A blow for top ladies’ golf

YSD’s decision to pull out is to focus resources solely on grassroots sports development

By SHIV DAS

Surprise is putting it mildly. Shocking is, perhaps, more appropriate, considering Yayasan Sime Darby (YSD) is pulling out of its sponsorship of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Malaysia tournament after eight years and just four months before the ninth edition, slotted for Sept 27-30 at TPC Kuala Lumpur (TPCKL).

In a simple, matter-of-fact announcement, YSD CEO Yatela Zainal Abidin said the move followed the foundation’s decision to focus resources solely on grassroots sports development… rather than a major tournament with US$1.8 million (RM7.6 million) dangled as prize money. The last part was left unsaid.

So what had become an iconic event is to be no more, unless another sponsor steps in to fill the breach. It’s some ask. The tournament has been held at the same venue, the Kuala Lumpur Golf and Country Club to begin with, before it was renamed TPCKL in 2016, given affiliation and a proprietary arrangement with the American Professional Golf Association, which owns The Players Championship (TPC).

The event grew in stature because many of the world’s best women golfers enjoyed coming here to begin their swing of tournaments in Asia towards the end of their playing season.

Last year, 45 of the 50 top LPGA players were here. Michael Whan, the tour commissioner attributed it to an “incredible golf course” and “best clubhouse” (TPCKL), “nice international hotel” with shopping mall attached (One World in 1Utama) and “people are very nice”.

Live TV coverage reaches out to millions around the world.

YSD promoted the event also as a platform in its development programme for aspiring and selected Malaysian youngsters seeking to make a name for themselves in the world of golf.

It was working, because last year’s event saw Winnie Ng, a 16-year-old then, walking away with the Best Amateur honours at 64th placing, beating even her professional Malaysian counterparts.

As a result, her name appears in the Rolex world ranking of amateur players at 638 as at May this year. There’s no other Malaysian on the list.

Other Malaysians making their presence felt included Natasha Oon, who came in 68th, followed by Nur Duriyah Damian, Liyana Durisic and Zulaika Nurziana Nasser further down the line in the 78-player field.

“All of this didn’t exist for Malaysia eight years ago,” Whan, the LPGA supremo, had said. Off the golf course, the event has been big on charity, raising money for cancer research, nearly RM3 million in all at last count, thanks to players, fans and the public.

The event provided family fun, big time, in a carnival like setting, with games, food and entertainment.

Malaysia has been playing host to not only the LPGA event, but also the Malaysian Open and the CIMB Classic. Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank), having been title sponsor for the Malaysian Open for years, pulled out and embarked on its own signature tournament, the Maybank Championship from 2016.

The last Open was in 2015 and has yet to be resurrected for want of a title sponsor or sponsors.

If it’s to be a no-show for the LPGA tournament this year, it means Malaysia will be hosting only two major tournaments — the Maybank Championship (US$3 million [RM12 million] purse) held earlier in January and the CIMB Classic (US$7 million [RM28 million] purse), come October.

In a way, these major tournaments are a barometer for how well the country is doing economically. YSD’s pullout comes at a time when Sime Darby Bhd posted an 80% drop in its latest earnings.

There’s going to be a big dent for golf and showcasing of the country in the absence of the tournament because media and television will have nothing to shout about, unless there’s a last minute reprieve. Contractors and businesses working on providing products and services (marquees, grandstands, billboards, banners, bunting and A-boards, food vendors, transport and accommodation), and even tourism stand to suffer a knock-on effect.

Unless IMG, the global sports promoter, can find an alternate title sponsor, chances are the excitement of a top-class ladies tournament will have to be put on hold for now and who knows for how long more.

But fingers are being kept crossed.