Economic uncertainty hits Asian golf

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SINGAPORE – Asia has long been regarded as the dynamic growth engine for world golf but economic uncertainty is now hitting the sport with three tournaments canceled and another reeling.

In recent months, the prestigious Singapore Open, India’s biggest tournament and a million-dollar event in South Korea have all fallen by the wayside as sponsors withhold support.

The much-loved Hong Kong Open is also without a title sponsor and is propped up with public money, while the Asian Tour’s new Vietnam Masters has been postponed from September to January at its co-sponsors’ request.

It all points to a challenging environment for a sport which has enjoyed phenomenal growth over the past decade in Asia, but may now be losing its fizz.

Ben Poon, managing editor of Golf Asia magazine, jokingly compares it to a sinking ship.

“It’s all down to the economic environment,” he told AFP.

Asia’s main golf circuit, the Asian Tour, has enjoyed steady expansion over its 10 seasons so far, while rival tour OneAsia has also grown since its arrival in 2009.

In that time, Asian economies have prospered but a slowdown of growth in China, a crisis in India and concerns over Southeast Asia have soured the mood.

Asia’s end-of-year golf round remains studded with lucrative, imported events, including the CIMB Classic, BMW Masters, WGC-HSBC Champions and the World Cup, offering combined prize money of more than $30 million.

But with about 20 international events scheduled across the Asia-Pacific region in the last few months of this year, it’s no surprise that some are crowded out.

The Singapore Open, previously billed as ‘Asia’s major’ and with a $6 million purse last year, is the glaring omission from this year’s schedule. Its promoters are promising it will return next season, but the date, venue and sponsor are all unknown.

Meanwhile India’s European Tour-sanctioned Avantha Masters has been shelved after its main sponsor withdrew due to the “current economic condition,” including a plunging rupee.

And the Hong Kong Open, long a cornerstone of Asian golf, is without a sponsor and is relying on government funds to help pay its prize money.

The event has also lost its place among the European Tour’s important end-of-season tournaments, while its traditional home, the Fanling course, is at risk of disappearing under a new housing development.

David Parkin, director of tour operations for OneAsia, admitted that for potential sponsors now, “putting money into tournaments is not the highest priority.”

“Whilst there are new sponsors out there, getting them on board, certainly in Asia, is not easy,” he told AFP.

“We lost a tournament this year in Korea (the Charity High1 Resort Open), which was unfortunate,” Parkin added.

“But I think all around the world sporting organizers and promoters are feeling it a bit and they’re having to give more value from a TV and a benefits perspective, to keep people (sponsors) on board.”

The European Tour has also lost tournaments during the continent’s long period of economic turbulence, and last month it was even forced to deny rumors of a buy-out by America’s PGA Tour.

Parkin said for a tournament with a $1 million dollar purse, a sponsor would expect to spend a total of $2 million factoring in other costs. In return, the company gets exposure for its brand through TV and other media.

But he remained confident about the outlook and expected OneAsia to add “three or four more” tournaments next year, up from its current roster of 10.

“It’s not easy. Like any sporting organization we have to give more for the money that’s being spent… fortunately for us, we’re in a growing market,” he said.

According to Poon, a major part of Asia’s problem is the long-standing turf war between the Asian Tour and OneAsia, which he said makes potential sponsors hesitate before spending their marketing budgets on golf.

“When the economy is good it’s no problem, they (the two tours) can have their own sponsors. But now it’s coming to the crunch,” said Poon.

“Either they come to a solution or one will die out… the only way to move forward is to come to a compromise.”

However, a truce does not appear likely.

“At the end of the day, the Asian Tour is doing what they’re doing. We’re trying to concentrate on what we’re doing… we will carry on doing that,” said Parkin.

The Asian Tour was not available for comment when approached this week.

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