KAWAGOE CITY, JAPAN | Canada was a long way to go, but Ren Han wanted to play junior golf. And to do that, to play on the best courses against the best juniors and to really work on his competitive game, he knew he needed to leave China.
Not that China hadn’t given him a good start in a sport he picked up as an 11-year-old in his hometown of Shenzhen, the same town where the massive Mission Hills resort was built. Han played some local tournaments over the next couple of years, and then there was that day in 2001 when he played a couple of holes with Tiger Woods when the world’s No. 1 golfer played an exhibition at Mission Hills.
Han was 13 at the time, and not surprisingly it was a day he will never forget. Some 3,000 people watched as he made par on the first hole, and Han laughs when he thinks of how he tripled the next. “I think I just wanted to stay out on the course with Tiger a little longer,” he says.
But the joy of that day did nothing to alter the fact that he really needed to go east, to the West, if he truly wanted to get any good. “The best junior golf is played in the States, but my parents had permanent resident status in Canada,” recalls Han, who was a small yet sturdy 15-year-old at the time. “So we moved there.”
There was Richmond, British Columbia, a coastal city near Vancouver with a large Chinese immigrant population. And once Han got settled, he got to play golf, sometimes at local places like Richmond Country Club and Mayfair Lakes but mostly at tournaments in the States. “A lot of American junior events were organized around holidays, so players didn’t have to skip much school if they wanted to compete,” he says. “But the holidays are different in Canada, so I ended up missing a lot of classes.”
Han did not miss much practice, though, and he played well enough to win the Fidelity Investments Junior Classic in 2005 – and to be named an AJGA honorable mention All-American that same year. At that point, he began looking at colleges, and while his home was still in Canada, his eye was still on the States. In time, Han settled on Indiana University. “It had a very good tournament schedule, and also the best short-game facility in the country,” he says. “It also had a very diverse team, and I liked that. Guys from England, Spain, Mexico. I wouldn’t be the only foreigner on the team, and I thought I’d fit in better.”
To be sure, Han was not the only foreign student on the golf team when he entered IU. But he was the only player from China. And he became the first China-born athlete to play men’s collegiate golf in the U.S.
Just like the old days, Han is missed some school to play in the 2010 Asian Amateur. He did so last year as well, when he teed it up in the first iteration of that championship, drawn like everyone else by the prospects of an invite to Augusta for The Masters, or a spot in the International Qualifying for the Open Championship. And he looked pretty good for a moment, shooting 65 and leading the field after one day. That opening-round number held up as low score for the tournament, but his game did not, and Han ended up finishing 11th overall.
But that has done nothing to diminish his enthusiasm for playing here. “Obviously, it’s a great tournament,” Han says. “It’s the best amateur tournament around when it comes to treating the players well. And who wouldn’t want to compete for a spot in The Masters or the Open?”
Han graduates from Indiana this spring, and he hopes he can one day vie for a place in those majors as a professional. “I am going to try to make it through at least one and possibly two Q Schools,” he explains. “I want to play the British Amateur next summer, and then I really want to give the pro game a try.”
Han’s parents left British Columbia when their only child left for college, and returned to China, where they both are involved in successful businesses. Import/export for her; cell phones for him. So the golf base they set up for their son in Canada is no more.
But the competitive base they gave him as a young player there, the one that has allowed him to tee it up so often in the States, build his golf chops and qualify for championships like the Asian Am, remains as strong as ever.