Business of Sports: Malaysia best for tee parties

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 15, 2018 - October 21, 2018.
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The host with the most” has been a title Malaysia has worn with varying degrees of pride when it comes to international sport.

Two decades ago, it became the first Asian country to stage the Commonwealth Games; a year later, came a Formula One Grand Prix and then the World Cup of Golf, Tiger Woods and all.

Also in 1999, the Malaysian Open, which has yet to see a homegrown winner, was granted European Tour status and teed up golf as the sport that has done more for the country’s reputation for putting on a good party while allowing the guests to enjoy the spoils.

Taking claims it was punching above its weight as a compliment, it showed its diversity with football’s World Youth Cup, cycling’s Tour de Langkawi and sailing’s Monsoon Cup. But golf is still the sport with which Malaysia has become synonymous.

Never more so than since the PGA Tour bestowed upon it FedEx Cup status for its prestigious CIMB Classic, the ninth successive edition of which is taking place on the stunning West course at TPC Kuala Lumpur this weekend.

A US$7 million tournament that has attracted most of the big names, it has, in the words of Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz, group CEO of CIMB Group, helped profile Malaysia to a truly global audience of over one billion homes and 226 countries (and territories) via live broadcast (in 23 languages) annually.

Speaking at the launch of this year’s event, he added: “The tournament has placed the country as a prime stage for world-class sports given Malaysia’s central location for golf fans in Asean and beyond to visit and experience world-class golf action at their doorstep. The CIMB Classic has also grown the game in Malaysia by inspiring and providing opportunities for Malaysian professional golfers to achieve their best.”

For all the stellar likes of Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Justin Thomas it has hosted over the years, the biggest single vote of confidence in Malaysia being one of the sport’s major hubs came when the PGA Tour opened an office here.  That was back in 2012 when the PGA Tour was asked to help organise the CIMB Classic, the first three editions of which had been held at The Mines.

There was a happy convergence of events with the Tour’s vice-president and executive director Todd Rhinehart being sent to supervise the shift to the former KLGCC, which had been revamped and rebranded to become TPC (Tournament Players Club) Kuala Lumpur.

But it was more than just convenience that persuaded them to open an office on the premises: with Asia by far the game’s biggest growth area, it made perfect sense to have an operational hub in this time zone.

Logistical advantages have helped but not even optimists could have foreseen it becoming the cornerstone for global growth and representation, where it now has offices in Seoul, Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne and London.

Rhinehart now has a staff of six with the most notable addition being senior director of communications, Chuah Choo Chiang, who was head-hunted after 18 years with the Asian Tour.

The expansion certainly mirrors how the PGA Tour sees itself. Last year, Commissioner Jay Monahan couldn’t have been clearer when he said: “The PGA Tour is a global organisation because we have a global membership and we are part of a global game.”

The stats certainly support him: in 1990, the PGA Tour’s international membership totalled just 21 players from eight countries and there was just one Asian playing on the PGA Tour. Fast forward to the 2017-18 season and there were 88 international members from 27 countries. The 13 Asians came from South Korea, China, Japan, India, Chinese Taipei and Thailand.

Nope, no Malaysian, but, like the small-sized long hitter who amazes with his power, Malaysia has the honour of being the only Southeast Asian nation to stage a PGA Tour event. As the country’s biggest sporting showpiece, the CIMB Classic tees off golf’s most lucrative swing outside the US.

Next up is the US$9.5 million CJ Cup in South Korea, followed by the US$10 million World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, an event that has been unofficially dubbed “Asia’s major” and whose purse is bigger than any tournament in the world outside of the four majors and the Bridgestone-WGC Invitational. The KL office adds its experience and expertise to all three events. It also helps with a subsidiary tour in China.

If this year, coming on the back of the Ryder Cup and the USPGA in August, the fields are a tad less stellar, next year should more than make up. Fighting that irksome perennial of only having 52 weeks to fill, the PGA Tour has drastically rescheduled.

The biggest movers are the Players Championship, which will be in March, and the PGA in May to free up August for the newly enriched FedEx Cup climax. September will afford a rare fallow month (for big events anyway) and October’s Asian swing will kick off the 2019-20 season.

The biggest winner could be Malaysia where the new season will start instead of squeezing in at the end. No matter, the CIMB Classic has helped grow Malaysian golf and inspire the next generation. Jeremiah Kim Leun Kwang, who qualified for this year’s tournament by winning the CIMB National Championship a fortnight ago, remembers watching Woods & Co in the flesh as a wide-eyed schoolboy. Ben Leong is the country’s other representative.

With FedEx bumping up the prize money and a multi-billion dollar deal with Discovery Channel recently unveiled, the Tour’s future looks bright. To counter the perception that it is only making the rich richer, it contributes hugely to many charities and has even changed its “no phones” policy to connect with youngsters. Once it did, the reaction to Jordan Spieth holing an outrageous bunker shot to win the 2017 Travelers Championship went viral.

For the last few years, the CIMB Classic has been followed closely by the Sime Darby LPGA Championship but when the new government decided not to support it, Sime Darby also pulled out. In the greater scheme of things, it was a reminder that in golf, even the clubhouse is not without its hazards.

But this year still saw two big events in the first two months with the Maybank Championship and Eurasia Cup taking place in January and February respectively. With some American megacities making do with one, Malaysia might be considered greedy.

Just as sponsors are waking up to the opportunities on offer, it is to be hoped that Malaysia can soon find players who can get the business done too.

Bob Holmes is a longtime sports writer specialising in football

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