Rapid growth has made Asia the big new destination for world golf but there’s an unmistakable sense of gloom as long-standing events face an uncertain future and local talent stalls.
While rich tournaments and even richer stars continue to flood east, grabbing widespread attention and making large sums for the game’s elite, for the home-grown scene it’s a different story entirely.
A bitter turf war between two rival circuits, which has spooked sponsors and divided players, shows little sign of easing, and Asian golfers are making slow progress on the world stage with just nine listed in the top 100.
China, the great new market with an ever-increasing number of courses and recreational players, is developing at a glacial rate in competitive terms with only three men ranked among the world’s best 800.
Asia’s inter-circuit rivalry even ended up before the courts with four struggling players, who were fined and suspended by the Asian Tour for taking part in OneAsia events, winning a restraint of trade case in Singapore.
Meanwhile traditional cornerstone events are facing trouble. Prize money at the venerable Hong Kong Open was slashed to just US$2 million, and organisers went cap-in-hand for government funds to pay appearance fees for top players.
The Singapore Open, touted as “Asia’s Major” and its oldest national open dating back to 1961, lost title sponsor Barclays and is missing from next year’s European schedule, with its future date and backers unclear.
While those events hit hard times, the European and American tours remain in a powerful position with a series of big, multi-million dollar tournaments that remain the season’s highlights.
The CIMB Classic in Malaysia, headlined this year by Tiger Woods, will become a full-status PGA Tour event next season – and with just 10 Asian Tour players in the field, according to current plans.
The WGC-HSBC Champions, which featured just nine winners of Asian Tour events and four Chinese players at its last edition in November, has signed on for a five-year stint in Shanghai with Major-level prize money of US$8.5 million.
The European Tour also bypassed both the Asian Tour and OneAsia by co-sanctioning the US$7.1 million BMW Masters, a much-criticised exhibition tournament when it emerged last year, with China’s domestic circuit.
But the year’s most talked-about event, China’s “Duel at Jinsha Lake”, was unsanctioned, featured only Woods and Rory McIlroy and was over in just one day of spectator mayhem and gratuitous displays of wealth by the organisers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, local players barely figured at the top tournaments and out of five European and PGA-backed events since late October, only three Asians, in total, finished in the top 10, and none in the top five.
And among Asia’s top performers this year, several, including Asian Tour merit winner Thaworn Wiratchant, and Thongchai Jaidee and Jeev Milkha Singh, who won the Wales and Scottish opens respectively, are in their forties.
However those victories also show it’s not all bleak for Asian golf, and there are other signs to cheer the optimist.
In June, Beijing-born Florida resident Andy Zhang played the US Open at just 14, and China’s Guang Tianlang, who is the same age and also trains frequently in the United States, is set to break the US Masters age record next year.
Asians continue to dominate the women’s game with four of the top five players, including world number one Yani Tseng and Park In-bee, the highest earner on this year’s US LPGA tour.
And just this month, Naomichi “Joe” Ozaki’s Asia team won the Royal Trophy in a play-off against a European side led by Jose Maria Olazabal, who masterminded September’s famous Ryder Cup victory.
The men in charge of Asia’s rival tours both insist that the future is bright and that the trajectory, despite admitted problems, remains upward.
Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han said his organisation provides the “right balance” of tournaments to nurture players, adding in an email: “We are confident the future of professional golf in the region is secure.”
OneAsia chairman and commissioner Sang Y Chun called Asia’s development “alarmingly strong”, and even held out the possibility of working with the Asian Tour to bring the region on to a more equal footing with Europe and the PGA.
However for some observers, the current situation is very different from the high hopes of nearly 20 years ago, when the Asian Tour first came into being.
“Some people on all sides are claiming they’re working for the betterment of golf and in fact they’re doing no such thing,” Spencer Robinson, managing editor of Asian Golf Monthly, said last month.
“You just want to shake these guys, pick them up by the ears and bash their heads together and say, ‘For Christ’s sake, there’s a big enough pie. Let’s all sit down and work together’.”