PGA Tour Tour muscles in on Asia's eastern promise

Last week's unveiling of the $9.25 million CJ Cup in South Korea completes a three-event Asian swing

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Hideki Matsuyama of Japan dominated the world's best players to become the first Asian to win a World Golf Championship at the WGC-HSBC Champions play

Hideki Matsuyama of Japan dominated the world's best players to become the first Asian to win a World Golf Championship at the WGC-HSBC Champions

(AFP/File)
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America's PGA Tour has muscled in to become the biggest player on the Asian golf scene after establishing a three-tournament swing worth nearly $26 million along with a growing feeder circuit in China.

Next October, the world's richest golf tour will sanction three tournaments in South Korea, Malaysia and China with purses that will tempt many of the sport's top players.

The PGA Tour is also opening an office in Tokyo while the PGA Tour China, which helps put players on the road to securing American playing rights, is steadily expanding.

Last week's unveiling of the $9.25 million CJ Cup in South Korea completes a three-event Asian swing, also including the $7 million CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur and the elite, $9.5 million WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

It comes after the collapse of merger talks between the European Tour, the PGA's closest rival, and the Asian Tour, who opted for a watered-down "strategic alliance" instead.

"Our players now have an opportunity to come over and play three events," Paul Johnson, PGA Tour executive vice-president international affairs, told AFP during last week's WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

"Not all of them get into the WGC-HSBC so for those that don't, it is more attractive (to have) two events with no cut so guaranteed FedEx Cup points."

Along with the new office in Tokyo, the PGA Tour is also sanctioning its first tournament in Japan, the 2017 Japan Airlines Championships on the seniors' tour.

The timing couldn't have been better as on Sunday, Japan's rising star Hideki Matsuyama dominated the world's best players to become the first Asian to win a World Golf Championship at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

'You felt the energy'

The European Tour has lost one of their flagship tournaments in Asia, Shanghai's $7 million BMW Masters which disappeared from the schedule this year.

Jay Monahan, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the PGA Tour, is looking to expand his reach into Asia play

Jay Monahan, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the PGA Tour, is looking to expand his reach into Asia

(YONHAP/AFP/File)

But last year's successful staging of the Presidents Cup team event in Incheon, South Korea, opened the eyes of the PGA Tour which is transitioning to new leadership under Jay Monahan.

"We had the Presidents Cup there in 2015 and it was fantastic, you felt the energy, the enthusiasm, the crowds, it was really off the chart," said Johnson.

Greg Gilligan, PGA Tour vice-president and Greater China manager, agreed that the Presidents Cup had been the major catalyst behind the sudden expansion in Asia.

"That was such a great tournament and it energised the market place for PGA Tour-quality golf. And we are basically building on that momentum," Gilligan added.

The US PGA Tour first dipped its toes tentatively into Asian waters in 1995 when it staged the World Cup of Golf in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

It returned with the World Cup in various incarnations to Malaysia in 1999, Japan in 2001 and China from 2007-2011.

The build-up has been slow, and it took until 2009 for the HSBC Champions to be added to the PGA schedule when it became a WGC event. A year later, the CIMB Classic in Malaysia followed.

But by this time next year, the PGA Tour will have as many tournaments in Asia as on the spring swing in Florida, the tour's home state where many top players also live.

Three years ago the PGA Tour China feeder series was launched, and that will also break new ground Thursday with its first event outside mainland China, in Hong Kong.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on October 29, 2016 play

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland tees off at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on October 29, 2016

(AFP/File)

"We have the number one brand, the best players and the highest purses," said Johnson.

"We are very fortunate in that there is a tremendous amount of interest in PGA Tour because we are the top of the pyramid.

"So it's a pretty logical business strategy to continue to grow our business around the world."

And that includes the potentially huge market in the world's most populous nation, China.

'Own dime, own time'

Golf chiefs received a fright a year ago when the ruling Communist Party appeared to ban its 88 million members from the sport.

But in April this year party leaders rowed back from their position on a sport which Mao Zedong had once proscribed as a "sport for millionaires".

"There is no right or wrong about playing golf, as it's just a sport," the official newspaper of China?s anti-corruption agency said.

"The party made a clarification," explained the Beijing-based Gilligan, "that there is nothing wrong with golf for party members and government officials.

Henrik Stenson of Sweden lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on October 30, 2016 play

Henrik Stenson of Sweden lines up a putt on the 18th hole during the final round of the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions golf tournament in Shanghai on October 30, 2016

(AFP/File)

"You just have to play on your own dime and your own time."

The boost for golf in China came just a few months before Feng Shanshan won bronze as the sport returned to the Rio Olympics.

"Obviously being in the Olympics is a great thing and China loves Olympic sports," said Gilligan.

"A Chinese athlete brought home a bronze medal. That was fabulous for golf."

Johnson agreed China's apparent change of heart could not have come at a better time.

"You know it may take a while to go back to crazy growth," he said. "But it feels like we?re back on the right path."

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