It's not on the level of signing Tiger Woods or Rory McIlroy, but Nike Golf has taken a potentially big step in the world of golf sponsorships. The company announced Monday that it has signed its first head-to-toe endorsement deals with two players from China who aren't yet known around the globe.
Hao-Tong Li, age 18, and Xin-Jun Zhang, 26, have signed multi-year agreements and will represent the Swoosh in clubs, ball, footwear, glove, apparel, headwear and accessories.
Li, from the Hunan Province, turned professional in 2011 at age 16. As an amateur, he won nine gold medals and six silver medals in the Asian Games in various cities in China. Before turning pro, he tied for 21st in the 2011 Nanshan Masters on the OneAsia Tour, and was named Best Amateur Player.
He also represented the Chinese National Team as an amateur in 2010 and 2011. More recently, he tied for 39th in this 2012 Australian PGA Championship and tied for fifth in the 2013 New Zealand PGA Championship on the PGA Tour of AustralAsia. He has won $6,664 by making two cuts in five starts on the 2013 OneAsia Tour.
From the Shanxi Province, Zhang turned professional in 2010 at 23. In 2007, he was selected to the Chinese National Team for several international tournaments. He won two gold medals and one silver medal in Chinese Professional Tournaments in 2011 and 2012. He also tied for 13th in the 2011 HSBC Champions in Shanghai, an event won by Martin Kaymer.
''We are excited to welcome these two young and talented athletes to the Nike Golf family,'' said Mark Thaxton, Global Director of Sports Marketing Operations at Nike Golf. ''Hao-Tong and Xin-Jun are our first head-to-toe athletes in China and they will make great additions to our stable of athletes at a global level.''
Nike's siging of these two players reminds me a bit of Major League Baseball teams signing amateur teenagers from the Dominican Republic or Taiwan in that you're often betting on potential. But it seems more likely every year that the next wave of raising golf stars will emerge from Asia, and these deals help Nike show those young players that the Swoosh is serious about helping to cultivate their talent. And signing a couple of the higher-profile players in China sure can help Nike broaden its exposure over there.
And speaking of young Chinese golfers, Guan Tianlang remains an amateur unbeholden to any specific equipment company. During his foray in the United States this year, he's been playing a TaylorMade R1 driver, a Callaway X Hot 3-wood and two X Hot hybrids, Nike Pro combo irons, Scratch wedges, an Odyssey White Hot Pro #7 putter, and a Callaway HEX Black ball.