Casino backing for Macau golf open is a good start

Now it's up to sponsors to inject the cash to attract marquee players to one of the Asian Tour's most popular events

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 August, 2012, 9:10am

The announcement that the Macau Open had acquired the backing of a senior player in the gaming industry will come as welcome news to all parties concerned - the Asian Tour, the Macau Sports Development Board and the Macau Golf Association.

In this current climate of financial uncertainty, finding a title sponsor willing to support a sporting event is rare. And when that sponsor is as big as the Venetian Macao casino, it brings added prestige as it opens up all sorts of possibilities surrounding the future expansion of a tournament that has proven to be one of the most popular stopovers on the regional tour.

Over the years, we have never understood why the organisers of the Macau Open had failed to buy into the fact that a casino would be one of the safest bets to back the tournament.

Various theories had been put forward as to why it could not attract one of the big names in the gaming industry. The most popular one was that the tournament venue, scenic Macau Golf and Country Club on Coloane, is owned by Macau gambling kingpin Stanley Ho Hung-sun. Supporting a tournament at a club owned by a competitor, apparently, is not the done thing.

But as Mike Kerr, the chief executive of the Asian Tour, pointed out, it would be difficult for professional sport to exist in Macau without the support of the gaming industry.

Obviously some sort of deal has been struck this year, whereby the Venetian - a rival to Ho's gambling empire - has been able to come in as title sponsor. We are not privy to what happened behind the scenes, but hats off to everyone concerned for putting aside parochial interests and instead looking at the bigger picture, which is the welfare of sport in that tiny enclave.

From the low point of two years ago when organisers had to scrap the tournament because of the failure to attract a sponsor, the event now faces a bright future.

The Venetian has signed on for just one year but hopefully there is scope for the expansion of the event on all fronts - from more prize money to bigger name players.

This is the ambition of the Asian Tour as well as the Macau SDB, whose goal is to turn the city into an entertainment hub where more than just gambling will be on offer. And Sands, the parent company of the Venetian, has been at the forefront of this move, having brought to town marquee names from the worlds of tennis and basketball.

Sands has been held back on the other big sport which caters to the corporate world - golf - simply due to the lack of a facility. But that, too, seems to have been sorted out now and hopefully the event will get bigger and better over the next couple of years.

The quickest way to do this is to increase the prize money. The current pot of US$750,000 is peanuts in a sport where the big-name players attract appearance fees in the millions of dollars. This is just modest, bite-sized fare rather than a grand 12-course banquet. But as we have already mentioned, it is a welcome start.

The Macau casino industry has deep pockets. It would be loose change for someone like the Venetian to come up with, say, US$2 million or even US$5 million in prize money.

The Hong Kong Open, one of the longest-standing golf tournaments in Asia, offers a purse of US$2.75 million. For the past few years, it has attracted players like world No 1 Rory McIlroy. Of course you have to pay extra to get the marquee names, which Hong Kong did last year through the government's Mega Events Fund.

With casino backing, Macau can afford to draw the best. Last year, McIlroy and a couple of other top players had a swing through China sponsored by a private Hong Kong concern. It ended in Macau and the players loved it, even though at that time they just played a couple of holes at the Caesars venue. They loved the bustling ambience of the city, a feature that all players on the Asian Tour talk about.

There is much going for Macau and its tournament has the potential to easily become one of the top events in Asia, both in terms of money and quality of the field. At present, the Macau Open is a full-field Asian Tour event. But if it is to realise its true potential, organisers will have to seriously think about collaboration with the European Tour.

Kerr says the current status quo of six tournaments being co-sanctioned with the European Tour - Hong Kong is one - is just about right. But maybe Macau should be considered as a seventh. In turn, the backers must be willing to dig deeper and offer a bigger purse next year. This is a start. The future looks bright.