Asian golf on the road to gradual resurgence

A 6,000 weekend crowd at Sentosa catching the action at the 2007 Barclays Singapore Open. The prize purse grew to US$6 million (S$8.6 million) and was graced over the years by top stars such as Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Ernie Els and Rory McIlroy. Comparatively, the SMBC Singapore Open later this month is only a US$1 million tournament.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The year was 2006. There was no Formula One race, no WTA Finals, no Sports Hub for Singapore to leave a calling card on the international sports scene.

But what the Republic did have was the Singapore Open, a US$3 million (S$4.3 million) golf tournament that grew into a US$6 million one with the enviable tag of richest national Open in Asia.

A decade on, the slumping global economy plus a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the Asian Tour professional circuit has left golf in the region at a crossroads.

The Singapore Open, now at US$1 million and backed by Japanese bank SMBC after Barclays ended its deal in 2012, returns this month after a three-year break but to an altered golfing landscape, noted Patrick Feizal Joyce.

The vice-president of golf at Largadere Sports, promoter of the Singapore Open, told The Straits Times: "Five years ago, things were looking very bullish. There were a lot of large tournaments in Asia, specifically South-east Asia.

"That's changed quite a bit in the last few years as the economy took a turn dramatically to the south."

Gone are the days of such "mega events" with European and American companies splashing the cash.

Said Joyce, 47, who heads a six-man team based in the Central Business District: "Everybody's being a lot more prudent. There's also so much on offer besides golf.

"Whether it's badminton, bowling, tennis, football, basketball or netball, there are so many opportunities out there for a sponsor to look at where they want to invest their money. It gets more difficult."

Sponsors' greater options and financial institutions' austerity measures notwithstanding, the impasse faced by the Asian Tour has also not helped matters.

Last August, it announced plans for a historic merger with the European Tour but that proposal has been met by fierce opposition from within its ranks and led to a shake-up of its management.

Its chief executive Mike Kerr resigned last month and several members of its board were also replaced.

Such upheaval is not ideal for business or attracting new sponsors, said Joyce, whose firm owns and runs several PGA and Tour events in North America as well as the Australia, Thailand and Indonesia Opens.

Said the Malaysia-born Canadian: "It's the more immature sponsors that get confused because they'll be hearing three or four different stories and they can't make sense of it themselves.

"Asian golf right now is going through a process of reorganisation, restructuring... that brings with it complications as to how people look to invest in golf.

"Sponsors want clarity on where Asian golf will be in five years."

However, the Western public continues to have a misconception about golf in this part of the world, noted Mark Adams, senior vice-president and managing director of global events management company IMG.

"It's growing but I wouldn't say it's booming in Asia."

Golf's expansion in China, the world's second biggest economy, has in fact stalled following a crackdown on corruption and extravagance. Last year, Chinese authorities shut down 66 golf courses - about 10 per cent of the country's total - and the Communist Party banned its 88 million members from joining golf clubs.

Across the East China Sea in Japan, which comprises the second biggest golf industry after the United States, the game is in decline.

The Japanese golf market experienced a negative Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 2.6 per cent from 2008 to 2013, noted a report by India-based market research agency Ken Research. It projected a negative CAGR of 0.4 per cent over the next five-year period.

That downturn is mirrored by the dwindling numbers on the professional circuit. In 2008, the Asian Tour had 31 events - excluding the four Majors and four World Golf Championships - on its schedule with about US$45 million on offer.

Last year, there were 20 events with a combined US$28.88 million.

Nevertheless, Tour commissioner Kyi Hla Han insists that the game remains in a very positive state and that golf's reintroduction at the Olympic Games later this year would help spark fresh interest.

He said: "Already a global sport, the growth of golf will grow exponentially and I see the Asian region being the focal point."

IMG's Adams agreed, saying: "Golf has always been very strong. If you look back to 2009, when there was an even bigger economic crisis, golf did survive. If you look at potential growth around the world, Asia is still top of most people's list. There may be some bumps in the road, but people still look at Asia as a real growth opportunity for all areas of the golf business."

Globally, it continues to develop. Worldwide spending on golf sponsorship, according to IEG research, was projected to hit US$1.73 billion last year, up 4.8 per cent from 2014.

Meanwhile, the Jan 28-31 SMBC Singapore Open at the Sentosa Golf Club, headlined by world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, represents a fresh start for men's golf in Singapore.

For the first time, three hours of live morning action on Thursday and Friday will be shown on the Golf Channel in the US.

The level of interest from worldwide broadcasters has been "unprecedented", said Joyce.

While 2015 was one of the leanest golf seasons for Lagardere Sports - it was involved in just six events in Asia-Pacific, less than half its total in 2012 - such dips are cyclical and the future remains bright, stressed Joyce.

With the European and PGA Tours making further inroads into Asia by trying to host more tournaments in the region, resolving the Asian Tour's status will be key to ensuring that golf here reaches its full potential, said Joyce.

"It's all been very fractured at the moment and Europe and the US have seen that and are preying upon that to try and work their way in," he said. "If Asia can somehow consolidate... and there's a clear direction or strategy, it could bode well for golf in Asia."

  • The Business of Sport is a monthly series looking at the movers and shakers of Singapore's emerging sports business industry

This article was first published on January 15, 2016.
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