Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Speaking of Golf in Asia...

Tim Maitland is one of the best golf writers out there. He was probably the only one of the pros writing on golf to call Ai Miyazato's breakthrough early this season (check out his profile of and interview with her from the HSBC Women's Champions event at Women Sport Report). Well, he also writes on the men's game. Here's one of his recent pieces on the HSBC Champions event becoming part of the WGC circuit.

History Awaits for Asia
Tim Maitland

"For sure it is going to be an historic moment! The first WGC tournament, the HSBC Champions in China, speaks that golf is big in Asia and the world recognizes that and that’s why it’s coming to China. Golf is growing really fast in China, plus the course, with the atmosphere from the crowds that come out to watch the tournament is growing and is going to get bigger and bigger in years to come." --Jeev Milkha Singh

Take any of Asia’s leading golfers, from Jeev Milkha Singh to China’s Zhang Lianwei and Liang Wenchong, Korea’s "K. J." Choi Kyung-Ju and the Thai duo Thongchai Jaidee and Prayad Marksaeng, and you will find a man who, in his own way, has had to navigate a rough and unchartered route to the upper echelons of the world game.

Finally, not before time, the world game is coming to them.

As Yang Yong-Eun’s historic PGA Championship win in August proved, Asia is ready for world-class golf. And this November it arrives in Asia with the first World Golf Championships tournament, a tier of events that bring the crème de la crème together, standing just below the Majors in order of importance on the global golf calendar. WGC status for the HSBC Champions takes not just that event, but tournament golf in Asia, to a whole new level. It recognizes the ever-increasing quality of Asia’s events, courses and the inexorable rise in popularity of the sport. It is also a tip of the hat to the work the great pathfinder-professionals have done in establishing the region’s reputation by earning their places and proving competitive in the Majors and WGC events through the years.

"It is a recognition for them and the way that golf is growing. The players coming out of Asia, the world recognizes them now and gives them due credit and that’s why the WGC event has gone to Asia," said the 37-year-old Singh, the highest ranked Indian in the world and the first from his country to ever earn a European Tour card.

"Having a World Golf Championship in Asia speaks and says that golf is a global sport in today’s day and age and with so many golfers there’s a recognition for Asian golfers and for the Asian golfers to rub shoulders with the world’s best players and to get an opportunity to play with the best and try to prove themselves against the best. Having an event of that stature is fantastic. Golf is one of the fastest growing sports in Asia right now and when an event like this comes to Asia it’s a boost for Asian players and golf in Asia."

More specifically, for the one Asian to have claimed the HSBC Champions title, WGC status is, in retrospect, recognition of the scale of his feat. Yang Yong-Eun may have had four Japan Tour wins to his name by the time he claimed the 2006 title ahead of the world number one Tiger Woods, as well as former U.S. Open champions Retief Goosen and Michael Campbell, but to the global game he was a relative unknown at the time. Now that he has become the first Asian to win a Major, his previous feats will all be seen with a new perspective, but even before then Yang knew that WGC status would change the way his '06 win is viewed.

"It was good to know that such a prestigious tournament was being elevated to WGC status. It proves that the tournament I won was a top, top class tournament," said the 37-year-old Jeju islander, nicknamed "son of the wind" by the Korean media.

"For me personally, even if the tournament stayed in its original form it would have been fine with me because it was big anyway and I loved playing in it every year. The fact that it has been elevated to World Golf Championship status makes it harder for players to get in, but I welcome the challenge. It’s definitely one of my small goals every year to play myself into the HSBC Champions and I want to congratulate HSBC and the tournament organizers for being able to take the tournament to WGC status."

As well as the recognition that WGC status affords Asia, it also creates a greater opportunity for the stars that qualify to show their true ability. As Thongchai Jaidee points out, even though Sheshan International Golf Club is an American-style course, there’s far less adapting needed there for the Asian players compared to when they play in the United States.

"We’ve got a better chance for an Asian to win the tournament if we’re in Asia. It’s difficult to play well in America. It’s a good chance for Asians to show how good we really are. Some guys have played well [in the States], but you have to stay one or two years before you’re OK. You can’t just come for one month or two months," said the 39-year-old Thai veteran who, despite only turning professional at the age of 30 holds the record with 12 victories on the Asian Tour.

"In America the greens are fast, and they’re quite firm and the rough can be quite thick. It’s very different. I still have to learn a lot about how to control the speed on the greens. I’ve played a lot in Europe, but in Europe the greens are not as fast. The grass in China is almost the same as in America. The greens in China are faster. It’s good to promote golf in Asia and in China. All the big names will play there. It’s good for the tournament and good for golf in Asia," added Jaidee, who will turn 40 during this year’s HSBC Champions tournament.

There are other benefits too for players from the Asia-Pacific region. As Australia’s 2007 US Open Champion Geoff Ogilvy points out, the WGC-HSBC Champions will be a rare opportunity for fans, friends and family to watch him play alongside the world’s best without losing sleep.

"I grew up in that time zone and it’s horrible for watching golf in Europe or the US. It’s nighttime all the time. It’s really late at night to watch the European Tour and it’s really, really early in the morning to watch the US Tour. So to have everyone on your time zone is pretty sweet and that’s a big viewership," said the 32-year-old, who, after Tiger’s 16 wins, is the most prolific winner of WGC titles with three victories, including this year’s WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.

"I understand more than 90 per cent of Chinese have a TV and there are 1.4 billion people. More people can watch this tournament than can watch the Players Championship or any other big tournament in the US. It’s hard to comprehend for us but it’s true, because of the numbers in that time zone. The exposure for golf is pretty cool and it’s cool for China that they’re going to get to see players like Tiger and Phil and Sergio and Retief and all these people on a regular basis. That can only help golf as a sport in China."

It’s not just the chance to be seen on the small screen that appeals. As Jeev points out, for players who can spend as much as 30 or 40 weeks each year on the road, it’s a chance to connect face-to-face with fans.

"They have an opportunity to fly down and watch the tournament and they can see the world’s best players play with us, enjoy the atmosphere and see how big golf is getting in Asia. I know a lot of people in India are going to fly in to watch this championship because the world’s top players are going to be there and they can see the up close instead of watching them on television. They can also see the way everybody conducts themselves and see the way they train on the driving range and make the most out of it," explained the Indian star.

For others the experience is far closer to the heart. In February of this year teenage sensation Danny Lee claimed the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia to became the youngest ever winner at 18 years and 213 days on the European Tour (beating the previous record of 18 years and 290 days set by Dale Hayes at the 1971 Spanish Open). The price of developing such precocious talent for the Korean-born New Zealander is that he hasn’t seen his Seoul-based grandparents since he was 13. In Shanghai this November he’ll see them for the first time in half a decade.

"My granddad and grandma are going to come and watch me. I haven’t seen either of them for five years. I’ve been so busy playing tournaments nearly every week. I can’t wait to see their faces!" exclaimed Lee.

"My grandparents are really important to me. I was always really close to my Grandpa and Grandma. I stayed with them a lot when I was a kid. They gave me so many presents and so many surprises when I was a kid. I talked to them in July and they told me they’re very proud of me and so happy to be my grandparents and they said they were happy that I’m enjoying my life."

The weeks and months of separation are also a trial for some of the veterans. 2009 has been particularly tough for Thongchai, who admits to suffering from the periods of separation away from his family since his second son was born at the beginning of the year. For one week at least Thongchai’s children can join him in Shanghai.

"My family they want to go together. It’s very important. If I can travel together with my family it makes me very happy. We can enjoy it together," he explains.

"I miss my family. I am outside the country for four or five weeks and then only have one or two weeks off to see my family. It’s not enough. My second child is only a few months old and my other son is seven years old. I know I have to work and I have to work hard, but I call with Skype every day."

It’s not just the Asian players who will benefit from the exposure the WGC-HSBC Champions will give them. Ogilvy insists staging one of the world’s top tournaments in the Asian region will make some of Asia’s top corporations realize the potential of marketing themselves through golf’s superstars.

"It’s only a matter of time before some of these big guys get some corporate associations with Chinese companies who want to get exposure worldwide and that’s a market that could be quite scary [big] for some of these guys," said the Aussie.

"Golf is big enough to thrive globally and this is a big step in that direction for sure!"

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