“It’s the dawn of a new era,” says Cho Minn Thant, chief executive of golf’s Asian Tour, of this week’s Saudi International, a tournament that has shaken up the sport even before a ball has even been teed up. He is not wrong.
The $5m event, which begins in Jeddah on Thursday, is the richest and highest quality – boasting major winners Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Sergio Garcia – of any that has ever been solely sanctioned by the Asian Tour.
But the tournament is even more significant for what it represents: the start of a new 10-year alliance between the tour and Saudi Arabia – and a shot across the bows to golf’s leading circuits, the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.
Saudi Arabia wants to be a big player in the sport and, to that end, last year hired Greg Norman to run LIV Golf Investments. Former world No1 Norman has done little to deny that the ultimate objective is a global super league of sorts.
For now, however, the Middle Eastern country is flexing its financial muscle on the Asian Tour, where it has taken the Saudi International for the next decade after three years of establishing the event on the European Tour.
On top of that, LIV Golf Investments is bringing 10 new annual tournaments to the Asian circuit, each with a minimum purse of $1m, until 2031 as part of a $200m cash injection. In another sharp-elbowed move, the International Series will feature events in Europe and the Middle East.
“It seems like there are no geographical barriers any more, a lot of the tours are globalising. There’s no reason why we should be restricted to Asia and not look abroad,” Cho says.
“So we’re looking forward to doing more tournaments in the Middle East. They’ve obviously invested a lot of money in golf so we’re looking to get a piece of the pie.
“It hopefully raises the level of golf in Asia, allows our guys to compete at a higher level more often on the Asian Tour, and hopefully propels them onto bigger and better things.”
Asian Tour ‘not asking players to make a choice’
The Saudi International has enticed a stellar cast, which also includes Phil Mickelson, Louis Oosthuizen, Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Poulter, with lucrative appearance fees which are not on offer on golf’s other main tours.
It has heightened tensions between the circuits, however, who threatened to block their members from taking part in Jeddah before eventually relenting in exchange for commitments about future appearances.
Cho says players on all tours should be free to play where they choose, and the International Series will have an open category for those in the top 250 of the world rankings, paving the way for more stars from the US and Europe to head east.
But he adds: “I don’t think it’s our goal to try and get the players from the PGA Tour and European Tour to migrate to Asia. Our job is to put on good, strong tournaments in Asia and provide a strong schedule for our members.
“Let’s face it, we’re talking about $1.5m-$2m prize money with the odd $5m tournament here and there. The PGA Tour is playing for an average purse of $9.5m, so we’re not asking the players to make a choice.
“But there are certain promoters in Asia that will want to bring one or two or three star players over. We’ll have an open category for the top 250 players in the world so they can come over and compete when it’s convenient for them.”
There is no escaping that Saudi Arabia and its Pubilc Investment Fund remain controversial partners, given the state’s alleged role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as Newcastle United found last year.
Not everyone has accepted their advances – Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy included – but their presence in golf is not new and they have also emerged as major backers of the Ladies European Tour.
Cho says the Asian Tour was not put off by the optics: “Their interest in golf, sport being outside of politics, and how it potentially improves the level of the game in Asia was a no-brainer for us.”
The damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic to the Asian Tour’s business made an offer of $200m all the more compelling.
The circuit suspended all tournaments for 20 months and only completed its 2020 season two weeks ago in Singapore. It is still to publish its full 2022 schedule owing to uncertainty over when countries will ease entry restrictions.
“As a business it was very frustrating. We were just burning through our reserves,” says Cho. “I wouldn’t say it was dire but we weren’t in a great financial position.”
‘It feels like Europe and PGA Tour have teamed up on us’
There are strategic as well as financial reasons for aligning with new investors, however.
Cho does not hide his feeling that the DP World Tour – as the European Tour has since rebranded in its own big-money deal with a Gulf entity – left the Asian Tour high and dry by forming an alliance with the PGA Tour that has been seen as a circling of wagons against the threat of rival tours.
“They were trying at one time to compete with the PGA Tour, attract the better players to come back and play the Rolex Series events and changing the way they did Ryder Cup points to get Rory and Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia to play more Europe,” he says.
“They’ve done a complete 180 now and joined forces with the PGA Tour. It’s a bit strange for me over the last two decades having an affiliation with the European Tour and trying to work together to build ourselves up against the PGA Tour.
“Now they’ve teamed up and it feels to us in some ways that they’re trying to team up on the Asian Tour. It’s a very strange position for us to be in.”
Another factor, he says, is the decline of World Golf Championship events, which have traditionally given Asian Tour players a chance to test themselves against the elite.
Two of the four tournaments have disappeared from the calendar, the WGC HSBC Champions in China has not been played for two years because of Covid-19 and the WGC Dell Match Play is restricted to just 64 players.
“We’ve always enjoyed being part of the World Golf Championships and having some of our players compete four times a year for big prize purses in these special events,” Cho says.
“In some ways we’re taking matters into our own hands and bringing the better players to all corners of the globe so that other countries outside of America and Europe can experience it.”
This is the new era, then. While Norman may have plans for world domination, the more diplomatic Cho says he is focused more on growing the game on his patch.
“I think we’ll just try to build the level of golf in Asia,” he concludes. “We want to bring high level golf to Asia more often, and it may not be every single week like it is on the PGA Tour, but on a few occasions a year we’d like to see that.”