Asian swing of PGA TOUR to gather strength

The 3 tournaments hold promise they are going to get better because the PGA TOUR will end earlier next season to better accommodate the ‘fall events’

By SHIV DAS

If it’s players that make a tournament, then this year’s CIMB Classic, along with the PGA TOUR’s other Asian stops in South Korea and China, will again have names to get golf fans here and everywhere in the world excited.

The three tournaments, all held in October in consecutive weeks starting with the CIMB Classic at TPC Kuala Lumpur (TPCKL) from Oct 11 to 14, also hold promise they are going to get better because the PGA TOUR will end earlier next season to better accommodate the “fall events” and allow golf’s elites to wing themselves to this part of the globe and entertain their fans.

Having made its debut in 2010, the CIMB Classic has become a trailblazer of sorts, coming on the heels of World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China that began a year before.

Last year, the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges in South Korea was added to the schedule and, together the three events make the trip to this part of the world worthwhile. The HSBC Champions has the largest prize money of US$10 million (RM41.4 million), followed by CJ Cup, US$9.5 million, and CIMB Classic, US$7 million.

For those who get to play in the events, it amounts to a crammed six out of eight weeks schedule and explains the absence of some leading players.

But looking to the new 2018-2019 season, the TOUR’s Players Championship will move to March, the PGA Championship to May and what will then happen is the season will end in August.

The FedEx Cup Playoffs will be three weeks next year and the TOUR Championship (the third week this September), is scheduled to be held in the third week of August, next year.

“All this means the top players will have more time off. As such, we should be seeing more marquee names here in Asia in the future,” said the Kuala Lumpur-based PGA TOUR VP and ED Todd Rhinehart.

Not with standing, it’s still going to be a strong field this year for the CIMB Classic, the only PGA TOUR tournament held in South-East Asia. Last year’s winner, Patrick Anthony Perez (main picture) will defend his title. Two-time winner, Justin Thomas (2015 and 2016), No 4 in the world, will be back, too. Paul Casey, who played in the Ryder Cup (Sept 28-30), will be here.

So, too, Keegan Bradley, recent winner of the BMW Championship and Hall of Fame stars Ernie Els and Davis Love III, and 2017 Rookie of the Year, Xander Schauffele who finished third here last year.

“It’s a good combination of veterans plus up-and-comers. When Thomas was here in 2015, no one really knew him, but now he’s one of four players who’s accomplished what Tiger Woods had done under the age of 25. Thomas’ career jump-started here, winning back-to-back,” said Rhinehart.

Hideki Matsuyama is also in the field once more, looking to translate three previous Top 10s here into a first victory in Malaysia. “He’s been in every event here since 2013, after being given an exemption. He went on to become No 2 in the world for a time and could have easily skipped CIMB, but he’s kept his commitment to the tournament.

“When people think of PGA TOUR, they think of the world’s top players and we aim to deliver”, a sure thing, as far as Rhinehart goes.

Incentives and ease of travel for the players are laid on, with a charter flight taking them to Korea from here.

In terms of sponsorship, it’s been a challenging year, before and even after the (general) elections here, and it’s everything to do with the economy overall.

“But we are fortunate to have a very strong group of sponsors, who have been very supportive since I’ve been here in 2012. We’ve added a few new ones as well.”

With the Sime Darby Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Malaysia tournament, also held at TPCKL, being taken off the calendar this year, fans have only the CIMB Classic to focus on and it’s already showing in ticket sales. The heightened interest shown by volunteers helping out is another indicator.

Operationally, the two events, just a fortnight apart, had worked together when it came to the set-up of marquees on the East Course (where the LPGA was played) and West Course (CIMB Classic), but this year expect “a new look and feel”, given the reality.

Being more than just a golf tournament, there’s focus on food, entertainment and family activities with Desaru Coast from Johor coming on board to showcase the golf and other experiences it’s able to provide.

Finalising the field, that included eight sponsor exemptions, was done after the Sept 19 and Oct 1 deadlines. The final line-up shows Malaysia will have two players — Kim Leunkwang, 23, who won the CIMB qualifier for the one spot made available in that category, and Gavin Kyle Green, on the strength of his current world ranking (186).

When the demographic of golf fans is considered in Malaysia, it’s players such as Els and Love, who have been given exemptions, as they have captured the imagination of the older generation. Love was a hit when he played in 2015. “People were so excited. I got many phone calls that day,” recalled Rhinehart.

All PGA TOUR events help raise money for charity and last year, it totalled an eye-opening US$180 million. The charity here is being channelled through the CIMB Foundation, as well as a Junior Achievement of Malaysia programme. “We can only raise as much as there are companies supporting this event, so hopefully we will see more companies involved in the future.”

Rhinehart has a reason to be excited about the renovated West Course. The grass has been changed on the fairways and the ball is now able to roll, when before, it tended to plug, especially in wet conditions.

“The intent is to play the ball down all four days, that is, not lift, clean and place, and the greens are now firmer, which I believe would be the first professional golf tournament to do that in Malaysia.” 

Judging the bounce or roll becomes more difficult, which means it will no longer be mere “target practice” for the players and low scores, as has happened in the past. “The only protection against top players is wind and hard, fast conditions and we don’t have wind here,” mused Rhinehart.

The weather has been proving to be a bigger and bigger challenge for the agronomists minding the course. It’s been drier the last few months and the hope is for the monsoon season to be pushed further back in October to keep the course dry for the tournament.

There will be 16 hours of ‘live’ television coverage, plus replays for the tournament, broadcast to over a billion households in 226 countries.

Come that final round on Sunday (Oct 14), someone will walk away with a trophy and US$1.26 million. That’s something diehard fans can look forward to with bated breath.

RELATED ARTICLES

Thursday, April 25, 2019

An ace — at long last!

Thursday, September 21, 2017

‘Marathon’ man Rhinehart gets into stride

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Speedgolf Malaysia debuts in TPCKL