x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

PGA Tour is in need of some serious starpower from Asia

Golf experts are counting on Asia's young talent to spark the game’s global revival as Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson enter the twilight of their careers, writes Steve Elling.

Guan Tianlang, 14, of China played in the Masters and could be a star the sport is waiting for. Paul Lakatos / AP Photo
Guan Tianlang, 14, of China played in the Masters and could be a star the sport is waiting for. Paul Lakatos / AP Photo

About six hours into the HSBC Golf Business Forum, an international seminar that drew hundreds of experts, aficionados and industry types to the Abu Dhabi Golf Club over the past three days, somebody in the back of the banquet hall stood and finally acknowledged the elephant in the room.

After much data had been cited and plenty of opinions offered by a series of guest luminaries, the man flatly stated that the game has begun gasping for its collective breath in the western world.

Nobody dared argue the point.

Remedies have largely been futile, so the game is fixing its gaze evermore directly in this geographic direction for salvation. Not just economically, either.

With golf added to the 2016 Olympics menu, several nations have begun funnelling government development funds into the sport, including China, that slumbering giant with 1.4 billion residents.

That industry experts view China, and Asia in general, as the last untapped and unsullied golf market is not exactly seismic seminar news. That some view Asia as the source of the game’s next megastar is a bit more surprising.

China has made a few ripples, including sending a 14 year old to the Masters last year, but no major splashes. Not yet.

In boom cycles, golf has always followed the middle class, certainly in the United Kingdom and United States. The middle class in China is expanding by 15 per cent per year, officials noted.

IMG golf chief Guy Kinnings, whose company runs tournaments around the world, including the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, offered a bold prediction.

With the careers of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, focal points of the game for nearly 20 years, winding down, the professional game needs new frontmen.

“The point is, what Tiger did was transcend the sport,” Kinnings said. “We have had unbelievable stars, but did they truly transcend the game?

“Tiger did. He stepped outside. There will be superstars, clearly. But if there is to be a player, who, like Tiger, will transcend the sport, my view is that he will come from Asia. Perhaps even Korea or Japan, but probably based on the sheer might of support [from China].

“There are loads of them coming. If one of them does emerge, with the genius that Tiger brought and a personality and style that will capture that sheer mass appeal, it could be in China.”

The numbers are certainly in China’s favour. In addition to the staggering pool of potential players, marketing and sponsorship opportunities there are growing every day.

Giles Morgan, the head of sponsorship at HSBC, which sponsors the biggest golf event in Asia, the HSBC Champions in China, did not bat an eyelid when Kinnings’s proclamation was repeated.

“Well, it’s likely, isn’t it?” Morgan said.

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