Far East Could Be Golfs New Frontier

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Five of the top 15 players in the world are competing this week at Pine Valley, which shoots down the notion that golf goes into hibernation for three weeks after the Masters.

Then again, this isn't a PGA Tour event.

And it's not the Pine Valley in New Jersey that perennially is rated the best course in America.

The Johnnie Walker Classic is being played at Pine Valley Golf Resort and Country Club, which is about an hour outside the central business district in Beijing and offers wondrous views of the Great Wall of China. The field includes Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, Sergio Garcia, Adam Scott and Luke Donald.
 
'Golf is really taking off here in Asia, and events like this can only help raise its profile and appeal to an even wider audience,' Els said on his Web site.

This might be golf's next frontier.
 
Perhaps the best evidence comes from the European PGA Tour schedule. It has more tournaments this season in China (five) than in Scotland (four), the so-called home of golf.

And that could be just the start.
 
IMG is close to announcing details of a tournament this November in Shanghai that will be the richest in Asia and will be limited only to tournament winners outside the PGA Tour. The field will include Tiger Woods, who won the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan late last year.

Along with being Woods' agent, Mark Steinberg is co-president of IMG's golf division. He has taken several trips to the Far East, and he can't help but notice a market that is ripe with opportunity.
 
'I see major, major multinational conglomerates that want to establish a business presence now in hopes of what could happen, especially in anticipation of the Olympics,' Steinberg said Tuesday. 'Golf has been a pretty strong ticket so far. It is really booming there. It's really remarkable.'

Jack Nicklaus has designed 12 golf courses that have opened since 1993 in China, and he has eight more being built. He recalls meeting with a group of businessmen some eight years ago who wanted to put together a professional tour.

'It never materialized,' Nicklaus said. 'There was not enough support. It wasn't quite there.'

It's getting there more quickly than most realize.
 
And the PGA Tour has noticed.

Tour officials are expected to announce this fall that the 2006 World Cup will be held in China. Last month at The Players Championship, they hosted a delegation from the Chinese Golf Association that wanted to see how a tournament is properly organized.

'They have decided they would like, at this time, to develop golf and start a professional tour,' said Ed Moorhouse, co-chief operating officer at the PGA Tour. 'We're talking with them about how they might go about doing that. Developing the game on a global basis is of interest to us.'

The European tour has been out front in joint-sanctioning tournaments in Asia, starting with the Johnnie Walker Classic in Thailand in 1992, and moving into China for the first time in 2002 with the Hong Kong Open.
 
Is the PGA Tour far behind?

'I think China is one territory that they're going to look at,' Steinberg said. 'And look at strong.'
 
The tour dabbled in Asia late last year by staging a silly-season event in Korea. The top 20 players from the PGA Tour money list were eligible for the Thanksgiving week tournament, and not surprisingly, the tour had to go beyond the 100th spot to find enough takers. Arron Oberholser wound up winning the $1 million first-place prize.

Whatever overseas plans the PGA Tour has depends on its schedule.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and Moorhouse are sorting through various models to present to the networks later this year when negotiations on a new TV contract get under way.

One possibility is to end the official season in September and start the following season late in the fall. Another option is a final two months of tournaments that count toward the world ranking, but not toward a money list.

Either case would allow for joint-sanctioned tournaments overseas.

'We'll probably do more joint-sanctioned events in the future,' Finchem said in an interview earlier this year. 'We'd like to play some more golf in Asia. We'd like to get down south a little bit. I don't know how it plays out.'

The tour is not close to figuring out what its schedule will look like in 2007, or where it will play. Even talk of moving The Players Championship to May requires a half-dozen other pieces of the puzzle to fall into place.

But when asked if there was room for the PGA Tour in the Far East, Moorhouse left little doubt.

'Absolutely,' he said. 'Our challenge is to work things out TV-wise and sponsorship-wise. It's an emerging market in the world with a major population base. It's a good place for the growth of golf.'

This week, that's where most of the stars can be found.
 
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