By SHIV DAS
Todd Rhinehart, 46, now has a nice office, unlike the one he had to make do with when he first arrived five years ago as rep for the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) Tour’s signature regional Tournament, the CIMB Classic, that’s into its eighth edition this year.
Situated on the top floor of an annex of TPC Kuala Lumpur that has a multi-level driving range, he has plenty of room for himself and seven staffers who will assist him.
On the wall behind him, a large framed picture of Tiger Woods teeing off at the CIMB Classic 2012, at The Mines Resort & Golf Club. There’s a family photo too, wife Lisa cuddling their two dogs, a Yorkshire Terrier named Marley and the other, Rita, a mongrel, found in the jungle in Cherating during an excursion there.
It kind of indicates he’s at one with life, going with its flow. He’s a believer of destiny and everything happening for a reason and guided by the Golden Rule “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you”.
The new office is fitting because, as one of the VPs of the PGA Tour, he has not only to grow the CIMB Classic, but help steer the Tour’s expansion in the region. He’s here for the long haul.
He’s got himself two “heavyweights” on his team in time for this year’s event that takes place early October. There’s Chuah Choo Chiang as senior director of communications, who’s on board after being with the Asian Tour for 18 years, ending up as its communications chief.
“We need to grow our message and our brand, so having someone like Chuah, with his experience and expertise, will help open doors for us,” says Rhinehart. “We have plans to go out together to other markets, our counterparts in Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta…to let them know we are here in the region.
“Just look at the Tour, how we’ve grown. We now have 88 players from 25 countries as PGA Tour members. We are an organisation building our brand globally.”
Then there’s Jeffrey Ong, regional commercial director, easily recognised because he was once a national swimmer, who represented the country in two Olympics — 1988 and 1992, and is credited with winning eight gold medals in the SEA Games.
He graduated in broadcast journalism from the University of Southern California, swam for the varsity team and for Malaysia, and on his return, worked with TV3 covering sports, general news and even reading the evening news.
He had then gone to England, when then wife Carolyn went to do her doctorate in bio- engineering. He ended up working in the conference and events industry there for 12 years.
Now 45, he was head-hunted for the PGA job here at the end of last year’s tournament. He’s happy to be back because “there’s nothing like home”.
Both he and Chuah are “great fits”, as Rhinehart sees them, when talking about the task he has at hand: “A lot of what we do from a commercial perspective is education. We have to educate people about the CIMB Classic and what the PGA Tour is.”
Therein lies the challenge: “So many golf Tournaments in Malaysia…from one point of view, because you have four major Tournaments, (the others being the Maybank Championship, US$3 million (RM12.57 million) prize money, the Sime Darby LPGA (Ladies Professional Golf Association) Malaysia, US$1.8 million and the Malaysian Open, which for the moment lies in limbo for want of a title sponsor. It had prize money of US$3 million before Maybank pulled out to have its own event).
“In the US, in cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York, you might have only two professional golf tournaments a year and that, too, inclusive of LPGA.
“When you factor in four Tournaments in a market place of seven million people here, you are really competing for sponsors and entertainment dollars.”
In the US, tournaments averaged 214 clients. Last year, the CIMB Classic grew by 23% to 36 clients. “It shows…36 as against 214…we have a long way to go, but we’ll get there,” he adds.
In the US, sponsors didn’t buy into huge six or seven-figure deals but took up RM20,000, RM35,000 and RM50,000 packages to entertain current clients, cultivate new ones.
“Where else can clients spend four hours over five or six days (practice round and pro-am included) than at a golf tournament?
“We are trying to educate companies of all sizes, including small and medium-sized ones, about hospitality, not just branding. It’s a marathon not a sprint, so we have a long way to go. It’s not just in Malaysia, but in Asia, generally speaking.
“The CIMB Classic is the biggest in the region, but when we stack the overall number of clients investing, against peer groups like the Memorial Tournament or the WGC-Dell Technology Matchplay Championship in the US, we have a long way to go.”
When actual play gets underway at the CIMB Classic, it will be the players who will be in the spotlight. Justin Thomas, the 24-year-old American will be going for a hat-trick, having won in 2015 and 2016. He returns with the added aura of winning a Major, this year’s PGA Championship.
Other player commitments are being actively pursued. It’s busy time, given the PGA Tour’s FedExCup playoffs getting underway with US$10 million awaiting the winner. The usual deadline for entry is the Friday before play begins, but with the Malaysian event, entries will have to be in by Sept 20.
Among the big names, fans simply love Ernie Els and Davis Love, who was a big hit when he played in 2014, being a Hall of Famer, major winner and Ryder Cup captain, people got to know him growing up.
“It’s really a combination of young and up and coming players on the PGA Tour…Thomas winning five times, Dustin Johnson four this year. It’s the likes of them who enjoy playing globally. It’s great to see some of our veteran stars embracing it as well.”
Another Tournament has been added to the PGA Tour in Asia this year — the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges on Jeju Island in Korea, with a charter flight thrown in to take players, caddies and staff to it after the CIMB Classic.
It’s what the PGA Tour and its sponsors do for their players for free, taking the hassle out of making travel arrangements and encouraging them to come out to Asia.
It’s been a year since Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club was renamed TPC Kuala Lumpur, following PGA Tour’s tie-in with Sime Darby Property Bhd, owners of the facility.
With this new partnership, the club is seeing continual improvements. But a massive change is slotted for after this year’s CIMB Classic, when the fairways and greens of the championship West Course undergo a complete makeover.
From November, the course will be closed for 10 months, possibly. “It’s a long-term commitment, not just for the tournament, but also for the members, as the course will then be better able to cope with the stresses and strains that bedevil it for a time after major events.
The PGA Tour is still at the foundation stage for growing the game in the region, providing opportunity for those who either can’t afford it or don’t have access to the game. “We’re working on this,” says Rhinehart.
Then there’s the important element of giving back. Last year, the PGA Tour raised US$160 million for charity through all of its tournaments. The target for Malaysia is to become a major contributor in the future, which very much depends on the kind of sponsors the Tour is able to muster.
“You’ve got to continually grow and increase community support, year after year. That’s our long-term goal,” says Rhinehart. It’s what will count in the end to keep the shine on the CIMB Classic as Malaysia’s contribution to the world of golf.