Geographical boundaries are becoming redundant in professional golf. The Professional Golf Tour of India (PGTI) makes inroads into Bangladesh and Nepal in addition to its regular stopovers on the Indian circuit. The (Professional Golf Association, or PGA) European Tour meanders into Africa, Asia and Australia to complement the schedule of tournaments on its own turf.
The difference is in the rationale. While the PGTI’s aim is to foster subcontinental inclusiveness, the European Tour’s intention has been to target new markets. The strategy has reaped it rich dividends; the non-European territories, especially Asia, are now contributing substantially to the well-being of European pro golf.
For the 2011 season, Asia is bringing about €27.30 million (around Rs 170 crore) and 12 tournaments to the European Tour kitty, while Europe will generate about €45 million and 27 tournaments on its own territory, not counting the four Majors and five World Championships (two of them in Asia) that are not part of the Tour but help fill its purse.
Asia rising: (clockwise from left) Chinese golfer Wu Ashun at the SK Telecom Open in South Korea earlier this month (AFP); Tiger Woods conducting a golf clinic in China in April (AP); and golfers at the DLF golf course in Gurgaon during the 2009 Indian Open.(Manoj Madhavan/Mint)
Since 2009, the European Tour Order of Merit (the annual rankings race for the top golfer) has been rechristened the “Race to Dubai”, offering an additional pool—a bonus for the top points accumulators of the season— of $7.5 million (around Rs34 crore, down from $10 million because of the recession) and culminating with the season-ending Dubai World Championship at the Jumeirah Golf Estate from 8-11 December with 60 leading players in attendance.
This means that overall, Asia contributes more than half the prize money and almost half the tournaments that Europe generates on its own steam. If you add the prize money from the two World Championships in Asia, that will be another €10 million for the kitty. Not to forget the Royal Trophy, a Ryder Cup-style team contest between Asia and Europe that has been staged in Thailand for the last few years—it could get the sanction of the European Tour from next season.
Even the European Challenge Tour, a qualification circuit for the main tour, has had a pit stop in Asia, with India having hosted the €201,740 Gujarat Kensville Challenge in Ahmedabad earlier this year. It was won by India’s Gaganjeet Bhullar. A handful of Indians—Jeev Milkha Singh, Shiv Kapur, S.S.P. Chowrasia and Jyoti Randhawa, among others—have been playing on the European Tour and have had some wins too. Another Indian, Arjun Atwal, plays in the US PGA Tour.
Additionally, there are five European Tour events in Africa (four in South Africa and one in Morocco) in 2011. There are no tournaments scheduled in Australia this season but in previous years, the Aussie Masters was a co-sanctioned event with the Tour.
Money calls the shots
For the 2011 season that started December, the European Tour began in South Africa, traipsing into Asia for the month-long “Gulf swing”, which included premium events in Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai. Halts on the schedule: India, Malaysia, China, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong.
Keith Waters, chief operating officer and director of international policy for the European Tour, while announcing the 2011 Tour schedule at a press conference in Dubai in November, acknowledged the changed situation, saying “the Tour’s business” had become “geographically and culturally very diverse”. Asia’s importance to European pro golf has become more pronounced since the recent recession, when a few tournaments there had to be scrapped after sponsors withdrew.
“As Europe has discovered, while it’s become ever more difficult to find sponsors willing to part with millions of dollars within their continent,” says Spencer Robinson, managing editor of the Singapore-based Asian Golf Monthly, “Asia is increasingly becoming the prime choice of venue for multinationals with big marketing budgets.”
A few years ago, even the PGA Tour, the world’s leading tour, woke up to Asia’s economic potential. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem embarked on an 18-day tour of five cities in Asia to meet up with “current and potential” sponsors, a market that Europe had penetrated “with varying degrees of financial success and diplomatic tact”.
“I haven’t been to Japan in three years, and we have a lot of existing customers,” AP reported Finchem as saying in October 2009. “We have a WGC (World Golf Championship) in China. There are other things I need to do in China and Korea. I would say 80% of the trip is seeing existing customers and potential customers, partners, possible sponsors, possible official marketing partners.”
The PGA Tour has since managed to tee off in Asia with the $6 million CIMB Asia Pacific Classic in Kuala Lumpur, launched in 2010. But it has a lot of catching up to do. More recently, Finchem paid a left-handed compliment to the European Tour’s marketing savvy, reported AP, when he observed in January: “They (the European Tour) have struggled more than we have with this downturn. They’ve had to morph their schedule into the Middle East and now Asia to find markets to support their Tour. I applaud that.”
Shift in power centre
This eastward drift signifies the clear shift in the balance of economic power. The slowdown not only throttled the American and European economies, it also drove their golf industries straight into the hazards. The oversaturated American golf market has been experiencing negative growth for almost a decade, even before the recession kicked in, due to socio-economic reasons—there are 26-30 million golfers in the US but more are leaving the game than joining it.
Sustenance for the Western golf industry has, and will, come from the “emerging markets”—Brazil, Eastern Europe, Asia (especially China and India—two nations blessed with booming economies, almost double-digit growth rates and a few hundred million citizens each enriched by two decades of globalization, who are the prime targets of golf expansionism). Most of the golf development has taken place in these “emerging markets” in the last couple of decades; some of them (Thailand, Malaysia, etc.) are now facing their own issues of oversupply—more courses than golfers.
India has around 215 courses (and around 50,000-100,000 golfers) but 50-70 are under construction, or in the planning/proposal stage. The golf industry hopes that around 2-3% of India’s population (20-30 million) will take to golf over the next three decades and some 500 courses could be up and running by 2025. China has 400-600 courses (all built since 1984) and about one-three million golfers. China wants to increase that figure to 30 million in the next 20 years and the China Golf Association reckons the country will need to develop 2,000 courses over the next eight years to service the projected demand.
The weather too is favourable. “Asia is hugely significant for the European Tour in terms of presenting playing opportunities for its own members at times of the year when the weather in Europe is not conducive to staging golfing events,” says Robinson.
Golf’s return to the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro in 2016 is expected to trigger the hoped for course-building spree in both India and China. “The real impact here (of golf in the Olympics) is that governments in China and India will now spend significant funds on the development of golfers, just as they spend on the development of gymnasts and field hockey players,” John Strawn, president of the (course) design firm Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, had told ESPN in October 2009. “In China, for example, the creations of golf practice facilities alone—not to mention golf courses—will run into billions of dollars. I don’t have to tell you how beleaguered the course-development side of the golf industry is these days, in the US especially, and the US exports this expertise more than any country. This stands to be an enormous shot in the arm.”
The Asian line-up
European Tour events in Asia
• Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship
• Volvo Golf Champions, Bahrain
• Commercial bank Qatar Masters
• Omega Dubai Desert Classic
• Avantha Masters, New Delhi
• Maybank Malaysian Open
• Volvo China Open
• Ballantine’s Championship, Seoul
• Iskandar Johor Open (to be confirmed)
• WGC-HSBC Champions, Shanghai (to be confirmed)
• Omega Mission Hills World Cup, Hainan Island
• Dubai World Championship
Mario Rodrigues is a senior sports journalist based in Mumbai.
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