Golf Editorial

20121222 Power Plays between Mens’ Professional Golf Tours?

Recent months have seen some significant occurrences among the professional golf tours; the implications for the future are significant! Battles, and casualties, perhaps loom!

One recent casualty was the Canadian Tour, now swallowed-up and controlled by the PGA Tour. Combined with the 2012 launch of its new Latinoamerica Tour, the PGA Tour has now strengthened its regional presence to total dominance and it makes sense to control all top level golf from Canada to Chile and include its secondary WebDotCom Tour, along with its new tertiary Canadian & Latino Tours, to create a natural player career development path. Such a structure is designed to help to keep the best as well as the most promising players within the Americas and thus under the aegis of the PGA. It won’t work!

From a global perspective, what’s just happened in the americas is fine, but the PGA’s tentacles are now going to reach further afield. Its recently announced 2013/14 schedule notably includes the CIMB Classic in Malaysia late in October, the week after The Shriners in Las Vegas. Early in a new season, some players will feel under Money List pressure to make an 18,000-mile (28,000km) round trip, consisting of at least two 20-hour commutes! It has to be a round trip as they need to return to the USA for the final two events of 2013. Poor bastards!

However, the stupidity of forcing player round trips to Malaysia in between mainland american events notwithstanding, it’s the actual existence of a full-field Malaysian event on the PGA Tour schedule that’s confusing to me. Well, actually it seems insane! Does the PGA Tour really need to accommodate CIMB, or Malaysia itself, that badly? It’s not like there’s any exclusivity here! Many other professional tours hold tournaments in Malaysia and CIMB sponsors the Asian Tour’s Indonesia Masters! So, why this event and this timing, Mr PGA?

Also, the PGA Tour cannot expand into Asia because its schedule is already more or less full and, Malaysia, the Open Championship & one WGC aside, all of that tournament schedule will be played in the Americas. Or does the PGA Tour have far more grandiose plans with this event being merely an exploratory toe dipped in the Asian waters? Maybe a wholesale takeover bid for the Asian Tour is on its mind? Or is this merely a first defensive move to counter the European Tour’s overt Asian successes? Time will tell.

In practice, when it comes to internationalisation, the PGA Tour is a floundering 18-handicapper in comparison with the smooth-talking yet financially struggling European Tour! The international extension of the European Tour’s tournament schedule is, nonetheless, simply staggering!

Take a look at the Euro’s early 2013 season schedule:

Dec12 Nelson Mandela in South Africa

Dec12 Alfred Dunhill in South Africa

Jan13 Volvo Championship in South Africa

Jan13 Abu Dhabi Championship in UAE

Jan13 Qatar Masters in Qatar

Jan13 Dubai Desert Classic in UAE

Feb13 Joburg Open in South Africa

Feb13 Africa Open in South Africa

Feb13 WGC World Matchplay in USA

Feb13 Tshwane Open in South Africa

Mar13 WGC Cadillac in USA

Mar13 Avantha Masters in India

Mar13 Malaysian Open in Malaysia

Mar13 Trophee Hassan in Morocco

Apr13 To be advised

Apr13 The Masters in USA

Apr13 Spanish Open in Spain. (Finally, an event in Europe, albeit with no venue yet!)

Apr13 Ballantines Championship in Korea

May13 China Open in China

Must be the weather that limits it to a single event in Europe by mid-May. However, if we look back at the 2012 schedule, at the other months of the year (June – November) we see:

Nov12 Tour Championship in UAE

Nov12 South African Open in South Africa

Nov12 Hong Kong Open in Hong Kong

Nov12 Singapore Open in Singapore

Nov12 WGC-HSBC Champions in China

Oct12 BMW Masters in China

Oct12 Perth International in Australia

This last Perth event was played on the same days as the European Tour’s own BMW Masters in China! How stupid is that? Yet another symptom of the types of compromises, unexpected alliances and scheduling abnormalities that arise in the fiercely competitive, and completely unfocused, world of professional golf tours!

So, in reality, what the European Tour is today is a 12-month world tour that includes a European season from April to October plus 26 non-European events from October to April; almost all of these 26 being events that rightly belong to an: Asian, African, Middle Eastern or other sanctioning body. Well done, Europe; a slick set of moves!

When those other pro tour bodies (eg Asian Tour, Sunshine Tour) wake up to themselves and reclaim their rightful status as owner of such tournaments, where will the European Tour stand? I’ll tell you. It’ll be a May to October show, with 20 or less tournaments and, outside the Open Championship, only able to attract the occasional top player via the payment of massive personal appearance fees! And that presumes Europe’s financial good health, and the corporate support that implies, will return. Try looking for extra Greek or Spanish sponsorship dollars right now.

Never mind the co-sanctioning argument; I reckon that’s a crock of shit designed to paper over the relative weakness, player and sponsor paucity, of one of the co-sanctioning bodies; this is especially evident when event sanction is extended to tri-sanctioning, as sometimes occurs these days. I equate co-sanctioning to what’s happened to the ‘sport’ of boxing over recent decades; too many sanctioning bodies leading to devaluation of what used to be a superior and very marketable product

Conversely, the PGA Tour has no such six-month gap into which to expand because its schedule is already full from early January to November; with American events. Also, via its superior purses, it is already snaffling the best players. A look at some European Tour ‘defectors’ of recent years is illuminating: Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald, Justin Rose, Nicolas Colsaerts, Peter Hanson, etc. The JGTO in 2012 lost its two star Koreans: Sang-Moon Bae & Seung-Yul Noh. Ryo Ishikawa & KT Kim play often outside Japan. And so on.

Those European ‘defectors’ currently enjoying the luxury of straddling both PGA & European Tours must play at least 11 European Tour events in order to retain their Tour memberships but, for Top-50 players, that requirement typically includes 4xMajors & 4xWGC events – so these quality European guys only need to play thrice ‘back home’ outside the big 8 events to retain their European memberships and they can comfortably fulfil that by playing a few lead-up tournaments the week(s) before the big ones. It’s clear which Tour holds the upper hand here. Money talks. If the European Tour had any balls (or some money) it would have mandated a minimum figure of 15-16 tournaments per annum, or more, and taken up the PGA gauntlet. It couldn’t; it didn’t; it lost!

Ludicrously, and symptomatic of the raft of compromises already in play, winnings from these 8 upper-level tournaments count towards the money lists on both Tours! What kind of insanity is that? I’ll tell you; it’s the same type of insanity that permits your registered and fostered players to have simultaneous membership of two (or more) Tours, resulting in your fans and your sponsors only getting to see them a quarter of the time your tour is in action!

Sadly, player power rules here; why wouldn’t it when there are so many monied competitors clamouring for their services and while the biggest Tours are so lacking signs of cohesive global strategy or serious co-operation?

For example, in early October 2012 that traditional hallowed shrine of world golf, Turkey, attracted an elite field (Tiger Woods, Charl Schwartzel, Lee Westwood, Rory Mcllroy, Hunter Mahan, Matt Kuchar, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson) to play for a purse of $USD5.2m that paid $300,000 for finishing last! The PGA, European, Japan, Asian, OneAsia & Australasian tours all played tournaments that week! QED!

Uneasy compromises exist between some Tours, and between Tours and their players. This scenario is being played out in Asia just as it was in the now-decided battle between the PGA & European Tours.

Just how uneasy matters have been in Asia is amply demonstrated by the recent favourable Singapore Court ruling received by: Matthew Griffin, Terry Pilkadaris, Guido Van Der Valk & Anis Hassan. The Court ruled unfair restraint of trade after the Asian Tour stopped them playing on rival circuit, OneAsia. It fined them, I believe, $5,000 as well! That’s a lot of money for strugglers to pay while suffering unfair restraint of trade!

Of course, this was only about money, and the players’ freedom to earn it where they wished. And such freedom is completely at odds with the desire of Tours to retain and showcase their players. For the Tour organisations, it’s about money too; lose players and you lose sponsors, spectators and television rights deals.

The Asian Tour is the longer established of these two protagonists, with 20 or so of its own heritage events while OneAsia is the bold, brassy, newcomer with big million-dollar purses but fewer events. e.g. its 2012 schedule consisted of just 10 tournaments, with only a handful unique to OneAsia while the remainder were co-sanctions with the: European, Australasian, Korean & Japanese Tours. That word co-sanction again! Go figure!

So, why would the European Tour co-sanction the Volvo China Open in partnership with OneAsia? Dare I call it brand prostitution or brand dilution? Or was it desperation to fill another slot on its new massive global calendar? Or was neither Tour capable on its own of mustering a decent field or the necessary logistical support? Was there sponsor pressure? And where is a Chinese PGA tour organisation to run its own national open? Oh, there really isn’t one? Well, enjoy that while it lasts, boys, because when there is one it’ll surely be the beginning of a terrifying era for the established tours, all of ‘em!

Anyway, despite it only having 10 tournaments in the entire 2012 calendar year, this upstart OneAsia managed to co-sanction the European Tour’s Volvo China Open – scheduled opposite its enemy Asian Tour’s CIMB Indonesian Masters! Nice work, OneAsia!

Even more interesting to me in this new age of seemingly ridiculous and unnecessary co-sanctions & tri-sanctions, is that two of OneAsia’s annual tournaments are the Australian Open & Australian PGA Championship – longstanding tournaments of some regional stature that pre-date the genesis of OneAsia by more than 100 years!.

So, why did the PGA of Australasia let OneAsia in on two of its flagship events? Because it’s bereft of quality player numbers in December? Because it needed money or sponsors? Because it didn’t care about ceding the tournament spots of promising young Australasians to Asian players? I don’t know but you’re definitely going to struggle to assemble a quality regional field if you schedule your Aussie Open opposite the Asian Tour’s Thailand Golf Championship! Nonetheless, this did enable yet more needling of the Asian Tour by OneAsia. Again, nice work, OneAsia!

Also in December 2012, the next week’s scheduling after the Australian Open was identically inane, with the $1.25m Australian PGA Championship played opposite the Asian Tour’s $2m Iskandar Johor Open in Malaysia! Dumb? I think so.

Or does this unusual partnership exist because Australia sees OneAsia as its entrée into the Asian golf mainstream and tv audience? Gimme a break! Asian golf doesn’t need little Australia (or New Zealand, for that matter) with their paucity of sponsors, geographical isolation and almost universal cultural ignorance of Asian mores.

While these SE Asian spats, such as OneAsia vs Asian Tour, continue, and the European Tour unnecessarily seems to interpose itself anywhere it can outside the americas, further north there exist two seemingly healthy pro tours that have: full schedules, plenty of supportive sponsors, good prize money, a solid developmental structure for emerging players and little conflict: the JGTO (Japan) & KGT (Korea). Although a potential point of future conflict might be the ever increasing number of Koreans playing and winning in Japan! But that’s happening everywhere; just ask any female pro golfer!

These two tours operate comfortably in their national environments, much like the PGA Tour, but one wonders how long this can last as the expansionists, co-sanctionists and money / tv men cast greedily around for more new events with bigger money that threaten to remove these tours’ superstars from regular local appearances, and thus threaten the sponsorship attractiveness of the tournaments and the tours themselves.

Then there’s the elephant in the room: China!

To date, China has only occasionally flexed its financial muscle in the world of professional golf, but to significant effect. eg the EUR5.3m Lake Malaren (now BMW) Masters.

China is a country on an economic growth spurt like no other in history and now almost boasts the world’s largest economy. Not satisfied with supplanting the USA in terms of GDP, it’s purchased so many trillions of dollars worth of US debt paper that it probably owns almost a quarter of mainstreet USA already!

Add to that financial muscle the magnificent multi-course infrastructures that have been created in recent years on sites such as Mission Hills (12 courses) & Nanshan (even bigger than Mission Hills!) and a passion for the game among the biggest emergent middle class in the history of the planet and things get really interesting! Who could deny that China is going to be an influence in professional golf in the years ahead, even if their players aren’t? Yet. They will be.

Who is to say that China couldn’t, via sheer financial strength, eventually control Asian golf and consolidate the region’s golf tours into a structure akin to that now pertaining in the americas? And such a structure would be highly attractive to both asian and global sponsors – given the huge spending power and discretionary incomes of the hundreds of millions of now middle class consumers in the region! Who can say a China-backed Asian Tour couldn’t regularly attract all the best players in the world?

So, to revert to my starting point, why would the PGA Tour schedule a, badly timed, event in Malaysia given the impossibility of gaining itself a decent foothold in the Asian region? Is the PGA Tour being smart or scared here?

And what will happen to the European Tour’s 26-event global expansion outside Europe once Asia & South Africa get organised and confident enough to take control of their own pro golf tournament destinies?

What do I think will happen?

I think the critical issue here is that americas’ new PGA-engineered structure is logical but neither sufficiently large nor sufficiently lucrative to support the number of quality golfers they have, those they welcome from outside the americas and those the region will produce.

Firstly, the dire debt situation of the USA suggests the ‘lucrativeness’ is not going to improve any time soon. It may, indeed, worsen.

Secondly, many of those 150-odd prime (PGA Tour card) spots are already allocated to foreigners, and players with exemptions, so a lot of terrific american golf talent is going to have to choose to seek its golfing future somewhere where the competition is perceived as weaker and the purses are bigger than the $600,000-odd the WebDotCom Tour serves up, and for just 27 or so weeks per year.

Beyond those 300 PGA & WebDotCom card holders, 100 of whom will not be americans by the way, the next group is expected to play Latino or Canadian events for purses of $125-150,000? Not enough money! So Asia already beckons them. Europe does too?

However, I also think at least one of the main Asian pro tours will disappear, or at least shrink, while the other, in concert with Chinese financial interests, will emerge to compete with big dollars for the playing presence of the world’s best.

Such an eventuality could naturally re-cast the Asian, OneAsia, Japan, Australasia & Korea Tours into an americas-type structure of tiered and intelligently integrated tours and career development and money-earning opportunities across the region. This would extinguish the European Tour’s regional influence while also attracting young talent from every corner of the world, including USA, via one omillion dollar-plus purses every week.

The yet-to-be-answered question is just where the Big Stage will be; the region where the best players turn up most often and compete against each other for the huge dollars.

Heritage and history says it just has to be the USA. Yet emergent financial muscle and almost exponential economic growth say it can eventually be in China. What price a 5th golf Major, in China naturally, within ten years? Heresy, necessity or both?

For the good of the game, perhaps the most practical way forward will be the co-operative creation of a Global Golf Tour that locks in and showcases the best players to all the golfing world and creates equality of opportunity and access to good livelihoods within a series of regional tiers (tours) below it.

Cheers, Mike


© Copyright Mike J Miller: 22 December 2012