Tim Noonan

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

It's a familiar lament, an all-too-familiar lament in these parts. On the eve of the BMW Asian Open in Shanghai this week, Asian Tour chief Kyi Hla Han said he was not particularly happy with the practice of paying top international players appearance fee money to come to play in Asia.

'I did not agree with the practice when I was a player and I don't agree with it now,' he said. 'It effectively takes money out of my members' pockets and we would much rather see all the players' budget going into the prize fund where everyone has the opportunity to earn in proportion to performance.'

While it's an honourable sentiment, in his heart Han knows it's impractical. There is no way you get the biggest names in the game, like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els or Colin Montgomerie, to come all the way over to Asia and play just for prize money.

These guys are mercenaries, it's that simple, and while they may preach about wanting to help the game grow internationally, they aren't about to do it for free. It's a dilemma for the likes of Han, who knows his tour needs to develop some indigenous stars to pull in the casual fan. The problem is once they become stars, they leave for greener pastures.

India's Jeev Milkha Singh is a classic example. Singh finally made his way into the top 50 players in the world and was rewarded with a trip to this year's Masters, where he acquitted himself rather well by finishing tied for 37th and pocketed US$37,900.

Instead of coming back to Asia the following week to defend his title at the Volvo China Open in Shanghai, he went to South Carolina to play in the Verizon Heritage, one of the less prestigious PGA tour stops. However, prize money at the Verizon Heritage was US$5,400,000 while the Volvo China Open, one of the more lucrative tournaments in Asia and co-sanctioned with the European tour, was offering US$2 million.

It's easy to see why Singh made his decision and maybe it was somewhat disloyal to the same Asian Tour that gave him an opportunity to shine. But at this stage, the Asian Tour is really a launching pad to greatness, not the culmination of it.

Who knows, maybe if China Open organisers had offered Singh the same type of appearance fee that the likes of Els, Montgomerie, Retief Goosen, Paul Casey and John Daly are getting for this week's Asian Open, he may have come back. But having Singh in the field, defending champion or not, will hardly garner a buzz internationally.

So at this stage the idea of appearance fees for him is absurd. If it had been Singh instead of Zach Johnson wearing a green jacket for winning the Masters, the whole landscape changes, not only for Singh but for Asian golf because what the tour really needs is for one of their own to have a huge breakthrough victory. Until that happens, all the UBS Order of Merit award winners on the Asian Tour won't help to sell tickets.

There really is no indigenous golf culture in Asia because the game is in its infancy. The only way to attract new fans is to sell them sizzle, not necessarily great golf. And if the tour is really going to grow, it needs the casual fans, the so-called Tiger fans whose new-found interest in the game has seen purses soar in the US.

When Woods came to play at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai last year, it was pandemonium. The galleries were massive and it's a safe bet that most of the people there didn't know the difference between a birdie and a bogey. But they know Tiger.

Perhaps the appearance fee that most riled Asian Tour players at the Asian Open was the one paid to Daly, who is ranked 234th in the world. True to his ranking, Daly tanked and shot 11 over to miss the cut by nine strokes. He was rumoured to have received about US$250,000 to show up, not bad for two days' work and it is easy to understand why the tour might be upset about that kind of money going to a has-been instead of the prize purse.

But Daly, despite his woeful performance, still has cachet. He may be a train wreck, but he is an unpredictable train wreck who occasionally flirts with greatness. Because of that, even casual golf fans still follow him around the course.

As Han says, it's the sponsors' money and they can spend it as they see fit. On that front, at least he is pragmatic. He knows his tour has grown greatly in only 10 years and that prize money is increasing rapidly. But at this stage, Asia has to pay over the top to bring top-notch sporting personalities here because it has done such a poor job developing them.

Unlike Asia's top soccer officials, who are getting ready to start whining again about how the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool are coming over on another blatant cash grab this summer, Han at least has raw materials and potential talent to work with.

There will be an international golfing superstar from Asia long before there is an international soccer superstar from Asia and that player will give the tour instant respectability.

The problem for Han and his tour is that superstar can't arrive quickly enough.


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