Greg Norman tries to revive the Asian Golf Tour
27 years ago, when Greg Norman was the top ranked golfer in the world and at the peak of his powers, he tried to create a World Golf Tour.
The aim was to spread the sport of golf around the world, away from its heartlands in the US – the US PGA Tour was and remains the richest tour on Earth – and Europe towards Asia and Africa. The World Golf Tour would have involved a number of tournaments with smaller fields than the tournaments on the US PGA and European Tours but with richer rewards for the players involved.
As well as growing the game of golf by exposing it to hundreds of millions more fans around the world, the World Golf Tour would have allowed the world’s top golfers to sell their services to the highest bidder rather than being restricted by their contracts with the US PGA.
This attempt fizzled when then US PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem fought the idea, although he did respond by creating the World Golf Championships (WGC), which was a series of events with limited playing fields and large prizemoney.
However, over the years the number of WGC events have reduced to just two currently, although the HSBC Champions event in China is still active, albeit with the past two years’ events being cancelled during COVID.
The rise of Tiger
Of course, this was before Tiger Woods came on the scene in the mid-1990s and dominated golf for the next decade or so. Tiger’s success led to a massive increase in spectator and corporate interest and thereby large increases in the prizemoney offered on the US PGA Tour.
Now Greg Norman has partnered with an investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government to try to revitalize the Asian Tour, which has always been the poor cousin of the richer US and European Tours. Unfortunately, the Asian Tour has been decimated by the pandemic, with no tournaments played since March 2020, although there are plans for a tournament later this month.
Norman will be the CEO of LIV Golf Investments, which will add 10 tournaments on the Asian Tour over the next decade while offering US$200m in prize money.
Even for your everyday successful US PGA Tour professional, this is serious money.
The Great White Shark was controversial during his playing days given he was renowned for speaking his mind. His move to support LIV Golf Investments is also controversial given most of the funding for the firm will come from an investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government, which is not exactly known for its support of human rights.
Still, Cho Minn Thant, commissioner and CEO of the Asian Tour believes it is the “single biggest development” ever for the tour.
I can see what he means.
The Asian Tour has historically been overshadowed by the far richer US PGA and European tours, which attract the vast majority of big-name players such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm.
Like anyone plying a trade, these players want to make as much money from their skills as possible, and so increasing the prize money for the Asian Tour is likely to attract more of the top players to Asian tournaments.
This is what occurred when the Saudi International was part of the European Tour, with Dustin Johnson (a two-time winner), Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson all playing the tournament despite it not being part of their home US PGA Tour.
The Saudi International is now part of the Asian Tour after it signed a 10-year agreement with the Tour recently.
According to Norman, “this is only the beginning”, with further plans afoot to create “additive new opportunities” in other parts of the world. Unlike previous attempts by interlopers, it appears Norman and LIV are trying to work with the existing golf authorities such as the US and European Tours rather than threatening to create a breakaway competition.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights record, I think this is a good idea. Golf is already very popular in various parts of Asia, with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama the reigning US Masters champion while Korean women dominate the US LPA Tour.
With hundreds of millions of people entering the middle class in China, India and elsewhere and having more money to spend on leisure activities, this is an opportunity to spread the game of golf in a very populous and fast-growing region.
This can only be to the benefit of golf, whatever critics might correctly say about Saudi Arabia’s sordid human rights record.