Questions for 2017
Another year, another unrelenting season of golf lies ahead, but, apart from the advent of the Rolex Series on the European Tour and the on-going insurgency of the rapacious PGA Tour into territories it has no rightful business to be in, don’t hold your breath expecting change this – or for that matter – any other year, writes our new columnist Mike Wilson. Photography by Getty Images/AFP
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Jay Monahan, PGA Tour Commissioner
1. Post Olympic Blues?
Whilst Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson just about saved the bacon of the first men’s Olympic golf tournament in 112 years, it was a case of ladies first in Rio as the LPGA fully-embraced the Olympic rings, seized their opportunity and rightfully reaped their rewards. In a report released late last year, by Syngenta literally-entitled, The Global Economic Value of Increased Female Participation in Golf, it was predicted that, despite accounting for only 24% of active golfers worldwide, women’s golf is where future growth lies, 29% of non or lapsed female golfers indicated they were either, ‘Interested,’ or, ‘Very interested,’ in taking-up or resuming golf. From a 14,000 sample across eight markets in North America, Europe and Asia, the study calculated a potential addition financial value of US$35m, and that the gentler gender was considerable more likely to encourage their children to play the game too. Encouraging news in an otherwise bleak outlook at stagnation and decline, and, good luck to the girls for picking up the baton whilst we men rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.
2. Who is the Man with the Toughest Job in Golf?
That’s a close call between recently appointed CEO of the Asian Tour, Josh Burack and the sinecure handed to Tim Finchem’s deputy Jay Monahan as his replacement as PGA Tour Commissioner? That’s a tough call between the two Americans; true, the bar is set considerably lower for Burack, who replaced the redoubtable but timeworn Kyi Hla Han, the capacity for growth is significantly greater and the regional economic outlook brighter, but the Asian Tour lacks traction and the financial muscle 58
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of the American monolith and he is a relative newcomer to the complex world of professional golf, where keeping multiple stakeholders happy takes a great deal of skill. Meanwhile, for Monahan, he has the might of the richest circuit in the world behind him, is a known entity to the Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida set-up which, thanks to its muscle can do virtually anything it wants, where it wants and when it wants. But, in purely percentage terms, Monahan has slimmer margins for growth and error than his US compatriot out East. Like him or loathe him – and this correspondent veers towards the latter – Finchem grew the PGA Tour prize fund from $56.4 million in 1994 to over $300 million this term. Whether Monaghan, a marketing man to Finchem’s legal and political bent and Burack’s background in TV can achieve double-digit, let alone the triple-digit increase in the only statistic that ultimately matters, money, to his bosses – aka, the players – in his tenure is open to question, and Finchem’s reign coincided with that of a certain Tiger Woods. Perhaps Burack’s best bet would be to cultivate Woods in the dying embers of a glittering career, draw him back towards his Asian roots with huge appearance fees and lucrative course design contracts. All-in-all, I’d call it a score draw, Burack has much to gain, Monahan much more to lose, but, on balance, I’d hand it to Burack after a suddendeath play-off.
3. Will President Trump be Good for Golf?
Of course, he will; regardless of the PGA Tour, the R&A, the USGA and the toothless WGC distancing themselves from candidate Trump and his more extreme campaigning rhetoric. Witness politicians worldwide, including Senate speaker Paul Ryan holding their collective noses and offering warm congratulations to the candidate-turned-President within hours of an election victory that was not such a shock as many outsiders thought. Trump’s US golf resorts will be coining it in, wealthy recreational players revelling in playing courses owned by Mr. President, hoping some of his stardust might stick. Meanwhile, the cache of having the most powerful man on the planet pop in for the final day of this year’s Senior PGA Championship within spitting distance of the White House, or, for that matter – and irrespective of all he said about women during an ugly election campaign – this year’s US Women’s Open at Trump, Bedminster. Moreover, why would the spineless WGC not be lobbying to return their WGC event back HKGOLFER.COM
to Trump Doral, the R&A to welcome Trump Turnberry back in from the cold for the 2021 Open Championship, with an invitation to Mr. President to St. Andrews 2020 probably already in the post, even the European Tour taking the Scottish Open to Trump’s other magnificent Scottish links course near Aberdeen. Power, especially where sport and politics meet, is the most powerful aphrodisiac on offer, perhaps the only (Spanish) fly in the ointment could be in China, where The Donald’s overtures to Taiwan have irked the USA’s bank managers in Beijing, but, all in all, never mind Beijing, it’ll be more a case of Kerching!
4. Statistics and Bad Lies
The word is out, golf is in perfect health, basking in its post-Olympic euphoria, talk of millions of youngsters taking up the game in medalhungry countries such as China and India, even Russia, I read somewhere recently, a sudden and inexplicable reversal in decline in participation levels in traditional golf territories such as North America and Europe, forecasts that the Olympics in Brazil will see South Americans disavow a passion for football that is in their DNA, only to take up the royal and ancient game. Golf’s powerbrokers, from the R&A, to the USGA, the IGF, almost every acronym associated with golf, have spent the postOlympic period insisting that not only is all well, in fact, it’s never been better. Why then has Nike, admittedly a relative latecomer to the game inspired by the rise and rise of Tiger Woods recently announced it is withdrawing, lock, stock and barrel, from golf equipment, clubs, balls, the lot, with TaylorMade making similar sounds. Speaking at the recent HSBC Golf Business Forum in the USA, Jack Nicklaus, a man who knows a thing or two about the true state of the game, from his course design, Golden Bear brands and country club portfolio said, “Fact is, more golf courses have closed in the US in each of the last 10 years than have opened.” But the legend of the game hit the nail on the head when he said, “Tournament golf is in a healthy state now - healthier than it’s ever been and still on the rise,” which means that a maximum of 1,000 of the 60m golfers worldwide are in a good place, a very good place, some earning a million bucks a year without ever having to make a victory speech. That’s why, at a ‘State of the Game’ interview with Forbes Magazine, Pete Bevacqua, CEO of the PGA of America, Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA, Tim Finchem, (the then) PGA TOUR Commissioner, Steve Mona, CEO of World Golf Foundation or Mike Whan, HKGOLFER.COM
LPGA Commissioner, all talked their book up relentlessly, without even a nod to the plight facing the recreational, non-elite end of the game which, in the final analysis, is their one and only paymaster. According to the National Golf Foundation, US golf has lost five-million players over the past decade with 20% of the remaining 25 million golfers likely to quit in the next few years, whilst the number of Millennials aged 18 to 34 participating in sports such as running rose by 29% from 2009 to 2013, during which time, the proportion playing golf fell by 13%. Same story in Europe, golf participation in England down by 2.5% year-on-year since the Millennium, France, Scandinavia and Spain, same declining trend, China, once the source of optimism is said to be flatlining, India, another great hope has yet to take to golf. The only light at the end of a very long and potentially dark tunnel is women’s golf, which is forecast to increase by 17% by 2020. In late 2015, the European Tour announced that golf participation in the UK, far from being in decline, is actually flourishing, especially amongst a younger demographic, Keith Pelley, Chief Executive of The European Tour, saying, “Our ‘Golf Actives Survey’ suggests our sport is very healthy, participation in it is changing and the younger generation have more options to experience our wonderful game. All of which just goes to show that you can commission consultants to tell you when you want to hear, provide the evidence to support it and remain in denial, or you can read and take heed of the official statistics and listen to the likes of Nike to discover the real picture and act before it’s too late. The game of golf is in great shape for 0.0015% of its players, for the massive majority of us, until the game’s ‘leaders’ get real and act, it’s like bunker sand slipping slowly but inexorably through the game’s fingers.
5. Will Tiger Ever Rule the Jungle Again?
Over the years, Bunker Mentality has been lessthan-kind to one Eldrick Tont ‘Tiger’ Woods, and why not? Great golfer, yes, the best ever, the jury is out, a force for the future of golf, not a chance. Less chance indeed than there was of the great man being the authentic family-man, whiter-than-while all-American sporting hero he purported to be, whilst, all the time, living a lie, conning not only the world but, more importantly, himself. Tiger’s long-awaited and overdue comeback in his own appositely-named, self-congratulatory, ‘Hero World Challenge,’ – why else would HK GOLFER・JAN 2017
the man not so long ago the most bankable sportsman on earth want to endorse a low-cost, Indian-made moped – saw a cameo performance that was once par for the course. Woods shot a seven-under-par 65 in the second round, an echo of the past, but, wearing his Sunday red, carded a 76 to finish 15th out of 17 and a full 14-shots behind arguably the hottest property in golf as the new season starts, Japanese wunderkind Hideki Matsuyama. Will Woods win again, quite probably, will he add a 15th ‘Major,’ possibly, will he equal, let alone break the Jack Nicklaus record of 18 of them, there’s more chance of me winning the monthly medal!
6. Can Anyone Solve Golf’s Multi Media Muddle?
Three pieces of low-key, well-hidden and – to the average punter at least – unimportant news were simultaneously released just as the holiday season began, and none, individually or collectively made happy reading for professional golf as we know it. First-up, research by Ampere Analysis found that 18 to 24-year-olds, the younger end of the so-called ‘Millennial’ age group, were, ‘Significantly less likely,’ to consider themselves sports fans than the overall population. According to Ampere’s findings, young 60
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people are now 17% less likely to identify sport as their favourite form of programming than the general population and that traditional TV audiences for sport were down by some 20% in a decade, including the hallowed English Premier League, whilst Formula 1 has lost 35% of its live TV audience since 2008. Second, SportsBusiness Daily reported that audiences for the 2016 Ryder Cup were also down by 17% in the USA, despite the Stars & Stripes snatching the tiny gold trophy, in their own backyard and time-zones, from the clutches of those pesky Europeans for the first time in eight years. Thirdly, YouTube research revealed that six out of 10 people of all ages (and eight out of 10 ‘Millennials,’) preferred online video platforms like Netflix and Amazon to live TV, and that the average YouTube viewing session was 40 minutes with the optimum length of a YouTube video was four-minutes and 30-seconds. Dull, boring, irrelevant statistics, unless you are a major traditional broadcaster with an expensive live sports portfolio, the marketing chief of a professional golf circuit or a businessto-consumer sponsor of a multi-million-dollar golf tournament. Golf, as TV content is predicated upon the viewer having the time and the inclination to watch a four-day tournament unfold, like Test Match Cricket, the subtle nuances the main attraction for more mature viewers. Perhaps those number-crunchers and algorithm wonks at Nike HQ in Beaverton, Oregon, USA have got it spot-on when deciding to pull the rug on its two main golf draw cards, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy and shutdown its golf equipment division with almost immediate effect.
7. Doubting Thomas or Bjorn Again?
So, the European captaincy for the 2018 Ryder Cup in France has been decided, and it wasn’t so much an election as a coronation, of the Prince of Denmark, Thomas Bjorn. Those of us who watched in horror as Darren Clarke acceded to the throne last time around in what was, by anyone’s measure, a captaincy cursed with cronyism, conceit and complacency have, with Bjorn’s appointment, learned that the coveted – and financially valuable – role is a sinecure for the establishment of the Wentworth faithful. And the great and the good such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter are already jockeying for position in search of the nod for 2020 and 2022 when their sell-by dates as competitors will be past, whereas the quiet, unassuming Pádraig Harrington – the HKGOLFER.COM
brightest and most charismatic of the bunch by a country mile – sits in the wings waiting. Having found Clarke and Bjorn two of the European Tour’s awkward squad in media relations, the polar opposite of the ever-obliging, unfailingly polite three-time ‘Major’ winner, both frequently puffing on a fag playing the only Olympic sport where it’s permissible to smoke during competition, one can only assume that diplomacy, as the knighted Sir Nick found to his cost in a calamitous captaincy campaign in 2008, is not a primary skill set for what could and should be one of the most rigorous selection processes for one of the most challenging roles in sport.
8. Poor Timing All Round?
Congratulations to the European Tour for elevating the status of seven of its events to prize funds of US$7m or more, but, with not a single one of the seven in Asia, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the re-heated, recycled EurAsia alliance loudly trumpeted last year. And it was, in hindsight, poor timing on the part of the normally surefooted BMW GolfSport; the erstwhile BMW Masters, which took place in Shanghai from 2012 until being dropped four-years later would have fitted the bill perfectly. But, sadly, with the Volvo China Open and the Shenzhen International both underperforming and the Malaysian Open replaced by the amorphous Maybank Championship, it’s hard to see a logical candidate ready and able to take on the mantle. Meanwhile, for such a respected horologist, one wonders about the strategic thinking at Rolex HQ in Geneva; whilst Asian economies are cooling down, they are nothing like as moribund as here in Europe, and it’s not so long ago that China was being touted as the global capital of Bling.
9. Would Someone Please Put the IFGPGAT Out of Its Misery?
This question has been asked more than once by this correspondent; exactly what purpose does the International Federation of PGA Tours fulfil? Since it was founded back in 1996, with the less-than-lofty aspiration of, “Joint sanctioning by the members of the International Federation of PGA Tours of significant competitions, including some at the world championship level for the game’s top players,” the organisation, which lives cheek-by-jowl with the PGA Tour – in fact it shares the same address and ZIP code as the world’s dominant circuit – has overseen chaos and anarchy in the development of the HKGOLFER.COM
professional game. The Articles of Association of the Federation, which incidentally saw the Asian Tour and the LPGA Tour join the party along with politically expedient organisations such as the China Golf Association and the Korean PGA, are ‘Private & Confidential,’ has proved little more than a figleaf ensuring that the interests of its landlords, the PGA Tour come first and foremost. With global golf growing exponentially around the turn of the new Millennium, fuelled by the high-octane arrival of Tiger Woods, one might have thought that the Federation might have been charged with bringing some order to proceedings and ensuring fair-shares all round for its stakeholders. Fat chance. Of the 61 WGC events staged to date, only 14 have been played outside the USA, eight of those by necessity courtesy of HSBC’s commitment to China, whilst Australia has hosted one, Europe five, Japan and South Africa, both founder members, none, Asia, the same round number. Now, notwithstanding the construction of President Trump’s, “Big, beautiful wall,” between the USA and Mexico, another sitting PGA Tour tenant at Ponte Vedra Beach, the PGA TOUR Latinoamérica has secured the hosting rights to the fourth WGC event, formerly known as the Cadillac Championship. HK GOLFER・JAN 2017
Meanwhile, if anyone can explain to me the sense, the logic and the morality of the PGA Tour waltzing into Japan, Korea and, with the Asian Tour, into Malaysia, or the European Tour, the ink on the latest EurAsia Alliance barely dry, marching into China for the Volvo China Open and the Shenzhen International, the former with the beleaguered OneAsia, the latter without because for reasons yet to be fully explained, the Asian Tour is persona non grata in the PRC, I’d be grateful for the insight. Without the semblance of a strategy, with just a single meeting each year, without one women’s WGC event even on the furthest horizon and with Japan, the rest of Asia and South Africa all apparently excluded, could someone please do what they do to sick animals that have no quality of or purpose in life and put the lame, inept, incompetent and inefficient Federation out of its misery?
10. WADA Hell is Going on in Golf
Having succumbed itself to a rigorous 13 weeks of drug testing last summer in order to qualify for the Olympics, the game of golf in general and the PGA Tour in particular has reverted to its old clandestine ways when it comes to one of the most important questions in contemporary sport; can you truly believe in what you are watching? Whilst top tennis stars such as Andy Murray and athletes like Usain Bolt require to advise their national anti-doping agency where they will be for a nominated hour each and every day of the year, golfers calmly go about their business without a care in the world. The R&A, the USGA and the European Tour all insist that regular but unspecified testing takes place at a number of their various events, whist the PGA Tour simply thumbs its nose to sporting convention; the only element of the sport that has fully embraced drug testing from education to testing is the LPGA and they are to be congratulated for that. The routine response when questioned on the issue of doping in golf is the hoary old chestnut, that, ‘There isn’t a drug available that could enhance a golfer’s game.’ 62
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Really? In a game where brute strength is now a prerequisite, could the use of Anabolic Steroids or Human Growth Hormone (HGH) not help one player to out-drive another by a crucial 10, 15 or 20 yards, maybe shave a shot or two off the scorecard? And in a sport where a missed pressure putt could cost a player significant six-figure sum and / or a tasty sponsor’s bonus, would beta-blockers not help calm the nerves as they have done, in the past, in snooker. Meanwhile, performance-enhancing drugs need not necessarily enhance the performance there and then; many doping violations take place out of competition, to enhance training capacity, or expedite recovery from a potentiallyexpensive injury, which is the rationale behind the ‘Whereabouts Rule.’ But, as the saying goes, ‘If you don’t go looking, you won’t find anything,’ and golf is in denial when it comes to not only the possibility of a doping problem, but also the doubt that avoidance of the issue casts over the image of a game supposedly based on the ultimate integrity. However, the elephant in the room is recreational drugs, such as cocaine or cannabis, and nobody will ever convince me that, given that sport and golf reflect society at large, that a travelling circus of wealthy young men with time on their hands and money to burn, does not have at least a handful of lads who might do a line of coke or smoke a spliff from time to time. That’s what was rumoured to have happened to a certain Dustin Johnson went on a sabbatical to, ‘Confront his demons,’ yet the PGA Tour conveniently used personal privacy as camouflage, before nominating a player who should have been serving a ban as their Player of the Year.
11. In Search of the Holy Grail?
Golf as a game is in a hole, and it knows it, whilst the elite, professional end of the sport could be heading towards the edge of a precipice, if not next year, or in five-years-time, but, within a decade, things could look quite different, and not for the better. Time is of the essence and at the heart of golf’s problems, recreational and professional. We are working longer and harder than ever, we have family demands on our time, the days of, as ex-R&A CEO Peter Dawson once described, “On the Saturday morning when the guy gets up or the lady gets up and out of the marital bed, if you like, and goes off and plays golf with his chums and comes back in the afternoon,” are, for most of us at least, long since gone, the leisure consumer, or sport or sports HKGOLFER.COM
12. Has OneAsia Been Pronounced Dead?
Having been present at the somewhat bizarre launch of OneAsia at the start of the 2009 Volvo China Open in Beijing, having all-but gate-crashed the tournament at the expense of the Asian Tour, it appeared an unconventional and undiplomatic way of introducing itself on the professional golfing stage as, and I recall the words as clear as they were yesterday, it claimed it was, “The future of men’s professional golf in Asia.” Now into its ninth year as the European Tour’s co-sanctioning partner at the official open championship of China, much has changed; an average of 10 events each year dropped away to HKGOLFER.COM
just seven in 2016 and four last term, the renegade circuit even taking to listing the Masters, the US Open, the Open Championship and even the Olympics in a vain attempt to make the numbers look respectable. It seems that OneAsia seems to have spent almost as much time in litigation and dispute than it has on the tees, fairways and greens of the continent, first a bitter legal fight with the incumbent, member-owned Asian Tour, now apparently with its key founders in Korea. 2016 total prize money on OneAsia was a fraction over US$5million, which wouldn’t buy you a lower-tier tournament on the PGA Tour, and, whilst the Asian Tour isn’t exactly pulling-up any trees, at least it has some forward momentum and heading in the right direction. But, rather than being the future of men’s professional golf in Asia, OneAsia, which was a flawed concept from the get-go has held back the development of the men’s game in the Far East, helping turn sponsors off for fear of the curse of the corporate animal, reputational damage. Meanwhile, its only keynote sponsor, Volvo, until 2015 world golf’s most benevolent backer has changed out of all recognition, rethinking its entire approach to professional golf, from a global marketing collaboration between the heavy automotive Volvo Group and the Geely Automotive-owned Volvo Cars to a national project solely for Volvo Cars China. And Volvo, following the departure of the eminent Mel Pyatt in 2008 is not entirely without blame; caught on the back foot with the OneAsia hijack of its most important event, had the Swedish brand dug its heels in and shown loyalty to its long-term partner, the Asian Tour, OneAsia would have been still born and the Singapore based players circuit in a far healthier place than it is today, whilst Volvo may still have been a force to be reckoned with on the global golf stage. If only, if only, the epitaph of many a sporting initiative, but even though there may still be the faintest sign of a pulse at the Hong Kong-based OneAsia, it would be something of a feat to make it into a decade without the last rights being read. HK GOLFER・JAN 2017
AFP PHOTO/Paul Lakatos/OneAsia
TV has never had more choice. And so, golf, at all levels goes off in search of the Holy Grail. The R&A has concocted a nine-hole championship for amateurs, whilst ignoring the issue of slow play at the Open, when, at St. Andrews in 2015, play was held up for half-anhour whilst a minor rules infraction was ironed out. And the European Tour, in league with the Australasian PGA Tour has cooked-up a confusing and convoluted new, ‘Super-6’ format in Perth next month, a regular full-field stroke play, with a regular half-way cut after two rounds, a second cut to 24 after 54 holes, the two-dozen survivors then reverting to a six-hole, match-play shoot-out. A sledgehammer to crack a nut in a game already bewildering to all but the golfing cognoscenti. In reality, what golf really needs is to get over itself, lighten-up; at the recreational level, let the whole family play nine or 18 holes as they – the customers - see fit, let them wear shorts, tee shirts, heaven forbid, without collars, make golf less stiff, more informal, even fun! At the professional end, get rid of those overofficious stewards and their ‘Quiet Please’ signs, let the crowds engage, allow the players to wear shorts, interview the leaders at the halfway house, the days of the stern and perfunctory ‘On the tee from Scotland,’ introductions of the redoubtable Ivor Robson are a thing of the past, build-up the stars of the show with panache, remember golf part of the ‘sports entertainment’ business. And, if professional golf really wants to get creative, let’s have a WGC Mixed Doubles Match Play, mini-orders of merit with bonus money at the end of each, an Under-25’s Open where players can dress down with the kids; that’s how to develop the female and younger audiences. But does golf have the vision, let alone the courage, only time will tell, but the very midlong-term future of the game is at stake?