Stars shoot east for riches raining down from China's golf boom
Asia predicted to overtake America in prize-money terms within five years
It is claimed the Chinese invented golf; but then it is also claimed Confucius said "he who has fastest buggy never plays from bad lie" so perhaps a little poetic licence should be applied.
Yet what is becoming ever more certain is that the Chinese are determined to reinvent golf. And, in particular, professional golf.
Of course, the only way to cause a plus-foured revolution is to throw money at competitors who have been known to be swayed by the power of the greenback. It is fair to say they are being rocked to the core of their wallets as China steps to the forefront of Asia's would-be annexation of a sport. This last few days have been a gold-plated case in point.
In Malaysia, the PGA Tour have been hosting the second staging of the CIMB Asia Pacific Classic, a 48-man field playing for a $6m (£3.7m) prize fund. Big names, big money, but alas for the American officials so keen to gain a foothold in the East, it is not even the biggest event in the continent this weekend. That tag must go to the Shanghai Masters, despite the tournament having no official status and barely any pre-publicity. If anyone is looking for evidence of China's interest in golf they should peer no further than the Lake Malaren Golf Resort in the north of the city.
The purse is officially $5m, but that is the only area in which it is "beaten" by the Malaysian money-grab. Not only does it boast a $2m first prize, the biggest in golf, but The Independent has discovered it has a $20m budget. "The appearance fees being paid at least match the $5m purse – at least," said an insider. "In fact, they're probably nearer $8m-$10m." No wonder 30 of the world's finest golfers have been enticed, including Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy, Padraig Harrington, Charl Schwartzel and seven other major winners.
The most notable cause of concern for the PGA Tour, who believed they would have Asia to themselves in the third week of October, is the presence of the likes of Jim Furyk, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan and the USPGA champion, Keegan Bradley – Americans who they consider their own. Yet when it comes to the yen, allegiances are in the habit of switching.
Naturally, there has been dissension, if not from the PGA Tour, who have long believed sour grapes to be the fruit of the weak. Kyi Hla Han, the Asian Tour's chairman, labelled the Shanghai Masters "a vanity project" and wondered how "such exhibition events help players develop". He has missed the point. It's not really about the players' development – and, in truth, that merry bunch including John Daly and Colin Montgomerie are developed enough – but the development of professional golf in China. In this regard, the Lake Malaren project is a first.
The European Tour first dabbled in China as long ago as 1995, but since then the association has flourished, with sponsors such as Volvo funding the events. But now, it isn't the Germans bankrolling the venture, but a local Chinese firm. The SRE Group, one of the country's largest property developers (remember them?), enlisted IMG, the management giants, to arrange the Shanghai Masters and so unlocked a war chest to promote the Jack Nicklaus-designed course in the centre of one of their huge residential complexes.
"I'm delighted that for the first time, a local company has taken up the responsibility to do its part of advancing golf in China," said Zhang Lianwei, the only Chinese in the world's top 250. "It has been the moment I've been waiting my whole professional career for; and I wish the Lake Malaren Shanghai Masters can become China's Masters."
Chubby Chandler, the founder and managing director of International Sports Management, believes Liang should have no worries on that score. He confidently predicts the event will be an official European Tour event next year. He also predicts that with China now bitten by the bug, the Asian explosion will mushroom. Says Chandler: "At the start of this year I forecasted that within five years a half of the European Tour events will be held in Asia – I was wrong. It will be within three years."
What made him upgrade an already grand statement was a recent exhibition which saw Westwood, McIlroy, Ian Poulter and Liang play on seven courses in seven cities in seven days. As the manager of Westwood and the then manager of McIlroy (the four-year association ended last week) Chandler went along on this extreme eye-opener. "We went to one city [Chongqing] I'd never heard of before and I was told it had a population of 32 million," said the Boltonian. "People talk of recessions, but there isn't one in China. The middle class is growing."
Chinese golf can hardly keep up with the demand. Indeed, progress has been rather too hasty for the Chinese government, which issued a construction ban seven years ago and has watched on in growing frustration as unpermitted courses have sprung up. That is the only obstacle to the increase of Chinese golfers, which, since the first course opened in 1984, has spiralled to three million now and is expected to quadruple to 12 million in the next decade.
"They're building golf courses daily here," so said the American Mahan, with unwitting accuracy at the Shanghai Masters yesterday. "I'm here because this is the place you want to market yourself." Chandler welcomes such foresight from a golfer whose nationality has long been accused of being insular when it comes to travelling overseas for their corn.
"If we managed a young American player, unless they were really against it, we would try to make them international players rather just staying in the US," says Chandler. "I'd give them two reasons why. One: Travelling abroad will enrich their lives; Two: In five years' time the money in Asia is going to be bigger than the money in America. In fact, I'd go further than this. In 15 years, 50 per cent of the players on a big-time leaderboard – yes, the major leaderboards – will be Asian. Loads of great players are going to come out of Korea. And China? Well, the population is well over a billion, and, as I said, the game is growing at an incredible rate of knots. You don't have to be a maths expert to work it out."
But then, a calculator is advisable when trying to tot up the potential of the players' earnings on golf's newest battleground. Next week, the HSBC Champions – or "the Asian major" as the organisers like to call it – takes place in Shanghai. As a World Golf Championship event, it happens to be sanctioned by both the European and US Tours. It has a prize fund of $7m and, unlike any other WGC event, The Independent understands that appearance fees are being paid. It means that within one fortnight, one city will have put more than $20m up for golfing grabs. It's not the infamous wheelbarrow, Rory and Co require – it's a JCB.
Facts In Figures
2: Prize in millions of dollars for winning the Shanghai Masters
1: Number of Chinese golfers in the world's top 250
$20m: Total budget – including appearance fees – for the Shanghai Masters
1984: The year the first golf course opened in China
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