Golf’s land­scape has new look in Asia

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By Doug Fer­gu­son

To get a sense of how much the land­scape in golf is chang­ing, con­sider the PGA Tour sched­ule next year. The Asia swing in Oc­to­ber will have as many tournaments as the Florida swing in March.

Per­haps this il­lus­trates the sus­pi­cions seven years ago when PGA Tour Com­mis­sioner Tim Finchem held a news con­fer­ence on the fi­nal day of the HSBC Cham­pi­ons and whis­pers filled the room that it was the start of an “Asian in­va­sion.”

That was the first year the HSBC Cham­pi­ons, billed as “Asia’s ma­jor,” be­came a World Golf Cham­pi­onship.

The PGA Tour added the CIMB Clas­sic in Malaysia the fol­low­ing year. Justin Thomas won the sev­enth edi­tion at Kuala Lumpur this year, and the next day the tour an­nounced it had a 10-year deal with South Korean con­glom­er­ate CJ Corp. to spon­sor an event in South Korea start­ing in 2017 that of­fers $9.25 mil­lion in prize money. Only the four ma­jors, The Play­ers Cham­pi­onship and the World Golf Cham­pi­onships have higher purses.

Two days later, the PGA Tour cel­e­brated the open­ing of a new Asian of­fice in Tokyo.

The PGA Tour Cham­pi­ons is go­ing to Ja­pan next year, though any reg­u­lar PGA Tour event is not on the im­me­di­ate hori­zon. Ja­pan is host­ing the Olympics in 2020. Any tour­na­ment be­yond that likely would start with the World Cup and the Pres­i­dents Cup, which next has an open date on the in­ter­na­tional cal­en­dar in 2013.

A week’s worth of Asian de­vel­op­ments got the at­ten­tion of the play­ers. They now have the op­tion of play­ing for $26 mil­lion over three straight weeks, al­though those tournaments are half­way around the world.

“It just seems like we should play at home, but I’m not sure where the tour is try­ing to go,” said Kevin Kis­ner when asked about the new tour­na­ment in South Korea. “Ob­vi­ously, they want to make it more of a world tour, which is great. We’re play­ing for $9.25 mil­lion, but not all of us want to get on a plane and fly over there and play for it.

“I’d rather have a $9.25 mil­lion purse in Aiken, South Carolina,” he said with a wry smile be­cause he lives off the 17th hole at Pal­metto Golf Club. “The econ­omy is not grow­ing fast enough in the U.S. to keep ask­ing peo­ple to throw money at us.”

The LPGA Tour, ahead of the curve by ne­ces­sity, is wrap­ping up a six-tour­na­ment swing through Asia this week.

The PGA Tour is not headed down that road, not yet and per­haps not ever. The tour showed its strength when it re­mained fully spon­sored do­mes­ti­cally through the 2008 re­ces­sion. The pres­ence in Asia sim­ply is rec­og­niz­ing where the growth is, and the tour would be fool­ish to ig­nore that.

Ja­pan is the sec­ond­largest golf mar­ket in the world. Paul John­son, who heads up in­ter­na­tional af­fairs for the PGA Tour, said it has 14 spon­sors that have sig­nif­i­cant busi­ness in Ja­pan, and so a Tokyo of­fice makes sense.

Tournaments are one piece of the puz­zle, and John­son said events out­side the coun­try “en­er­gizes our fan base.”

“As spon­sors glob­al­ize, we want to be in a po­si­tion to work with them,” John­son said. “There is a broader strat­egy that says we need to build our busi­ness out­side the U.S. If you want to drive busi­ness, you have to be in the mar­ket­place.”

No one is mak­ing play­ers travel to Asia in Oc­to­ber, es­pe­cially af­ter an Olympic year when three ma­jors were crammed into a seven-week win­dow ahead of the Rio Games.

Among those who chose to sit out the HSBC Cham­pi­ons with­out in­jury or ill­ness were Jor­dan Spi­eth, Phil Mick­el­son, Jim Furyk and Zach John­son. All have a his­tory of be­ing will­ing to travel ex­cept for John­son, who hasn’t played over­seas (ex­clud­ing the Bri­tish Open and a Ry­der Cup or Pres­i­dents Cup) in a decade. Spi­eth, for ex­am­ple, is re­turn­ing to the Aus­tralian Open in two weeks.

How­ever, play­ers might feel a need to go to Asia so they don’t fall too far be­hind at the start of the sea­son.

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