China tour faces long drive
US PGA circuit has over 44 full-field events with a whopping US$210 million in total prize money
The 20th anniversary of China's post-Cultural Revolution golf industry passed off with little fanfare or ceremony in Guangdong province last year.
However, details that emerged last week that a domestic tour is about to be launched on the mainland - and which in another 20 years could rival even the US PGA Tour - has sent pulses racing and the rumour mill well into overdrive.
Zhang Lianwei, China's number one tournament professional, predicts that the new mainland professional tour will match the Japan Golf Tour within three to five years and that the tour could grow rapidly over the following 10 to 15 years to become as popular and as lucrative as the US PGA Tour.
The 40-year-old made his comments last week at Shenzhen Golf Club while filming a promotional video for this year's Volvo China Open, where the 11th staging of the event will be held in November this year.
Zhang featured in the video alongside popular Hong Kong actor Eric Tsang Chi-wai.
'We had a domestic tour in China 10 years ago that ran for three years,' said Zhang. 'Another group of domestic events continued after that for another two years and then another sponsor came in and staged a tour that lasted for a further three years. As such, a domestic tour in China is not a new concept.'
Zhang added that China's rapid economic rise of the past 20 years had created the inevitability that local as well as international companies would have a ready supply of sponsorship dollars to spend, and that with 200 golf courses now spread throughout the country the infrastructure was already in place to stage a full-blown domestic tour.
This may well be the case but a China tour has an awful lot of ground to make up to match the well-established Japan Golf Tour. This year the tour has 29 events, each one of which provides a minimum purse of 100 million yen ($7.2 million).
The richest event, the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament, has a 200 million yen purse, while more than half of the events offer a purse well in excess of the minimum prize fund. With 2,500 courses, the Japan Golf Tour is also not short of suitable venues.
The cash on offer on the US PGA Tour is even more staggering. The competing players slug it out in 44 full-field events for a whopping US$210 million in total prize money, not counting the four World Golf Championship events or the British Open Championship, both of which are included on the end-of-year money list.
The lowest total purse on the US PGA Tour pays out US$3 million while the winner takes home a cheque for US$540,000. Fred Funk won the first prize in the US$8 million Players Championship in March and collected a breath-taking US$1.44 million for his single-shot victory.
The China Golf Association certainly has a mountain to climb if it genuinely aspires to reach such lofty heights, but then things tend to move pretty quickly in the world's most populous country, particularly when there's potentially so much money at stake.
And while the infrastructure might well be there in terms of golf courses, hotels and transportation links, golf in China is still a game for the wealthy minority. This being the case, there is no structured amateur tour, which in other developed countries is where the next crop of young pros tends to emerge.
Asian Tour chief executive Louis Martin said that Chinese players needed a strong amateur series of events, which would produce eventual pros.
'The only way for professional golf to get stronger in any country is on the back of a strong amateur base,' said Martin. 'The focus of golf is ultimately to have a solid platform starting with the grass-roots level via a comprehensive development programme.
'A strong amateur circuit is essential, and when the top amateurs turn professional, a domestic professional tour is required for them to further develop their games under a different environment and standards of play.
'Eventually, the cream of the crop will graduate on to the major international tours such as the Asian Tour.'
Martin went on to say that the Asian Tour would be happy to assist China to get started on the domestic tour if required.
'We feel this is an important area that could lead to more top-class players emerging from China in the future.
'We will continue to work closely with China to develop the game at all levels,' he said.
Whether or not the China Golf Association would seek the help of the Asian Tour is open to debate, as it now emerges that outside help has been sought to establish the new tour. A small number of companies that specialise in sports event management are rumoured to have canvassed the association, but just who will win the rights to manage the new tour is being kept well and truly under wraps until an official announcement is made next month.
Li Yong, the deputy secretary of the association, confirmed earlier this week that the tour would go ahead with five events this year, and that 'six or eight events would be staged next year'. He also confirmed that this year's events would carry US$100,000 in prize money.
'We plan to take it step by step, but Zhang might be right in his assumption that we could rival the Japan Golf Tour in three to five years,' said Li.
Tsang seemed a curious choice as a partner for last week's promo video with Zhang. However, the golf-mad actor is chairman and a co-founder of the Chinese Golf Foundation, a non-profit organisation that has been set up to provide support for young male and female golfers in China and Hong Kong.
The foundation has already provided sponsorship for China's national women's team, who consist of 15 leading amateurs, some of whom will receive professional coaching in the US.
The foundation was set up by the Chinese Amateur Golf Association, the Chinese Ladies Golfers Association and the China Golf Association. Such initiatives are certainly a step in the right direction, and with the popularity of golf in China rising in tandem with the booming economy, it would not be such a stretch of the imagination to assume that a future Tiger Woods or Michelle Wie is right now bashing balls on the range and honing the perfect swing.
A tour with a potential multimillion-dollar prize fund is certainly a massive attraction to the few event management companies capable of staging such events. A spokesperson for International Management Group, the world's largest event management company, would only reveal that his company 'speaks to the [China Golf Association] on a weekly basis' but would not say if it was involved in such a tour.
Alistair Polson, who together with partner Aylwin Tai organised the first domestic tour in China 10 years ago, and who also organises the Volvo China Open, was interested to hear of the new initiative.
'It's a strange feeling to hear about it, rather than instigate the resurrection of the China Tour,' said Polson. 'We had three great years working with the China Golf Asociation on the Volvo China Tour from 1995 through to 1997. The tournaments and the moral support were fantastic, but the market then was tiny.
'China certainly has the critical mass to support a domestic series of professional events. There's a lot of potential support money around but probably of more importance is that people feel very proud of their country and what it's achieving. As such there will be a strong resolve from all domestic partners in a new tour to grow it quickly and to make it prominent in the world of professional golf.'