Left Field: Jewel in crown loses its lustre

The city's oldest professional sporting event, the Hong Kong Open, will find it hard to attract top golfers from next year

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 2:36am

There was both good and bad news for organisers of the UBS Hong Kong Open this week. The good was the government saw fit to grant the tournament HK$15 million from the Mega Events Fund, money which will be used to pay appearance fees for big names, including world No 1 Rory McIlroy, who has confirmed he will return to defend his title. The bad news is that next year many of the top golfers might omit Hong Kong from their crowded schedules. This is because the European Tour has moved the penultimate event in the "Race To Dubai" to Turkey, which will host a US$7 million event.

Next month's Hong Kong Open is the penultimate stop on the European Tour's international schedule - 46 tournaments in 24 destinations worldwide - culminating in the lucrative season-ending World Tour Championship in Dubai that offers prize money of US$8 million.

As such, Hong Kong plays an important role as the money won at Fanling counts hugely in the order of merit contest, otherwise known as the Race To Dubai. Only the top 60 golfers on the money list qualify for Dubai, giving Hong Kong an importance way beyond its stature - it offers a purse of only US$2 million this year, which is peanuts in the bigger picture - as players at both ends of the spectrum try to cement their positions.

For instance, this year's money list leader is McIlroy. If he were to finish at the top of the standings after the climax, he stands to pocket a bonus of US$1 million. The other nine players in the top 10 will share the remaining bonus pool of US$2.75 million, according to their ranking.

While winning in Hong Kong might not make a huge difference to players like McIlroy, who are guaranteed a spot in Dubai, they turn up as it helps to enter a tournament with your game honed.

The Hong Kong Open, jointly sanctioned by the Asian Tour and the European Tour, has held the privileged spot of being the penultimate event in the Race to Dubai for the past few years but it is believed this will be the last year of the existing contract between our tournament and the European Tour, which has now embarked on a different strategy.

Turkey holds growing significance for the European Tour. Next year, the penultimate event will be held from November 7-10 at the Montgomerie Maxx Royal Belek course in Antalya. The dates suggest Hong Kong will no longer be part of the final scramble for the Race To Dubai next season, and will likely figure as one of the opening events on the 2014 schedule. It doesn't take a Nobel prize winner to deduce Hong Kong's value has been diminished.

Officials from the European Tour have always maintained the Hong Kong Open was special. Not any more, it seems. The failure to unearth a title sponsor - it was the European Tour's responsibility - is the biggest indication the Fanling event has lost some of its lustre.

Omega was supposed to come in with mega bucks. Last year, Hong Kong Golf Association officials were confident the Swiss watchmakers would clock in and even went so far as to say prize money would be raised to US$3 million.

Not only did Omega do a U-turn, with its corporate strategy shifting towards a mainland focus, but the prize money for next month's showpiece was reduced by US$750,000 to US$2 million. In the end, the European Tour had to go begging for UBS to continue its relationship.

The bankers, who had backed the tournament for the past seven years, struck a hard bargain and have probably come in at basement-price support. Luckily the Mega Events Fund is flush with cash and wrote a cheque for HK$15 million, a record outlay for a sporting event.

The European Tour has co-sanctioned the Hong Kong Open since 2002. In this time the event has grown bigger. Prize money has increased and the reputation of the oldest professional sporting event in town has magnified immeasurably. But now the party is over, with other destinations looking more attractive. The Turkish government is driving a strong bid for the 2020 Olympics. Sport is high on that country's priority.

Turkish delight equates to Hong Kong despair. Next month will see McIlroy return to one of his "favourite cities" in the world. We must savour him, and the rest of the players from the European Tour, for this migratory pack might soon have a new hunting ground.