Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tim Maitland Talks "Asian Major" with Whan, Inkster, Kerr, Ochoa, Wie, and Webb

Asia Inches Closer to Its First Major
Tim Maitland

New LPGA commissioner Mike Whan chose the HSBC Women's Champions in Singapore to declare that the staging of a Major in Asia is "inevitable." As Tim Maitland reports, his statement, coming within six months of Asia getting its first male Major winner and staging its first World Golf Championship event, has brought Major status for an Asian tournament a step closer.

Asia will have a Major and not just in our lifetime. The reality is, particularly as the Asian economies seem likely to gain even more ground on American and European markets that are projected to have limited growth in the near term, it'll happen long before we are reaching for our carpet slippers and writing reminders on the fridge to keep track of all our grandchildren's birthdays.

"Will there be a Major played on the women's tour somewhere in Asia 10 years down the road? I'd actually be surprised if we didn't," is how new LPGA commissioner Mike Whan puts it.

"We're not building one now and we don't have any plans in place, but it is inevitable. I think the whole 'borders' discussion is going to go away. We're going to have Majors. Those Majors are going to be held in locations. I don't think it's going to matter to people--in five or six years, in that soon a time period--where they are."

That the women's game will go down that road first would seem obvious. Simply put, they have the most to gain from doing so. Creating a Major would give them a footing almost equal to the men's game in a continent that, at the moment, is the only one promising golf sustained growth.

"The way golf is changing and the way golf is coming over to the East, I'd bet you it would probably be the LPGA before anybody to have a Major over here," states Hall of Fame member Juli Inkster, despite being a self-proclaimed traditionalist who holds the idea of there being only four Majors close to her heart.

"I just look at the make-up of our tour and I can see a major corporation picking up one of our Majors, and I wouldn't have any problems with that."

However, the stars would need to align unusually quickly for Whan's prediction to be pre-empted. Then again, most experts thought "YE" Yang Yong-Eun's 2009 PGA Championship win wouldn't have happened for at least another 10 or 20 years, and noone would have predicted when the HSBC Champions appeared for the first time in Shanghai in 2005 that its 2009 edition would have World Golf Championship status.

What is clear is, if the decision had to be made now and the choice was down to the players, most would choose the world's local bank's Singapore-based sister event, a tournament whose reputation was only enhanced when Ai Miyazato added her name to those of Shin Ji-Yai and Lorena Ochoa by winning the 2010 event.

"I think it's a testament to the different aspects of the tournament that the HSBC Women's Champions is, from the players' perspective, no doubt, Asia's Major; the competition is fierce," says top-ranked American Cristie Kerr.

"The world number one and the world number two won it year-on-year. It's definitely a testament to the course that we play on, the partnership and the overall feel of the event. You know, there's a lot of different things that go into making a tournament great and they are very hard to do and they have hit it on the head here. They have put together an amazing tournament, and when you have all of those different things come together, the players want to win the tournament. So it makes the competition that much more fierce."

Those sentiments are supported by the world's top player and 2008 winner Lorena Ochoa, who, as a rule, does not scatter praise like confetti.

"I think you can tell, we are all here, very happy and excited to be here. It’s a beautiful week, and you heard so many good comments, and we truly believe this is a great tournament. I think being the Major of Asia; that's right! We love to be here!" exclaims the Mexican.

"It seems like a Major. It seems like an Asia Major, and it definitely lives up to the reputation, and more," adds Michelle Wie.

"It was a really well-run event. It's a first-class event. It really does feel like one of the top events. HSBC has done a fantastic job. I think it's been great."

For a tournament in the East to achieve Major status a number of factors need to fall into place. Not least among them is a fundamental shift in thinking in the ranks of the traditionalists; some are likely to need some time to adjust to the idea. Whan himself admits to being resistant to the concept of adding to the LPGA's current stable of Majors, which runs from the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April to the LPGA Championship in June, and July's US Women's Open and the Ricoh Women's British Open.

"When I talk about being a traditionalist," he explains, "it's only from the point of having four Majors. I'm not a traditionalist with regards to them being in the US and Europe. I didn't get to make that choice; the fans and the players and everybody else, including our business partners, made that choice. We've long since stopped being just a US/European tour. We take this thing around the world."

It’s exactly that quality of the LPGA and in particular the fact that the top ten players in the world represent seven different countries with many of those being Asians--including Miyazato, Korean Shin and Chinese Taipei's Ya Ni Tseng--that appeals to a sponsor like HSBC, whose primary business focus is on developing Asia's rapidly emerging markets.

At the same time, the serious conversations about elevating an Asian tournament to Major status are unlikely to begin until the global economy has stabilized in the wake of the credit crunch, which may explain why HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan is reluctant to be drawn on the subject.

"There's no doubt golf is moving towards the East, but we're taking this approach: we're going to keep working as hard as we can, we're going to continue to try and maintain and then raise our own standards, and we're going to stay as humble as we can and let the tournament speak for itself," he says.

For the time being, another Hall of Fame member, Karrie Webb, would end the debate by creating a tier of elite tournaments to match the men's game's WGC platform and would have the Singapore event be one of those.

"I'd put Evian in there, probably the Canadian Open, this one [the HSBC Women’s Champions] and even an Arkansas, the P&G, that's a US$2 million event this year. That's when you run into the question 'How do you class the category?' You know, 'What is it?' I don't think it is about the money," the Australian veteran explains.

"There's just so much emphasis on Major or not Major. We have four Majors and we have a lot of other tournaments that are great tournaments, and I think if we could build them into some sort of category, like the WGC, so that people know the best players in the world from around the world, not just from the LPGA, will be playing in the event. Saying Asia's Major or the fifth Major or the eighth Major; I don't know why tennis and golf have four Majors, but they do and that shouldn't change. I am very 'old school' and I don't want to see five Majors or six Majors or three Majors."

Whan talks about wanting a 10 or 15-year vision, and presumably a commitment to match, before listing his general criteria for the 'Major' conversation.

"Majors are made up on certain things; they're made up on field, they're made up on how the business partner turns that thing into something more, they're made up on [the quality of the] course and the venue we play in, and they're made up in terms of the exposure we create worldwide," he says.

In the minds of many of the players, particularly the veteran stars, tradition and reputation are two other ingredients to be thrown into the mix. But as Webb points out, while Singapore has only hosted three editions for the LPGA, the sponsor has a longer-standing reputation than that.

"I think the players have loved this tournament the last two years. Well, even from when the HSBC was a match play event in the States. It has a really good feel to it; the hospitality's great, it's a high-class run event. Even since we've moved to Singapore, it just has that feel to it all the time. HSBC hasn’t missed out on how the world economy has gone--they’ve felt it too--but we're glad that they've stayed on as a sponsor and hopefully as things turn around they'll keep building the tournament up," Webb says.

Although Whan won't be drawn on any scenarios, the likelihood is that the Asian Major will fit better at the start of the year, when the players are fresh and travelling halfway around the world is far less onerous than it is for the autumn swing, which this year will add a Malaysian tournament to the events in Korea and Japan.

The spring swing would have to mature, perhaps needing the return of at least one of the Hawaii events before it to shorten the trip out, and perhaps one more Asian tournament to add to the Honda PTT LPGA Thailand, with those events all growing to the point where they could sustain full fields, rather than the current 60-strong line-ups.

Yet, while the commissioner avoids the specifics, he has no reservations when it comes to that inevitability, that there will at some point in the not-too-distant future be a demand for an Asian Major.

"The world is becoming the world; not a bunch of different pieces of the world. That's business," Whan explains. "Our largest American business partners are global. Our largest Asian business partners are global. There's a reason why HSBC is based in London, has a CEO in Hong Kong and a tournament in Singapore. We reflect the business partners who come to us to put these events on. Our business is a reflection of them and vice versa. One of the reasons business partners like the LPGA [is that] we look like their business. We come from around the world, we play around the world and we have viewership around the world. We 'sync up' with what they're dealing with."

The logical development of that statement is as the business world goes global, golf goes global and the question of a Major in Asia ceases to be a possibility and simply becomes a case of "when"?

Maybe the sea change comes as the current veterans reach the natural end of their careers and are replaced by the generation of players who grew up when women's golf and the world in general was becoming more of the global village it is today.

Asked about her level of enthusiasm for such a tournament in Asia, Wie sums up that attitude.

"I'm up for anything!" she declares.

"As long as it takes me to neat places like Singapore, I'm down!"


TC here. Reading between the lines, I'm thinking that Whan wouldn't be displeased if HSBC or some other large global corporation were to take the LPGA Championship to Asia. The U.S. and British Opens aren't and shouldn't be moving; the KNC has a long and rich history, a fantastic site, and the backing of a major global corporation. That leaves the LPGA Championship, which was used as bait to keep Wegmans from bolting this year. Nice no-pressure non-sales pitch! And congrats to Ryan Ballengee, Nick Mulvenney, and Tim for helping him make it.


Mike said...

I was thinking the same thing, TC. Moving the "major without a major backer" to Asia is not only a shrewd business move; since it is the Tour's own championship, it also makes a statement about being a world tour. Maybe they could even set up a small rota of courses -- 3, maybe 4 -- to give it the maximum exposure in Asian markets.

courtgolf said...

Interesting how the question was phrased - "Will there be a Major played on THE women's tour...."

I understand that he was talking to Whan of the LPGA - but the question wasn't "the LPGA Tour" but "the women's tour." All the big tours (LPGA and LET), and the national tours (KLPGA, JLPGA, etc) have majors.

Am I making a mountain out of a molehill ? I don't really care if they have a major in Asia or not - half the women's majors are up for sale to the highest bidder anyway. Actually, it's three with the Ricoh name on the Women's British Open, and Weetabix before that.

Will said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike said...

And remember, Court, that the British only became a major because the DuMaurier (the original fourth major) lost its sponsor.

"The" tour may become a moot point anyway. Depending on how the economies of the world recover from their current problems, and just how many sponsors are willing to pony up the necessary dough, consolidation may end up looking pretty good to all of them.

tim said...

It gets even more interesting when one considers that the International Federation of PGA Tours finally welcomed the main women's tours into the fold last year. The question then becomes, does logic dictate a similar structure to the WGCs for the women's game... a platform that the LET, KLPGA and JLPGA are also engaged in and benefit from?