Left Field: Appearance fees key to Hong Kong Open

To attract the world's top players, city will have to dig deep now that the tournament has been demoted by the European Tour

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 November, 2012, 3:42am

The tail end of the year is wheelbarrow time in Asia and, let's face it, unless Hong Kong has deep pockets the city will miss out on the big-name golfers in the future, especially now the European Tour has moved the penultimate leg in the Race To Dubai from Fanling to Antalya, Turkey, next November.

The Race To Dubai, the European Tour's merit contest, has helped the Hong Kong Open attract a strong field since 2009 - the first year the sheikhs got into the picture - as many of the leading players jostle for a place in the elite 60-field, season-ending US$8.5 million money-spinner in Dubai, where the top 10 are guaranteed a share of the bonus pool.

It's big bucks so players turn up in Hong Kong striving to make the top 60. It was all rosy for Hong Kong, but no more. The European Tour has found a new paramour in Antalya and the US$7 million Turkish Open will replace the Hong Kong Open in 2013 as the must-go-to event for Europe's elite professionals.

It's as if we had been married to the European Tour since 2002 but have now been traded in, discarded like a forlorn wife, for a younger, wealthier partner.

And to rub salt in the wound, European Tour boss George O'Grady had the gall to warn Hong Kong the tour would not "write cheques to sponsor Hong Kong" unless we unearthed sponsors. The euro zone financial crisis has hit the European Tour hard this year and it has been forced to cancel five tournaments, unsurprisingly four of them in Spain.

"We might look rich, but we're not. We can't just write cheques to sponsor Hong Kong," Grady said. "Sponsors can choose whether they want to keep Hong Kong going."

We could stomach these words if not for the belief the European Tour spurned Swiss watchmaker Omega, which wanted to come in as title sponsor for this week's tournament with a purse of US$3 million to US$3.5 million. But it is understood the European Tour held out for US$5 million as Hong Kong was the penultimate leg in the Race To Dubai.

The watchmaker had no time for such dealings and pulled out, leaving organisers scrambling to find a replacement for UBS, which ended a seven-year relationship last year. But unearthing a sponsor was tough, forcing the European Tour to go cap in hand to the Swiss bankers and ask them if they could carry on for one more year.

Kathryn Shih, CEO of UBS Wealth Management, Asia Pacific, revealed "it was a last-minute deal". That gave UBS the upper hand and they are believed to have driven a hard bargain, coming in at a basement price as evidenced by the prize money being slashed from US$2.75 million to US$2 million.

All this wouldn't have mattered if there was money in the kitty to pay the top players an appearance fee. Thankfully, the government's Mega Events Fund came to the party with a HK$16 million top-up facility, helping guarantee the return of defending champion and world No 1 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland.

Yet, it wasn't enough to attract some of the other big names on the European Tour. Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter chose to defend his Australian Masters title and he was joined in Melbourne by Graeme McDowell. Luke Donald and Thomas Bjorn, who is also the chairman of the Tournament Players' Committee on the European Tour, chose to play in Japan this week. "Pay us and we will appear" is the credo of the modern-day professional. It seems even the European Tour has no hold on its players as shown by Bjorn's decision to play in an event outside the tour.

Perhaps we should go the way of the Thailand Golf Championship, which will be held early next month. The tournament offers prize money of only US$1 million but is believed to have paid huge appearance fees for the players, including major winners Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen, along with Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel.

With the shift to the start of the European Tour calendar next year, the Hong Kong Open will lose its lustre and will have no option but to dig deep and pay appearance fees. At the end of the day, the players make the tournament, and they know it. They are raking it in. It's wheelbarrow time in Asia.