Asia Minor?


A few weeks ago, Lee Westwood participated in what can only be described as the boondoggliest boondoggle in recent memory. Teamed with Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Liang Wen-Chong, the four elite-level professionals played 18 holes of golf across China over an eight-day span.

Yes, that’s right – an average of 2.25 holes per day. In their spare time – and let’s face it, there was plenty of spare time – the players partied like they were auditioning for roles in “The Hangover 3” and were feted with lavish gifts. For his troubles, Westwood was even awarded his own villa, for goodness sake.

At one point in the middle of this epic ’doggle, a reporter sidled up to the world’s second-ranked player and asked him whether Asia should host its own major championship. What’s he supposed to say? No? Like an obedient guest, he gave the home crowd the answer for which it was clamoring.

'I think the men's game has got it pretty much right, although I'd like to see another major somewhere else in the world – somewhere like Asia or Australia,' Westwood said. 'I see the way that the Asian economy and markets have supported golf over the last few years and they deserve to have big tournaments there.'

It speaks volumes about the game’s advancement in Asia that immediate reaction to these comments varied from “He’s got a point there,” to “Well, not yet, but soon.” There’s no denying the impact golf is having on Asia, but it’s the inverse result – Asia’s impact on golf – which is truly unlimited.

After all, the biggest potential growth market is Asia. The preceding could be an explanatory sentence into the examination of such fields as financial or technology, as the continent currently carries the greatest upside in so many realms, but in this case it refers to golf – and where the game is progressing on all levels at the most rapid pace.

For the next two weeks, the eyes of the golf world will be firmly affixed on Asia, with the Shanghai Masters and PGA Tour-sanctioned CIMB Asia Pacific Classic Malaysia currently taking place in advance of the WGC-HSBC Champions. That these tournaments are already luring elite golfers to the Far East proves that a transition in the balance of power is already under way.

“There are so many courses and so many tournaments now [in Asia],” said Vijay Singh, who is playing in this week’s CIMB. “When we played here [a few years ago], we were trying to look for tournaments to play in. Nowadays, we can pick and choose what we want to play. That’s the big change. Golf in Asia is so much bigger now. You have courses wherever you go. The opportunities are there for the game to grow further.”

Though it’s been a gradual process, one particular tipping point occurred two years ago, when South Korea-born Y.E. Yang became the first player to defeat Tiger Woods in come-from-behind fashion at a major championship, claiming the PGA Championship title. Soon thereafter, the first Asian Amateur Championship was contested, organized in conjunction with The Masters Tournament and featuring a berth in the field of the year’s first major to the winner.

The future appears bright, as well. While only one Asian-born player – Players Championship winner K.J. Choi at No. 13 – ranks within the top 20 on the Official World Golf Ranking, three are currently inside the top 10 on the World Amateur Ranking, including No. 5 Hideki Matsuyama, the two-time defending champion of the Asian Amateur.

It’s a phenomenon that has subsisted for years on the ladies’ side of the game, with Se Ri Pak spurring a movement of top professional golfers from the region. The current Rolex Ranking includes runaway No. 1 player Yani Tseng and her 10 worldwide victories this season as one of five Asians in the top 10, while a total of 15 rank inside the top 25. The LPGA has also adapted to contesting tournaments in Asia quicker than its PGA Tour counterpart, with a total of five tournaments being played there in 2011.

All of which has led to increased growth that isn’t being seen elsewhere in the world. While the number of courses being designed and built in the United States and other countries has been relatively nonexistent in recent years, expansion in China has not only failed to deteriorate, but continues to improve (although Jack Nicklaus recently said construction is shut down in Asia).

'They're building golf courses daily here. This is a place you want to market yourself,' explained Hunter Mahan, who is playing in Shanghai this week. 'No question this is one of those events I think is going to grow through time and get bigger and bigger and I'm excited to be at the beginning part of it.'

It may not mean that Asia is ready to host its own major championship anytime soon, but just the fact that there’s a conversation proves that progress is being made and golf’s boundaries continue to spread globally.

The golf world will be focused on Asia-based events over the next two weeks, but we should pay attention during all other times, too, because the Far East focus isn’t shifting away anytime soon.