Hong Kong, 11 April 2020: PGA Master Professional Iain Roberts smiles as he recalls what was literally the biggest challenge of his 40-year coaching career – teaching basketball superstar Yao Ming how to play golf.
Iain was a senior executive at the expansive Mission Hills Resorts in southern China when he was dispatched to Shanghai to teach the NBA icon the rudiments of the game.
“Talk about a tall order!” laughs the Hong Kong-based instructor. “I’ve coached players of every age, size and ability over the years but this was something else.”
The 7-foot-6 (2.29 metres) Yao was due to take part in Mission Hills’ impending World Celebrity Pro-Am – a biennial event bringing together golfing greats and stars from the world of movies, music and sport.
There was just one problem – China’s genial giant could barely swing a club.
“He’d only just taken up golf and it seemed most of his knowledge had come from well-meaning friends who were weekend hackers themselves. The tournament was three months away and would be watched by tens of thousands at the resort and millions on live TV. Yao’s a Chinese hero, there was no question of him not looking good,” says Iain.
“I flew to Shanghai, met up with Yao and his entourage and we were driven out to a deserted driving range. Fortunately, he spoke fluent English as a result of his eight years with the Houston Rockets and he was a willing student. Having played sport at an elite level, he understood the concept of repeat, repeat, repeat in order to improve and he had the discipline to do that.
“We knew the TV cameras would be on Yao every minute of the tournament, so he had to be able to play off the tee, hit a decent fairway iron and have a reasonable short game. So, I taught him a simple system and took him through each of those stages. In all, I made three visits to Shanghai, teaching for a total of about 12 hours.”
Even though Yao was well prepared, there was still some late drama when the event was held at Mission Hills’ five-star resort on the Chinese tropical island of Hainan. “I was tournament director and less than an hour before he was due to tee off I got a message on my radio that he wanted to see me at the driving range,” reveals Iain.
“Not unnaturally, he was nervous and wanted some last-minute reassurance before going out. I gave him a 15-minute recap and then walked him to the first tee to avoid him being distracted by fans.
“Thankfully, he hit a solid tee shot down the middle of the fairway, a broad smile lit up his face and he quickly settled down to enjoy his round. After that, our biggest problem was controlling the huge crowds who swarmed around him for the entire 18 holes.”
At least Iain had three months to prepare Yao for that 2012 tournament, in the case of Dutch footballer Clarence Seedorf at the next World Celebrity Pro-Am two years later, he had three days.
“Clarence arrived on the Monday evening and the event was starting on Friday,” recalls Iain. “I asked how his game was and he confessed he’d never picked up a golf club in his life! Yet he seemed totally relaxed about it. I advised him to meet me on the driving range at 8:00am the next morning.”
Seedorf, the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs – Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan – soon surprised his new golf coach, however.
“I can categorically state he’s the easiest student I’ve ever taught,” reveals Iain. “A smart guy who speaks five languages, a remarkably gifted athlete and a very quick learner. He told me he’d been playing tennis almost every day since retiring from football and you could see that in his toned physique and excellent hand-eye co-ordination.
“Perhaps it was his football background and his understanding of discipline, but he did everything he was told and practised almost religiously. Within a couple of hours he was hitting it fairly long and straight off the tee. I coached him every day and then he went out and played pretty well in front of the large galleries. A highly talented sportsman with nerves of steel.”
Iain – previously resident professional at the Hong Kong Golf Club and now running his own Iain Roberts Golf School in the former British colony – looks back on his five years at Mission Hills with a mixture of wonder and disbelief.
“They spared no expense in turning it into a golfing and entertainment fantasy land. It was a whirl of red carpet events, elite tournaments and massive junior development programmes. Two resorts and a total of 22 courses, the scale and ambition were something to behold.”
The World Celebrity Pro-Am was the jewel in Mission Hills’ crown. Golfing icons such as Gary Player, Sir Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Annika Sörenstam and Lorena Ochoa rubbed shoulders with Hollywood A-listers like Morgan Freeman, Nicole Kidman, Matthew McConaughey and Catherine Zeta-Jones, while the sporting superstars included Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps and footballer Ruud Gullit.
“There were some good golfers among the celebrities,” adds Iain. “Musician Kenny G was virtually a scratch player and actress Jessica Alba was fairly accomplished. The Godfather III actor Andy Garcia was a very decent player.”
But none of the pros or celebrities had the pulling power of the towering novice Iain had taught at a driving range in Shanghai. “I firmly believe that Yao playing in front of a TV audience of millions did more to raise golf’s profile in China than any number of PGA Tour and European Tour events,” concludes Iain. “I can honestly look back on it as one of my finest coaching achievements.”