Money talks in Asian golf world

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 November, 2011, 12:00am


Some thirty years ago South African hotel developer Sol Kerzner was in a bit of a quandary. He had built a spectacular resort and golf course called Sun City in South Africa and very much wanted to hold a championship golf tournament there. But there was only one big problem: apartheid.

The whites-only government of Kerzner's country was an international pariah. He asked golfer Lee Trevino what it would take to get a number of his highly decorated peers to come play his course and Trevino told him to put up a million dollars cash for first prize. So he did and they all came: Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Bernhard Langer, Trevino, you name them - every top player of that era with the notable exception of Tom Watson came.

In 1995, one year after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president, Corey Pavin would win the million-dollar purse by shooting a 66 on the final day and proceeded to utter the simple truth. 'Let's face it,' Pavin said. 'We're here for the money.' This is what professional golfers do. They play for money. Did you work for free this week? Most of us didn't so why should they?

I mention all of this because we are in the final throes of the true money season in golf. Of course there is no shortage of dough during the first three-quarters of the golf calendar, especially with a US$10 million purse for winning the FedEx Cup. But there is still a certain amount of cachet involved with winning one of the four majors or another of the big name historical tourneys. However when the leaves begin to fall in North America and Europe, the money begins to fall in Asia. While none of the top names in golf will notch a career defining victory during the Asian swing, it hardly matters. Rory McIlroy is the reigning US Open champion. When he tapped in a two-foot putt to win US$2 million in the Shanghai Masters four weeks ago, US$560,000 more than he got for his US Open win, his banker was happier than his historian.

From Singapore to Shanghai and all points in between, the best players in the world have been plying their trade over here for the past month with the culmination of the Asian money swing ending this week at the venerable UBS Hong Kong Open. Ironically, the oldest and most tradition-rich tournament in Asia, the total purse at the Open is US$2.7 million, a mere seven hundred thousand more than McIlroy earned in Shanghai.

With UBS leaving this year as title sponsor, this co-sanctioned event could be in serious trouble. For years it has been the premium Asian destination for some of the top players in the world. The stories are legendary of big-name golfers dropping their guard over more than a few libations on the cozy balcony at Fanling while the most knowledgeable golf fans in the region dot the heaving galleries. But all that will be nothing more than nostalgia unless a corporate partner steps up with some serious coin.

Up in Shanghai they have no such issues. This year's inaugural Masters event at Lake Malaren featured a stellar field that included the reigning Masters, US Open and PGA champs. But not everybody was pleased with the lucrative unsanctioned event. Executive chairman of the Asian Tour Kyi Hla Han was withering in his criticism calling it nothing more than a vanity event.

'I hope China realises events like this won't help its young players' he said. 'I have to question the development of Chinese players because over the last three years, there hasn't been any breaking through to play on the world stage. There are no world ranking points or Olympic spots available here either.'

But this is not about ranking points; it's about banking points. 'They're building golf courses daily here,' said American Hunter Mahan. 'I'm here because this is the place you want to market yourself.' Exactly.

Sure, golf is becoming an Olympic sport in 2016 and any time the rest of the world wants to keep the boys in Beijing in line they always threaten something or other to do with the Olympics. But golf is a single-medal event so I find it hard to believe they are losing any sleep over the lack of their indigenous development. Much more inviting for them are developments in places like Kunming.

Twelve years ago Spring City Resort was the only course on Yang Zonghai Lake, one hour outside of the city. Today the spectacularly scenic area has six courses either built or being built. It will soon be the Palm Springs of China, a sprawling golfing mecca and you know what? All the golfers they need to keep them going are in China. Mahan is right. China, and Asia, is where the money in golf is now. It may not help them develop top-end talent but it will help them attract it. Because let's face it, they're here for the money.