PGA Tour starting to reap benefits of Asian swing

By Rex HoggardOctober 25, 2017, 7:45 pm

The PGA Tour wraps up its global odyssey this week at the WGC-HSBC Champions in China, the final leg in an Asian swing that now includes three tournaments, not to mention plenty of intrigue.

What began as an unofficial experiment in 2009 at Sheshan International Golf Club has evolved into a bona fide cornerstone of the circuit’s schedule, with the Tour adding last week’s CJ Cup in South Korea to the Far East docket this season.

Initially, the idea was to expand the Tour’s lineup beyond the Lower 48 and put the “World” back in World Golf Championship. There was also plenty of talk about growing the game in what is considered an emerging golf market.

“We hope that we are inspiring a new generation of fans and new generation of players by having the best players of the world here in South Korea for the CJ Cup,” Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said last week in South Korea, which he called a “golf-crazed market.”

It was a simple, if not lofty, mandate, and nearly a decade down the road there are signs, however anecdotal, that the seeds the Tour planted in ’09 are beginning to sow.

There were 16 Korean players in field last week on Jeju Island, and this week in Shangahi, China’s Hao Tong Li continues his climb to stardom following his third-place finish at The Open in July, the best showing ever in a major by a player from China. The Tour will also welcome its first Chinese members this year after Zecheng Dou and Xinjun Zhang advanced to the circuit via the Tour.

Last season there were eight Tour members from Korea, more than Canada (six) or Sweden (five) or Spain (four). Whether that success at the highest level translates into more recreational golfers in the Far East is an altogether different question, but there’s no denying that at the highest quantifiable level big-time golf has produced some big-time players in Asia.

WGC-HSBC Champions: Articles, photos and videos

It’s why Nick Price remained optimistic last month at the Presidents Cup despite another lopsided defeat of the International team. It may not make a difference in two years at Royal Melbourne, or even in a generation, but the three-time captain sees golf’s growth in Asia as an opportunity.

“I’m convinced that one day, because of where we draw from, you look at the part of the world we draw from and where golf is growing, China, anywhere in Asia, South America, from an interest point of view, we are going to grow bigger than the Ryder Cup,” Price said.

If Price’s outlook for the wildly one-sided matches seems a tad overly optimistic, know that there’s more to the Tour’s expansion in Asia than simply building a fan base.

The Tour is a business, a global business, and in Asia officials see virtually unlimited growth potential.

The CJ Corporation signed on to sponsor the South Korean stop for 10 years, and the event’s $9.25 million purse included a $1.665 million payday for winner Justin Thomas. That’s more than the winner received for victory in any WGC or playoff event last season and trailed only the four majors and The Players among golf's richest paydays in 2017.

In fact, the three Asian events make up nearly half ($26 million) of the total fall purse of $56.6 million this season.

“I would say that this is absolutely another step that we are taking to expand our business,” Monahan said. “The PGA Tour is a global organization, we’ve got a global membership and we are an important part of a global sport.

“Typically, when you see great players on our Tour from rabid international markets, we are going to put people on the ground, we are going to take every step that we can to help build the stardom of those players and to build our business accordingly.”

Even more evidence of that commitment was on display on Wednesday when the Tour announced the PGA Tour China Series would resume in 2018 after a one-year hiatus. Next year’s schedule for the developmental circuit will include an increase in both prize money and tournaments, and although Monahan said last week that there’s currently no plans to add more events to the Tour’s Asian swing, he didn’t completely dismiss the idea, either.

“The growth of our players from this part of the world has enabled us to bring a number of tournaments to Southeast Asia and Asia,” said Ty Votaw, the Tour’s executive vice president of global business affairs. “Being able to add this as a third event really is another step forward for us to take advantage of the growth opportunities that are here across this region.”

There are plenty of altruistic reasons for the Tour to continue its expansion into Asia, chief among that list being a chance to grow the game, but as the circuit puts the finishing touches on another Far East swing this week in China, it’s important to note that the Tour’s footprint in the region is now and will always be a business decision - a business decision with plenty of benefits.

Day: Woods feeling good, hitting it long

By Golf Channel DigitalNovember 22, 2017, 9:33 pm

Jason Day says Tiger Woods told him he feels better than he has in three years, which is good news for Woods a week ahead of his return to the PGA Tour at the Hero World Challenge.

Day, a fellow Nike endorser, was asked about Woods during his news conference at the Emirates Australian Open on Wednesday. "I did talk to him," Day said, per a report in the Sydney Morning Herald,"and he did say it's the best he's ever felt in three years'" Day said.

"He doesn't wake up with pain anymore, which is great. I said to him, 'Look, it's great to be one of the best players ever to live, but health is one thing that we all take for granted and if you can't live a happy, healthy life, then that's difficult.'"

The Hero World Challenge will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 3 in the Bahamas and broadcast on Golf Channel and NBC.

Day, who has had his own health issues, said he could empathize with Woods.

"I totally understand where he's coming from, because sometimes I wake up in the morning and it takes me 10 minutes to get out of bed, and for him to be in pain for three years is very frustrating."

Woods has not played since February after undergoing surgery following a recurrence of back problems.

"From what I see on Instagram and what he's been telling me, he says he's ready and I'm hoping that he is, because from what I hear, he's hitting it very long," Day said.

"And if he's hitting it long and straight, then that's going to be tough for us because it is Tiger Woods. He's always been a clutch putter and in amongst the best and it will be interesting to see.

"There's no pressure. I think it's a 17- or 18-man field, there's no cut, he's playing at a tournament where last year I think he had the most birdies at."

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Ko released this statement through the LPGA on Wednesday: 

"It has been my dream since I was young to play on the LPGA Tour and I look forward to testing myself against the best players on a worldwide stage. I know it is going to be tough but making a first win as an LPGA member and winning the Rolex Rookie of the Year award would be two of the biggest goals I would like to achieve next year."

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.