Asian Tour confident sponsors will return to Hong Kong Open

Kyi Hla Han and European Tour official says event's woes are no different to that of other tournaments in difficult times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 10:56pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 December, 2013, 10:56pm

Forget the clouds of doom and the gloom. With the sun dappling down through the trees that line the Fanling fairways, the wonder was just how it had come to pass that Hong Kong's oldest professional sporting event had this year failed to find a title sponsor.

As a setting, at least, the Hong Kong Golf Club could not have presented itself to potential suitors in a more alluring manner. And the galleries were certainly out in force on Saturday, soaking up the action and the sun.

But the question of sponsorship has been hanging around the tournament, and - combined with a drop in prize money (from last year's US$2 million to US$1.3 million) that dimmed the star factor to a low glow and a schedule shift to accommodate more lucrative events - it has left many fearing for the Open's future.

We've got to keep going. We've got to keep positive. We got to keep people believing
Jamie Birkmyre, European Tour director of champhionship management

Kyi Hla Han shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows in exasperation when he considered the conundrum. The Asia Tour's executive director has a special affinity with the event - its 1981 edition was when, as a 20 year old, he first made the cut as a professional and so was able to bank his first pay cheque.

"From the Asian Tour perspective, our players are very thankful the tournament has carried on," he said.

"I think this composite golf course is a popular layout. The players all enjoy coming to Hong Kong. Our players are very understanding of the circumstances, but they're just happy to be playing golf because that's what they want to do.

"It's a perfect venue and the tournament itself has a rich tradition. I think this is a short-term thing, that the tournament this year wasn't as big as expected, but I see it being very positive in the future."

The European Tour, which co-sanctions the event and which gave its previous end-of-season position up to the US$7 million Turkish Open, put the problem with finding a title sponsor down to the Open being "the victim of difficult times".

"I think what's happening here is no different to what is happening to other sports in other parts of the world," said Jamie Birkmyre, the European Tour's director of championship management.

"If you look around the world there aren't many areas where sponsorship isn't difficult to find. We've worked incredibly hard to keep the event going, with the club and the [Hong Kong] golf association and with the Asian Tour. All four partners are 100 per cent behind the event. Unfortunately, we haven't got one title sponsor over the line."

Birkmyre said there were "good conversations going on for the future" and one positive to point to was the fact this year's field had given any number of the region's top young talent a chance to mix it up with more seasoned pros - China's Guan Tianlang and Hong Kong's Jason Hak Shun-yat among them.

"We've got to keep going," he said. "We've got to keep positive. We got to keep people believing. We're not shying away from the fact it is a bit smaller than last year but we are really positive."

The crowd gathered on the balcony of the Amundi hospitality box, poised over the 18th green, didn't seem to need any convincing.

The asset management giant was a late addition to the event as a "Premier Partner". Following a long association with the French Open, the company saw supporting its Hong Kong equivalent as a way to increase its exposure in Asia.

"We are very happy to extend our corporate sports sponsorship beyond Europe," said Zhong Xiaofeng, the company's chief executive, North Asia.

"Asia is at the core of our international development strategy, so this event is perfect. The growth of golf in the region is extraordinary and so this event is great opportunity for us, being part of both the European and Asian Tours.

"We like the story of the Hong Kong Open, and its history and to be part of that is a great opportunity," he said.