Why golf suddenly looks to be in favour in China once again – and how Asian Tour can cash in

Surprise reconciliation with Chinese Golf Association should be win-win for all concerned – but PGA Tour might be frozen out

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 7:42pm

It seems unlikely that China’s president, Xi Jinping, will play golf with Donald Trump at next month’s rumoured meeting at his US counterpart’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Xi, according to state TV, used to carry 100kg of grain for 5km on one shoulder while sent down to the country during the Cultural Revolution; despite this athleticism, he seems no fan of golf. It was briefly ‘banned’ in 2015 as a result of Xi’s anti-corruption drive so the ‘optics’ of a swift 18 with The Donald are not great.

In January this year 111 illegally constructed courses were shut down in what seemed another blow. But the Chinese Golf Association has announced a new-look China Tour for this year that will feature a minimum of 12 events each with minimum prize money of US$200,000. It has published a draft five-year plan to develop the game that hits every buzzword in China’s drive to make sport and healthy living key parts of the economy and people’s lives. The plan is contrite about previous excesses in course-building, etc, and pledges to make the game for the people rather than elites, by taking it into schools and so on.

The fact the sport is now in the Olympics is also a huge factor – Rio bronze medallist Feng Shanshan was even congratulated by Xi in person.

The Communist Party has banned it, but key figures still believe ‘golf will grow in China’ – here’s why

If Chinese golf is on the rise, the Asian Tour seems to have stolen a march on rivals with a “game-changing” reconciliation with the CGA.

When I spoke to chief exec Josh Burack at the Hong Kong Open in November, I got the impression the Tour had almost given up on China.

But behind the scenes, Burack and colleagues, including veteran Chinese player and Asian Tour board member Zhang Lianwei, were trying to mend ties severed since 2009 when the CGA jointly launched the rival OneAsia tour.

“It wasn’t that I was pessimistic ... I think I was probably just being cautious in not wanting to be too buoyant on the market until we knew we had an opportunity to work there,” Burack told me this week.

“China has always been important for the Asian Tour – and indeed for any business on a regional basis given the size of market.”

The Asian Tour will now co-sanction four tournaments in China this year and more in future after discussions that took place over “many, many meetings” for “about a year”.

“Zhang helped a lot behind scenes getting the CGA to open the door to and at least engage in dialogue that had been missing for many years,” Burack said. “We were able to rebuild trust and understanding and find we had more things in common than differences, and for both sides it made sense to start working together.”

The PGA Tour China Series, which was held up by the American tour as the perfect development model for Chinese golfers, now seems dead – the CGA’s website seems to suggest it has been “terminated” or “merged” into the new China Tour. A spokesman for the series would not answer questions, saying only, “We are committed to growing golf in China, we believe that others helping in that endeavour is great, including efforts by the Asian Tour.” Where that leaves Hong Kong’s Clearwater Bay Open is a mystery.

The Asian Tour argues its new deal offers a much better pathway to success for talented Chinese golfers. The PGA event offered only one card on the US’s secondary tour to the winner of the entire series, while each winners of the four Asian Tour co-sanctioned events on the China Tour get a full card for the following season’s Asian Tour.

“Our partnership offers bigger prize purses, and the best Asian Tour category card you can get, including our co-sanctioned events with the European Tour and others,” added Burack.“It’s a much better proposition for golf in China to have the door open to multiple tours.”

And everyone involved, of course, will be hoping to cash in if golf in China does boom again.

“We have about 25 tournaments so to add these four in one go, that is a quite significant addition, so this is very big news for our members,” added Burack. “The fact that it’s in such an important market solidifies that point ... we feel it will also raise the overall brand awareness of the Asian Tour in terms of tour-wide partners who want coverage across the region.”

The new tournaments will be put out to tender by the CGA and Asian Tour with Burack expecting “a lot of interest, especially with how event ownership and sports IP are very hot now in China”.

“We never lost our interest in China, but there just seemed no opportunity or space in their priorities to work with us and fortunately things change and they welcomed us back,” he added.

Just don’t expect Xi to take it up any time soon.