Updated at: 12/08/2012 12:35 PM
By EILEEN NG
(AP) KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Under sweltering heat, Butsakom Moonfong gripped her golf club firmly and practiced her swing before focusing on the ball. Adjusting her position, the 10-year-old hit the ball close to the hole, getting a thumbs-up from her father _ who is also her caddie.
Butsakom emerged champion in her age group in the Kids Golf World Championship in Malaysia on Dec. 4-6, much to the delight of her father. She has been playing competitive golf since she was five years old, and by six she had her eyes set on the world stage.
"I want to be a world professional player. I want to make lots of money," the softly spoken Thai girl said during a lunch break earlier this week, escorted by her doting parents.
Golf is no longer just an adult’s game in Asia. It is fast becoming child’s play as many parents nurture their kids from increasingly young ages, giving them a head start on a path to a professional career.
Asia’s rising status in the sport, and the inclusion of golf in the 2016 Olympics have sparked interest in the region.
Asian women are particularly dominant, sweeping all four major championships this year for the first time in LPGA history. That makes it nine Asian triumphs in the past 12 majors, while the world rankings, headed by Taiwanese star Yani Tseng, are dominated by Koreans and Japanese. Sixty of the world’s top 100 women golfers are from Asia.
That may soon be mirrored in the men’s game, too. Recently, Chinese schoolboy Guan Tianlang created golfing history by qualifying for the US Masters in April at the age of just 14. Tianlang, from the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, started playing at age four and won the world junior title by 11 shots last year in San Diego.
The Kids Golf World Championship, held for the first time in Asia, attracted 402 participants aged between six and 18. It is an offshoot of the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation, the largest and among the most prestigious event in the world for junior golfers. It also tabulates points toward the world amateur ranking.
Among those competing was six-year-old Filipino Lucas Hodreal, who is a big fan of Woods and world No. 1 Rory McIlroy. Hodreal was among the youngest participants in the Malaysian championship. He was only two years old when his father put a golf club in his hand.
"I like golf because I get soft drinks and get to play iPod in the car," said the pint-sized boy, who was disappointed with his game in Malaysia because he didn’t land any double eagles.
In the Philippines, junior golf tournaments are held almost weekly, providing an avenue for young golfers to brush up on their skills. In Singapore, some schools have begun to offer golf as part of the curriculum. In Malaysia, top bank Maybank recently set up a junior golf academy to nurture young talent for the Olympics and to try and dispel the notion that golf is an elitist game.
Golf is also slowly being embraced in Myanmar, as it emerges from military rule toward more democracy.
Yin May Tho, 17, came from a non-golfing family and fell in love with the game at age 11. She has participated in 45 tournaments since then and aims to make golf a career. She won in her age group in the Kids Golf World Championship.
"This is a gentleman’s game and I can manage it myself. It’s a mental game," she said, citing Yani Tseng and South Korea’s Na Yeon Choi as her idols. She said she hopes to enter a golf academy in Australia next year to better her game.
She was among an entourage of a dozen Myanmar teenagers competing in the Malaysian championship.
Her coach Chan Han said interest has bloomed in recent years with 70-80 budding junior golfers in Myanmar under the country’s golf association. As Myanmar opens its doors further to the world, Chan said he hopes there will be more incentives and further investments to build world standard golf courses to make the sport more accessible.
"In Asia, many people see golf as an elitist game but the rise of Asian stars in the game is slowly changing that perception. Green fees are still cheap in Myanmar and there are many talents here in Asia," Chan said.
For Thailand’s Butsakom, her parents are pushing her and doing all they can for their only child to support her dream.
They live in Mae Hong Son, a hilly province in northern Thailand where her father owns a driving range. Every month, they take a five-hour drive to the nearest golf course in Chiang Mai so that Moonfong can practice her game. Her future goal is clear: become a professional at age 16.
Her mother, a nurse, said they plan to uproot the family to Chiang Mai in the next two years so that Butsakom can practice her game daily.
Will she be the next Asian rising star?
"Yes, I think so," her mother said, with a laugh.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)