Asian golf returns this week with the search intensifying for a first global superstar to lead the region into a bright and innovative future — and put its current squabbles in the shade.
With four billion people, a growing middle class and thousands of courses, it is seen as just a matter of time before a player of genuine world stature emerges, but the process so far has been frustratingly slow.
As the Asian Tour starts its 10th season with the Zaykabar Myanmar Open tomorrow, Japan’s Hiroyuki Fujita, 43, is the sole Asian representative in the world’s top 50, with only nine others in the top 100.
South Korea’s 41-year-old Y.E. Yang won the 2009 PGA Championship, but further successes have been scarce, with Asian players largely unimpressive against their European and American rivals in the region’s biggest events last year.
It is a situation tacitly acknowledged by officials with the Asian Tour’s eight-point wishlist for the next 10 years, unveiled last week, including three Asians in the top 10, three more major-winners and Asia’s first superstar.
“Golf is in its infancy in the Asia-Pacific region. It takes time, and it takes time to develop personalities in particular,” tour CEO Mike Kerr said.
“All sport is personality-driven, but I think the foundations are there, the fundamentals are there, the growth is going to be there. It [developing stars] won’t necessarily happen by itself, it’s not that easy,” he said.
“But I certainly believe that we are poised now for a period of real and sustainable growth through full-field Asian Tour events and through partnerships with Europe, the PGA Tour, with Japan and with others,” Kerr said.
Asian Tour officials argue that regional golf would be in a better place if not for the stand-off with rival circuit OneAsia, which emerged in 2009 and left the two fighting for their share of an increasingly crowded market.
However, there is little sign of a ceasefire this year. The Asian Tour is still considering whether to appeal November’s important court judgement in Singapore which found it acted illegally by barring players from OneAsia events.
Women’s golf is already dominated by Asians, with Taiwanese world No. 1 Yani Tseng among eight in the top 10 and Korean-born New Zealander Lydia Ko, 15 — the US LPGA’s youngest-ever winner — the latest prospect for stardom.
Ko finished third as the LPGA season got off to an eye-catching start in Australia before moving to Thailand this week.
Among the men, Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa, India’s Gaganjeet Bhullar and Bae Sang-moon and Noh Seung-yul of South Korea, all in their 20s, are among Asia’s leading hopes.
However, at Augusta in April, all eyes will be on Guan Tianlang of China when the slim schoolboy from Guangzhou becomes the youngest player to tee off at the US Masters, aged 14 years, five months and 17 days.
Guan’s debut follows compatriot Andy Zhang’s appearance at last year’s US Open, also aged 14, and will raise expectations that China can increase its curiously poor tally of just two players in the top 800.
A record 761 players entered this year’s Asian Tour qualifying school, showing the growing popularity of the game and lifting hopes that the region’s first golf superstar is on his way.
However, the future golfing landscape could look radically different with Asia more prominent and a proliferation of innovative new tournaments, such as India’s Golf Premier League.
In strong echoes of cricket’s Indian Premier League, star players were bought at auction by eight teams for the televised, floodlit and Asian Tour-approved event played over three rounds of 14 holes earlier this month.
This year may also see a reprise of unsanctioned events in China such as November’s chaotic “Duel at Jinsha Lake” between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, when fans mobbed the fairways and stole balls from the driving range.
Tournament highlights will include the WGC-HSBC Champions, which returns to Shanghai with a giant purse of US$8.5 million, and Kuala Lumpur’s CIMB Classic, which will become the first full-status US PGA Tour event in Asia.