Asia focus of bright future for Open

Millbrook Resort, near Arrowtown, on Thursday. Photo: Michael Thomas/Photosport.
Millbrook Resort, near Arrowtown, on Thursday. Photo: Michael Thomas/Photosport.
New Zealand’s top golf tournament is unashamedly based near Queenstown. It is also making a naked pitch for closer ties with Asia. David Williams in Queenstown talks to New Zealand Open director Michael Glading.

Who wins the New Zealand Open is important.

Michael Glading.
Michael Glading.
But for Michael Glading a side-meeting looms as more vital for the event’s future.By the time the trophy is lifted at Millbrook Resort, near Arrowtown, tomorrow, the tournament director  hopes to have hammered out a deal with Asian Tour representatives.

He imagines an agreement involving 30 spots for Asian Tour players.

"We’re in discussion on that right now," Mr Glading said  before the event teed off on Thursday.

"We hope to have that finalised by the end of this tournament, frankly."

And, if comments made to the Otago Daily Times by Asian Tour chairman Jimmy Masrin — playing in the pro-am of this week’s Open with his son, professional Danny Masrin — are anything to go by, it looks to be almost a done deal.

Speaking to the ODT after his second round at The Hills yesterday, Mr Masrin said the contract had yet to be signed "but, I think we’re moving in that direction".

"I mean the Asian Tour has been around and we’re all over Asia Pacific, including Australasia, so it’ll be nice.‘‘I think it’s a good thing; I hope it’s a good thing for New Zealand."

As to what would happen to the present co-sanctioning arrangement with the Japan Tour, Mr Masrin said it would be "something we’d have to discuss".

"The Asian Tour has four or five co-sanctioned events with the Japanese Tour, as well, so, I mean we can certainly go tri-sanction."

Mr Glading agreed the embrace of Asia meant he imagined continued dominance of the event by overseas players, but with Asian names, pointing out a 17-year-old Thai player, Phachara Khongwatmai, who almost won the World Super 6 in Perth last month.

Last year’s leaderboard shows the tournament’s push into Asia is working.

Australian pro Matthew Griffin  won the tournament  and Kiwi Michael Hendry  tied for third, but the other names rounding out the top five were Japanese — Hideto Tanihara, Shunsuke Sonoda and Yoshi Fujimoto.

"All five of them play in Japan — Mike and Matt play there as well," Mr Glading said while sipping coffee at Millbrook’s Hole In One Cafe.

"I thought that vindicated, to a large degree, our strategy. People are accepting the tournament has a strong Asian focus."

Mr Glading says the original vision for the tournament, laid out in 2013 through an agreement with the Japan Tour, has largely been realised. In February, tournament committee chairman John Hart,  a former All Blacks coach, announced a deal to give 10 spots to Asian Tour players — the same initial deal with the Japan Tour.

In return, the tournament will be broadcast live on the Asian Tour’s TV networks to a potential 750 million homes throughout Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe and North America.

For the first time, the tournament will be on the US Golf Channel.

The goal was to cement the Asian Tour deal and grow it. Open officials will meet Asian Tour and Australasian Tour reps post-event and try to hammer out the co-sanctioning deal.

The advantage of co-sanctioning is obvious — any money won in New Zealand counts on that tour’s moneylist.

Co-sanctioning with the Asian Tour may attract its top players here, but could also open doors if a Kiwi wins the Open.

One side-effect could be moving the Open dates — "only a week or so", Mr Glading said — to avoid clashes. This week’s Open runs at the same time as the $US1.75 million ($NZ2.5 million) Indian Open.The $NZ1 million Open — held at Millbrook Resort and The Hills courses, near Arrowtown — is a tier one event on the PGA Tour of Australasia, in partnership with the Japan Golf Tour.

It is a pro-am format that sees more than 140 pros playing with the same number of amateurs, with a sprinkling of sporting greats and other celebrities on the side.

Twenty-five spots are allocated to Japan Tour players, including the return of 2016 top-performers Sonoda and Fujimoto.

The leading Japanese golfers might not be household names but they are top-drawer.

Mr Glading also picks out Korea’s Young-Han Song. At world No.78, he’s the highest ranked player in the field — and he is only 25.

Song is best known for holding off world No.1 Jordan Spieth to win last year’s 2016 Singapore Open.

"Women’s golf is dominated by Koreans," Glading adds.

Mr Glading admits a better deal with the Asian Tour is not just about getting better players, but also making the tournament more attractive to sponsors, with exposure into countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

"It’s got to be about the golf, because you don’t want to have a bunch of Johnny No-Names who are useless — people won’t come and watch it and it won’t be watched on television."

Mr Masrin said broadcasting this week’s Open on the Asian Tour media platform would hit the "target market" for New Zealand golf tourism — the future of which he believes is bright.

"I think, with the number of golf courses here, if you can just promote it even more so as a golfing destination, you’ll get it."

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