assess where we are and go from there,’ he says.
‘That’ll be the biggest thing to dictate what we do. We’ve bought an apartment here, we have a car, we’re fairly settled. It would be a big move to go back but I’d like to go back at some stage – floating between the two would be the ideal scenario.
‘It’s a bit up in the air, there’s nothing big planned for the immediate term. I’m here for a while yet, all going to plan.’
O’Donovan’s father Donie is a top amateur and is president of Bandon GC this, having had his term extended due to the unusual scenario in 2020. However, with travel restricted for now, a trip home for the President’s Prize is a long shot.
‘I’m hoping so but it’s unlikely,’ Brian says.
‘It depends on how the vaccines roll out. China obviously have their own vaccines, which Chinese nationals can get straightaway and they can travel and come back without quarantining.
‘They haven’t opened it up to non-nationals living and working here yet. If I was to go home tomorrow, my work visa would be cancelled and I’d have to reapply for that.
‘I’d have no problem going home and quarantining for a few weeks but China have put a stop on international travel coming in so the danger would be that I’d have a long wait to come back.
‘I’d love to go back so my parents could see Cormac but it’s out of my hands.’