Success from staying the course prudently

As 2018 draws to a close, Golf Malaysia sat down with Ahmad Sarji, founder and driving force behind PGM and its tour, for a run through of highlights and achievements of the year

by SHIV DAS

Clearly, it’s been a case of “steady as it goes” for the Tour this year and even the year before, despite the economic slowdown the country and even the world are experiencing. Prudence, the hallmark of the golf supremo, is clearly helping.

“Everything has gone according to schedule, 100%,” he summarised. “No sponsorship pull outs, no upsets in schedule…which means we enjoy credibility and predictability.”

It’s been an eventful year, which began with the holding of the EurAsia Cup at the start of the year, Professional Golf of Malaysia (PGM) being the hosting body for the third time. The biennial, Ryder Cup-style Europe versus Asia contest saw Malaysia playing out its commitment to get the series up and truly running. (Asia halved the first encounter, lost the second somewhat badly, but put up a creditable fight before losing the third).

He felt he had done what he could to get the series off the starting block and it is now up to the Asian and European Tours to keep it going.

Next, Tun Dr Ahmad Sarji Abdul Hamid (picture) saw a big plus in the local Ladies Tour (riding on the back of the PGM Tour) with some 12 players vying for honours, when there were not more than five before.

“On top of all that, we have seen the rise of new talents, not many, but enough to give us confidence the Tour is achieving its goals,” said the PGM chairman. “Of course, the standout is Gavin (Green’s) performance and it’s a watershed, him winning the 2017 Asian Tour Order of Merit and now playing on the European Tour and doing quite well at that.”

The PGM Tour had provided Green with some of the means to get there through the Asian Development Tour events, with their World Ranking points, and which had also helped him get to the Rio Olympic Games, representing the country in 2016.

The year 2019, however, would require PGM, like any other entity that depended on funding, to move forward “with marginally fewer events, reflective of the economy”. The Tour is right now dependent on government-linked companies and government handouts for funding.

He was bolstered by emerging talent, singling out Shahriffuddin Ariffin, who won last year’s Order of Merit, and Amir Nazrin Jailani.

It was a harsh reality that there were golfers who did well for the first two days, but faltered on the remaining two days. But he was heartened by those who were shooting scores well below par. Both Shahriffuddin and Amir Nazrin had that ability, along with booming drives that could put them alongside top-notch foreign players in time.

“But there’s something that seems to be lacking”, and the Tour chief put it down to a lack of “mentoring” or sponsorship with accountability. In other words, making players subject to penalty for poor performance and reward for good play, and supervision to ensure that all departments of their game were clicking.

That would entail engaging the services of a master coach and encouraging corporate entities to adopt players. For now, there is no way promising players could afford managers.

“This is the missing link. PGM is short of funds and I can’t start it, unless I am certain of sustainability in funding over, say, five years.”

The Professional Golf Association of Malaysia would be the right organisation to take care of the players, but it had yet to rise to the challenge.

Thus, right now, what is taking the shine off the game is a lack of sustainability in funding and he had the idea of commercialisation of the Tour to tackle it. PGM, while being a brand, had yet to have the necessary value going with it.

This was where professionalisation came in. “Look at football…because it is well sponsored, they can have stadiums and the league itself, such as the English League, which has much value in it, thanks to the players and teams.”

Selling television (TV) rights brought in plenty of money, but it was not the same with golf in this country. “Local professionals have to create value for sponsors and it would be good if the government could provide sponsors with tax exemptions. That would go a long way in reducing PGM’s dependency on the government,” he further explained.

Other than that, there’s no crowd following the local Tour. There were no gate receipts or TV rights. “That’s the dilemma we face,” said Ahmad Sarji.

Having made the point, he turned to what he saw as a big positive, the PGM tie-up with the Indonesian Golf Tour (IGT) for the biennial series, much like the Ryder Cup (US versus Europe), Solheim Cup (US ladies versus European ladies) and Presidents Cup (US versus the rest of the world).

It was a format that gave invaluable matchplay experience and enhanced the golfing relationship between the two countries.

Indonesian golfers of repute are also emerging and the country has plenty of resources that could help promote the game for mutual benefit. The head of IGT was Jimmy Masrin, who is not only chairman of the Asian Tour, but he had also founded IGT as a company, much like PGM.

The two countries had to have players of some standing to make the matchplay series exciting, Malaysia had won the first handsomely, Indonesia turned the tables in the second and Malaysia won the third narrowly.

Success in this instance was likely to interest other countries in the region into developing their own golf professionals to take pointers from the Malaysia-Indonesia book.

PGM had been set up with the government’s blessing and despite the change in government, it is still there. He had seen the new Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad who had assured him of continuing support.

With the Tokyo Olympics looming in 2020, he had put in a request for government assistance in preparing possible candidates. Malaysia had sent the full complement of four players to the 2016 Rio Games and the hope was for the same this time around.

Administratively, with the retirement of Brigadier General (Rtd) Ron S Mahendran as tournament and operations director, his duties had been taken over by tournament directors hired on a tournament-by-tournament basis and appointed ahead of time to ensure tournaments were run smoothly.

He had always managed with skeletal staff as a means of keeping costs down. Prudence is his byword.

He sees himself continuing to head PGM as long as he remained healthy. He is now 80 and well aware of the need for fresh blood to take over the mantle. Timing, and somebody willing and able to take over would be the determining factors.

He agreed that when the time came he would have to hand over duties and he feels it is perhaps time for him to look for one, someone with access to the right people and with the “right chemistry” for handling the job.

He himself had gravitated towards golf as sports had always been in his blood. He had chosen three sports: Cricket, lawn bowls and golf. He had since given up lawn bowls, but is still active in (Malay) cricket, which he found to be not too taxing.

With everything in place, golf had become easy to manage. “This is how I have found my chemistry in what I’m doing.” — COURTESY OF GOLF MALAYSIA