Friday, September 18, 2009

All Maitland All the Time

Why do I like Tim Maitland's golf writing? It's not just that he knows his golf, or knows top players and caddies well enough to get great quotes and stories. It's not even that he pays equal attention to the women's game, which was booming in Asia long before the men's. What I really appreciate about his writing is the way he zooms in on up-and-coming young players like Ji-Yai Shin. He'll be the first to remind you he was "telling the English-speaking world about Ji-Yai waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay before anyone else."

Of course I had to do some digging on a claim like that, and while it's true that from October to December 2007 Maitland was spreading the word about Shin's record-breaking sophomore season on the KLPGA in Golf Digest Singapore and the New Straits Times, I think the laurels have to go to Happy Fan of Seoul, who covered Shin's pro debut back in May 2006 in his Seoul Sisters Magazine and in the January 2007 issue called her rookie performance there the #2 story of 2006 (ahead of Seon Hwa Lee's ROY on the LPGA and Song-Hee Kim's dominance of the Futures Tour and behind Se Ri Pak's winning the LPGA Championship for her 5th career major). By the way, Daniel Wexler gets the bronze, but only because my 1st mention of Shin here back in September 2007 (take that, Tim!) was so uncontextualized and undeveloped.

His slightly exaggerated (and, to tell you the truth--when you put that fragment from his email that I unfairly quoted above in context--clearly tongue-in-cheek) claim aside, Tim is one of the few pro golf writers out there from whom I am consistently learning something new and getting really interesting breaking news. So I'm really glad to share his HSBC Champions/WGC sequel with Mostly Harmless's regulars and newbies. The globalization of men's golf is about a decade behind the world of women's golf, but if other writers had a tenth of Tim's insight into and enthusiasm for this story, the LPGA would be in much better shape heading into 2010.


Putting the World into World Golf
Tim Maitland

Asia gets its first ever World Golf Championship event in November, when the HSBC Champions goes global. Should you be excited? Yes! Tim Maitland counts the reasons why.

Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy has some very good reasons why Asian golf fans should be thrilled about getting a World Golf Championship and Geoff Ogilvy should know, because the 32-year-old world number ten is the second-most successful golfer in the 11 years of WGC play.

His reasons? You could count them off, but you’d run out of fingers. There are 16 in total, and they’re the number of times, in just 30 starts, that Tiger Woods has won a WGC title.

“Tiger’s made a habit of winning them,” states Ogilvy simply. “Whenever big players win tournaments it raises their status to a whole new level.”

True, when Tiger wins the world takes notice, but this year, of all years, is different. This is the year, 2009, when golf changed more in 12 months--some might say more than in all the other years put together--and turned itself from what critics would claim is a rich gentlemen’s pastime into a truly global sport.

“Giving WGC status to an Asian tournament would be a remarkable shift of focus for world-class tournament golf in any year, but when you add all of the other landmarks it’s hard to think of another top-level sport that has had such a quantum shift in such a short period,” declared HSBC’s Giles Morgan, whose Shanghai-based HSBC Champions event has the honour of taking its place among the top table of tournament golf.

“Yang Yong-Eun becoming Asia’s first Major winner is an event of seismic proportions for the sport, which on its own would have had an enormous impact on the sport’s evolution. You only have to look at Korea’s 'Dragon Ladies' super-generation which has emerged 10 years after Se-Ri Pak’s first Major to see that. Yet, all of this could pale into comparison if golf’s Olympic status is confirmed. The long-term effects of that could be like every emerging and developing golf market getting its first Major winner all in the same year.”

The impact might be felt in China as much as anywhere else. While the sport is growing exponentially there, it is yet to be fully embraced and accepted in the way that for example tennis is. Olympic status will change that, as it will presumably bring the government of the sport into the mainstream of the State General Administration for Sport. Yet as Tiger himself recently pointed out, it’s not as if golf is starting from nothing.

“There are more tournaments right now in China than there are in Great Britain!” the world number one said. “I just think that it is a wonderful market for us to go to and it’s certainly booming. It is unbelievable the amount of golf courses there are under construction in China and how many people are now playing the game.”

All of this comes at a time when the players themselves are becoming more internationally minded. Phil Mickelson’s 2007 HSBC Champions win was the first significant international win of a career that, certainly at its prime had been focused almost entirely in the United States and Europe. It’s significant that Shanghai will see “Lefty” and his long-term nemesis Tiger lock horns for the first time in the same tournament in Asia.

“After the [British] Open Championship, it’s hard to think of a bigger or better tournament held outside the U.S.” Mickelson said of the HSBC Champions. “Golf needs to grow internationally and to be able to move a World Golf Championship to China especially is terrific because it will hopefully increase the interest and increase the exposure of the game of golf throughout the country and we need to get the young kids in China interested in the game, start them playing so that they can continue to develop and grow the game internationally.”

Intriguingly, the volatility of the top of the official world rankings, Tiger excepted of course, also seems to suggest something of a generational shift with the precocious Woods’ age group, including England’s Paul Casey and Spain’s defending HSBC Champions Sergio Garcia, now in their early 30s and approaching their peak. Meanwhile a heady international mix of 20-somethings, including Columbian Camilo Villegas, Korean-American Anthony Kim and German Martin Kaymer stand seemingly one big win away from crashing into the top ten.

Tournament organizers are expecting the vast majority of the world’s top 20 to be in Shanghai and the overall quality of the field comprised almost exclusively of this year’s big tournament winners will be the highest ever seen outside the golf heartlands.

Anyone still searching for a reason to get excited could do worse than listen Englishman Paul Casey, who had charged up to number three in the world this year until a rib muscle injury slowed his progress.

“It’s Asia’s Major!” he beamed. “It really is a phenomenal golf event. It’s world class. It’s great to expand the game of golf and expose new people to the best players in the world. The tournament has always been world class and Shanghai is one of the greatest cities I’ve ever been to. It’s important that this happened. I’m glad it happened while I’m playing the game of golf, because I think it’s exciting, and I think it would be pretty sweet to be the first person to win a WGC event in China as well!”


Vince Spence said...

Bruce, your statement that the 'globalization of men's golf is about a decade behind the world of women's golf' almost had my normal 'fly off the handle' reaction.

My first thought was how is women's golf globalized if the the overwhelming majority of the best players on the globe play the LPGA tour. Then I thought, is the LPGA that much better? A little better?

Given that few, if any Americans, play the mens European Tour, and a lot of their best players are in the states playing, I would rank the Euro Tour as approximately 85% as good as the PGA.

How would you rank various other women's tours?

The Constructivist said...

Vince, thanks for a fantastic comment. You've inspired something like 5 posts. But a quick answer is to distinguish internationalization from globalization. Men's golf has had great European, South African, and Australian stars for quite some time, but Asia has been the weak link during that span. Sure, Isao Aoki and Shigeki Maruyama did well in their respective generations, and if the Ozaki brothers had ever decided to play the PGA full-time, their talents would have been recognized.

Contrast that to the status and success of Japanese women golfers in the '70s through '90s (and their resurgence in the second half of this decade), the post-Pak Korean wave, and the numbers of Taiwanese and Thai players making it on the big tour.

Which leads to my second distinction, between regionalization and globalization. You seem to want to measure globalization by how much parity there is between tours, but I see that as regionalization. The fact that the LPGA attracts the best women's players in the world--barring some Japanese holdouts who prefer to play at home and some young Korean stars who don't feel ready to cross over just yet--points to how globalized the game is, in my book at least.

I've commented in the past on the relative strengths of different women's tours; the rough ranking would be LPGA, JLPGA, KLPGA, LET, Futures Tour. But given how long it's taken Ai Miyazato to figure out how to compete at an elite level on the LPGA, the difficulties Momoko Ueda has experienced in trying for a similar breakthrough, and the struggles of very talented players like Shiho Oyama and Shinobu Moromizato on the LPGA, I'd have to say that every other tour is a minor league/feeder tour compared to the LPGA.

Still, the competitive barriers to entry are much lower in the women's game, simply because there are so many fewer professional female than male golfers around the world. So there's definitely a reason the Asian men's breakthrough is still in the future--provided Ryo Ishikawa, Danny Lee, and other young guns keep developing their games--while Asian women are winning more often than American women of late.

Let me stop here before I try to write all 5 posts in 1 comment!