Golf’s Globalization Crisis: The Industry vs The Sport

The Asian Tour’s Ho Tram Open in Ho Chi Minh City is growing the game in the most unlikely of places and demonstrating the value of regional pro golf tours.

What’s the nature of the relationship between the golf industry and the sport? The answer to that question depends on how you’re looking at it and who’s doing the looking.

For the average recreational golfer, the industry provides the playing ground and the equipment and then the sport unfolds largely without any interference from the industry.

For the pros the relationship is more complicated, considerably more complicated, and there are more elements in the relationship equation. The current state of the Asian Tour is a case in point.

GlobalGolfPost’s Jim Nugent reports that Asian Tour CEO Mike Kerr, who was engaged with his European Tour counterpart, Keith Pelley, in talks expected to lead to a merger of the Asian and European Tours, has left the Asian Tour rather abruptly.

Whether Kerr resigned, as was reported by the South China Morning Post, or was forced out as the result of a political in-fight between those who favored the merger and a group of Asian Tour players GGP’s Nugent characterized as “nervous journeymen pros” who opposed the proposed merger, remains a point of conjecture.

The fact that is clear, despite the absence of an official explanation by the Asian Tour, is that some Asian Tour players initiated an organized effort as early as last October to oppose Kerr’s plan to merge with the European Tour.

According to SCMP, player opposition is grounded in “fears from some players that it would lead to diminished playing opportunities and that they could be squeezed out by the bigger, more powerful European Tour.”

Certainly, the players have history on their side if one casts a long look at various Euro-Asian, economically-driven globalization initiatives. With the Opium Wars, the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty of 1854 and the 1860 Convention of Peking as cases in point, the Asian cultures do seem to come out on the short side of these globalized “cooperative” mergers.

History aside, however, while European Tour player Thomas Bjørn, who serves as chairman of the European Tour tournament committee, supports the merger, believing it “is the only way forward” for the Asian Tour, Bjørn may be looking at only once side of golf’s globalization issue: economic incentives.

Whether the Asian Tour players who oppose the merger are disgruntled journeymen and Luddites, as Nugent would claim, or players who are attempting to maintain cultural balance, integrity and identity, is again a point of conjecture. It’s difficult to imagine that the European Tour would support sustaining some of the more arcane Asian Tour events.

The Ho Tram Open illustrates my point. Much has changed in a single generation in Viet Nam. Thirty years ago Ho Chi Minh City would have been a most unlikely location for a pro golf tournament, and the notion that the Vietnamese would be open to a professional sports event sponsored by a European (or American) sports organization stretches the imagination. The Vietnamese spilled considerable blood to evict Europeans and Americans from their midst.

Yet the Ho Tram Open thrives. Darren Clarke teed it up at the Bluffs Ho Tram Strip Golf Course as did Sergio Garcia. Neither qualify as “nervous journeymen golfers.” The Open was broadcast live to an estimated 625 million households in over 180 countries. It’s Viet Nam’s first major sporting event.

This merger battle is being waged at an interesting point in golf’s history. The sport’s return to the Olympics signals a global presence infused with cultural integrity and national identity. And while the Asian Tour may be a smaller economic presence in the global industry, at a cultural level the Tour offers opportunities that many fine golfers who hail from the Pacific Rim might find inaccessible or even undesirable on a larger stage.

Pro golfers do not, as a group, live a life of luxury and leisure. They’re a hard-working cadre of athletes who live the greater part of their year out of suitcases and sleeping in hotel rooms.

Jason Day’s and Cristie Kerr’s approaches to life on Tour aren’t a financial or logistical option for everyone. Catriona Matthew illustrates my point. When her daughters were younger they traveled with her. As they grew older and had school demands and independent social lives, Matthew prioritized her family life and curtailed her playing schedule.

The Asian Tour, which is player-owned, should be representing the interests of its members and, conversely, the members should have the right to accept or decline a merger that would make their participation in the sport potentially more lucrative and, simultaneously, more logistically challenging.

While most big money events on the Asian Tour are co-sanctioned with the PGA TOUR and/or the European Tour, the Asian Tour, like the Sunshine Tour, serves important regional interests. If, indeed, golf is for everyone, then it just makes sense to protect the regionally-based and development tours that grow the game in unlikely places, that nurture young golfers and provide accessible and affordable opportunities for competition, and that continue to sustain the sport at all levels of performance and competition.

Perhaps the Asian Tour needs some big muscle advocates. Gary Player and Ernie Els wouldn’t tolerate this kind of encroachment on the autonomy of the Sunshine Tour and they certainly wouldn’t be labeled “nervous journeymen” and “Luddites” if they mobilized an opposition to a similar merger initiative. Let’s not allow business interests of the golf industry eclipse the intrinsic value of the sport.

The 2015 Presidents Cup should have made clear that Asian golfers are perfectly capable of teeing it up with the best in the world.