Right place, right time for Jeffrey
Jeffrey Ong

He is now back in Malaysia as regional commercial director for the PGA Tour, to raise the star quality of the CIMB Classic, which will take place again this year at TPC Kuala Lumpur on Oct 12-15

By SHIV DAS

Working in the UK for 14 years was ideal preparation for returning home to Malaysia. That’s going by what Jeffrey Ong has to say about coming back.

He puts it simply: “Malaysia is home — my parents are here, I love the food and I really missed the weather!”

The opportunity was presented to him when he was contacted about a job with a sports marketing company in late 2015/early 2016. This led him to being head-hunted for his present role as regional commercial director for the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) Tour, to raise the star quality of the CIMB Classic, a Tour event that’s been staged here for the past seven years, and which will take place again this year at TPC Kuala Lumpur on Oct 12 to Oct 15.

Although it’s the eighth edition, the potential for growing the event in terms of sponsorship is definitely there, and Jeffrey has all the right credentials to bolster the team under Todd Rhinehart, PGA Tour’s VP, who is based here.

As a broadcast journalism graduate from the University of Southern California (USC), he had hoped to get into media when he first went to England in 2002, but he ended up working in the events and conferences industry instead, developing commercial tie-ins with large multinational corporations.

Previously, after graduating from university, he joined TV3, covering general news, business, sports and current affairs. He even read the evening news and co-hosted Malaysia’s first information technology television programme, Cyberwave, which he also helped produce. Add into the mix his freelance television production, hosting and directing experience from 1997 to 2002, and he has a breadth of experience that seems to stand him in good stead in his current job.

For the man in the street, however, he’s best known for his swimming career during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He competed in two Olympics: Seoul in 1988 as a 16-year-old, and Barcelona four years later. He was sportsman of the year in 1988 and his national 1,500m freestyle record of 15:23.16 still stands.

Now aged 45, he still cuts a tall (6ft), slim, square-shouldered figure, and he has not lost his boyish looks.

His love for swimming, he says, hasn’t diminished. “It’s been a huge part of my life. It taught me discipline, determination and dedication…I got to travel and make a lot of friends, many of whom I am still friends with today… plus, it’s tremendously beneficial for one’s health, whether physically, mentally or even spiritually.”

Growing up in Penang, he also played football and hero-worshipped the country’s greats Santokh Singh, Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun, R Arumugam, James Wong, Shukor Salleh all legends whom he looked up to and aspired to emulate.

He attended Wellesley Primary School and then St Xavier’s Institution (SXI). He was meant to go to Penang Free School for his secondary education, but because the first two years were afternoon school sessions, and his swimming training was from 5pm-7pm, he transferred to SXI. But it was only for less than a year, as he was then packed off to boarding school in Devon, England. He was just 13.

“It was tough. It was a huge difference going from Penang to Devon. I was homesick, I missed my family, the food and the weather, but thank-fully the (swimming) coach, Archie Brew, at Kelly College (now Mount Kelly) was a fantastic influence and father figure.”

Jeffrey also has plenty of praise for his coach in Penang, Lim Boon Lee, who helped develop him into a successful swimmer. In the US, his mentor, when he was on the USC swim team, was the legendary Peter Daland. “I was fortunate to have had great coaches throughout my career.”

He trained five hours a day, six days a week, 50 weeks a year, which is a demanding regimen, but it was necessary, for if he didn’t train for a week, he would lose two weeks’ worth of fitness.

His interest in media was a result of him being an avid reader, even as a schoolboy. His father read The Economist and he was encouraged to do the same. Reading became a habit he continued while he was in England, with his favourite newspapers being The Independent, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times and The Telegraph.

“I was interested in current affairs — and sports, obviously! And when I was in America, I used to read the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. I also enjoyed watching the news on CNN and the BBC.”

In 2001, he met Carolyn Goh (who is now his wife), and she was the reason he decided to move to England in 2002, when she left Malaysia to pursue her PhD in bioengineering at Imperial College, London.

Upon their return home in February 2016, he worked with Total Sports Asia as VP of commercial partnerships, and then he did some consulting work for Bett Asia, an education industry event organised by a British company, as “Bett Asia Ambassador”, before joining the PGA Tour in November 2016.

His take on the job at hand: “Getting to meet prospective clients is not too difficult, but it’s been a challenge educating the market on how golf sponsorship and hospitality can be extremely beneficial for businesses, such as using it as an opportunity to network and for entertaining clients. It’s very different in the West, where it’s straightforward, when it comes to using golf events to entertain clients, whether it’s for all four days or even just for two days of a tournament.”

But things are changing. Last year, singer Sheila Majid entertained the crowd on the last day of the CIMB Classic to make the event even more memorable. “We are trying new things to appeal to both golfers and non-golfers alike. There’s a lot we need to do, but I’m enjoying it so far.

“The CIMB Classic is the PGA Tour’s only FedExCup event in South-East Asia, so in addition to Malaysian companies, we’re also targeting multinational companies that want to grow their presence in the region.”

He sees tremendous synergy. “The Tour is a global brand, I get to be involved in the sports industry, it’s taking place in Malaysia and CIMB is an excellent partner to work with. I love making new contacts, and several people I’ve met remember me from my competitive swimming days. I genuinely appreciate it every time someone recognises me and says that they remember me.”

It’s a measure of the man that he wants to retire and live in his hometown of Penang, when the time comes, and once he has done what he can to help prepare his daughter (who is six) for life as an adult. It’s not about himself, but about others. A people person, that he is.

All signs point to a formidable team developing at the PGA Tour office at TPC Kuala Lumpur.