When the field at this week’s CJ Cup tees off for Round 1 just past dinner time on the East Coast Wednesday most golf fans will still be digesting the dramatic finish to the 2017-18 season, which wrapped up exactly 24 days ago, or reliving a Ryder Cup that didn’t go well for the visiting team.
Put another way, the third event of the new season will slip by largely unnoticed, the victim of a crowded sports calendar and probably a dollop of burnout.
What’ll be lost in this three-event swing through Asia that began last week in Kuala Lumpur at the CIMB Classic is how important these events have become to Tour players, whether they count themselves among the star class or those just trying to keep their jobs.
The Asian swing began in 2009 with the addition of the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, although it would be a few years before the event earned full status on Tour, and expanded in 2010 with the addition of the CIMB Classic. This week’s stop in South Korea was added last season and as the circuit transitions to a condensed schedule and earlier finish next year there are persistent rumors that the Tour plans to expand even more in the Far East with sources saying an event in Japan would be a likely landing spot.
Although these events resonate little in the United States because of the time zone hurdles, for players, the Asian swing has become a key part of the schedule.
Consider that seven of the top 10 performers last year in Asia advanced to the Tour Championship and that success wasn’t mutually exclusive to how these players started their season in Asia.
For players looking to get a jump on the new season, the three Asian stops are low-hanging fruit, with all three featuring limited fields and no cut where players are guaranteed four rounds and FedExCup points.
For a player like Pat Perez, his performances last October virtually made his season, with the veteran winning the CIMB Classic and finishing tied for fifth place at the CJ Cup. All total, Perez, who played all three Asian events last year, earned 627 FedExCup points - more than half (53 percent) of his regular-season total.
Keegan Bradley and Cameron Smith also made the most of the tournaments in Asia, earning 34 and 36 percent, respectively, of their regular-season points in the Far East. On average, the top 10 performers in Asia last year earned 26 percent of their regular-season points in what was essentially a fraction of their total starts.
“It's just a place that I've obviously played well,” Justin Thomas, a three-time winner in Asia, said last week in Kuala Lumpur. “I'm comfortable. I think being a little bit of a longer hitter you have an advantage, but I mean, the fact of the matter is that I've just played well the years I played here.”
Perhaps the biggest winner in Asia last season was Justin Rose, who began a torrid run with his victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions, and earned 28 percent of his regular-season points (550) in the Far East on his way to winning the FedExCup by just 41 points.
But it’s not just the stars who have made the most of the potential pot of Asian gold.
Lucas Glover finished tied for seventh at the CIMB Classic, 15th at the CJ Cup and 50th in China in 2017 to earn 145 of his 324 regular-season points (45 percent). Although that total was well off the pace to earn Glover a spot in the postseason and a full Tour card, it was enough to secure him conditional status in 2018-19.
Similarly, Camilo Villegas tied for 17th in Kuala Lumpur and 36th in South Korea to earn 67 of his 90 points, the difference between finishing 193rd on the regular-season point list and 227th. While it may seem like a trivial amount to the average fan, it allowed Villegas to qualify for the Web.com Tour Finals and a chance to re-earn his Tour card.
With this increasingly nuanced importance have come better fields in Asia (which were largely overlooked the first few years), with six of the top 30 players in the Official World Golf Ranking making the trip last week to Malaysia and this week’s tee sheet in South Korea featuring two of the top 5 in world - No. 3 Brooks Koepka and No. 4 Thomas.
“I finished 11th here last year and 11th in China the next week. If I can try and improve on that, get myself in contention and possibly win, it sets up the whole year. That's why I've come back to play,” Jason Day said this week of his decision to play the Asian swing.
For many golf fans in the United States, the next few weeks will be a far-flung distraction until the Tour arrives on the West Coast early next year, but for the players who are increasingly starting to make the trip east, it’s a crucial opportunity to get a jump on the season.