Which way now? Asian Tour at the crossroads
By SPENCER ROBINSON
TO merge, or not to merge . . . that is the thorny question facing delegates of the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation (APGC) as they converge on Kuala Lumpur today for a crucial meeting that could change the face of professional golf in the region.
For several years, officials of the PGA Tour of Australasia have been trying to convince their Asian Tour counterparts to join together and form a tour that - in terms of player strength and prize money - could potentially rival the mega-million dollar circuits of the United States, Europe and Japan.
At face value, there would appear to be much merit in a unification which, theoretically, would prove mutually beneficial.
After all, the Asia-Pacific region has the largest population base in the world, the fastest growing economy in the world . . . and arguably the largest corporate sector in the world.
Put all that together and you could end up with the largest professional golf circuit in the world, say the Australians.
Serious talk of a merger began in the early 1990s at a time when Australia's poor economy resulted in several of their tour's major sponsors, notably Japanese companies, withdrawing their backing.
Australia responded by adopting a similar strategy to that employed by the European Tour and went about extending the boundaries of their circuit.
In 1991 their tour included two minor tournaments in Malaysia and one in Singapore, while attempts were made to woo established Asian Tour events, including the Hong Kong Open. But Australian overtures were met with a lukewarm response by the APGC.
For many years the Asian Tour, long perceived as a backwater tour for has-beens and rookies seeking a stepping stone to the big time, had been going nowhere fast.
But when the European Tour spread its wings to include events in the Middle East and then Asia, in the shape of the Johnnie Walker Classic, the APGC belatedly woke up to the fact that if their circuit was to survive, a more professional approach and a long-term plan of action needed to be adopted.
Hong Kong-based sports promotion company Spectrum were brought in with a view to upgrading the Asian Tour on four fronts - bigger purses, better quality fields and improved coverage on television and in the media.
The stance taken by Hong Kong, one of the founder members of the Asian Tour, was that they would not leave the circuit they had been instrumental in building if it would result in its demise. With the exception of Singapore, the APGC member nations resisted Australian approaches and decided to stick together.
One of the reasons why Singapore broke ranks was because they wanted a field of greater depth and calibre. They thought, not unreasonably, that by siding with Australia they would be assured of getting the likes of Norman, Baker-Finch, Grady, Parry, Davisand Senior to compete.
However, all that happened was that the Singapore Open was inundated with dozens of young Australians as opposed to the dozens of young Americans who ply their trade on the Asian Tour. Furthermore, the Singapore Golf Association lost much of their autonomy in the actual running of the Open.
One of the main areas of debate in the proposed merger has been with regard to the opportunities that will be afforded Asian players.
Originally Australia wanted the lion's share of exemptions for their players, leaving a poor Asian representation. This was, quite rightly, deemed unfair and unacceptable by the APGC.
As sponsors disappeared from Australia and their position weakened, they have been left with no option but to compromise.
They are hardly in a strong bargaining position, particularly as the Asian Tour, although still a long way short of what it could and should be, has at last begun to get its act together.
A qualifying school has been introduced to take the place of the out-dated Monday pre-qualifying, while another significant milestone was reached this year when Newsweek were secured as overall sponsors for the tour with Opel as presenting sponsors.
In view of the developments that have occurred on the professional tours in Australia and Asia over the past two years there is no question that the Tour of Australasia needs the Asian Tour far more than vice-versa.
All the indications are that progress will continue within the Asian Tour. Professionally promoted and properly run, the Asian Tour has the potential to expand tremendously within Asia itself.
The benefits of Asia joining Australia to form one major tour have rapidly diminished. And there are no obvious reasons why the Asian Tour should now change course.
Spencer Robinson is Managing Editor of Asian Golfer