By Kent Gray
With six of the world’s top-20 players, a roll-call of top-100 head-turners as a supporting cast, not to mention critics everywhere decrying the event from afar, the eyes of the golfing world were always going to be sharply focused on this week’s 4th Saudi International.
The Asian Tour hasn’t wasted its unprecedented moment in the spotlight at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, enlisting LIV Golf Investments CEO Greg Norman on Tuesday to articulate fresh details of the 10 new “marquee” and LIV Golf-funded tournaments to be woven into its 2022-2023 schedule.
With bold forays into England and the Middle East, traditionally DP World Tour territory, and a $100 million boost in funding, now up to $300 million over 10 years for what will be herewith known as ‘The International Series’, expect the curiosity and criticism to only intensify.
Black Mountain Golf Club in Hua Hin has been chosen as the debut venue with the $1.5 million The International Series Thailand scheduled for March 3-6. It will be followed by a $2 million event at London’s Centurion club from June 9-12 before further stops planned in Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Middle East, China and Singapore ahead of the series culminating in Hong Kong.
The Asian Tour said firm details of the events beyond London would be confirmed in “due course” but hailed the $100 million increase in funding as “further solidifying LIV Golf Investments dedication to the global game”.
The International Series, courtesy of “one of the biggest investments in the history of professional golf” would allow the tour to “drive greater engagement amongst fans, attract new commercial interest and to help stabilise professional golf following a sustained period of worldwide disruption and uncertainty.”
“We are on the threshold of a new era for Asian golf,” said Cho Minn Thant, the Asian Tour’s Commissioner and CEO.
“The International Series is a new upper-tier of elite events, the likes of which the region has not seen before, that will mark the start of a phenomenal period of growth for the Asian Tour. It also signifies the beginning of our relationship with our new strategic partner LIV Golf Investments and its CEO Greg Norman.
“Importantly, The International Series will add to the Asian Tour’s backbone of established events to comprise a 25-event season, expected to represent a record-breaking combined prize-fund. Each of the 10 events will be broadcast live across the globe, with plans to attract an international field of headline talent.”
With old friendships on ice, golf’s traditional geographical boundaries continue to be blurred by the powerplay for professional golf. The Asian Tour’s sortie into England is a tit-for-tat response to the DP World Tour announcing it will host an event in Japan for the first time in April. The former European Tour, which has another “Asian Event Confirmed” listing on its website for the week preceding the ISPS HANDA – Championship in Omitama, has cut all ties with the Asian Tour after the latter hitched its wagon to LIV Golf Investments. LIV Golf reportedly has plans to launch its own elite league over and above the 10 Asian Tour events.
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is the majority shareholder of Liv Golf Investments. As one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, it clearly has the financial might to challenge the PGA Tour-DP World Tour alliance – a point illuminated by the star-studded field at Royal Greens this week.
Norman was announced as CEO in October and handed a mandate to “holistically improve the health of professional golf on a truly global scale to help unlock the sports’ untapped worldwide potential”.
The Asian Tour is clearly the first major benefactor of that remit.
“We are setting the Asian Tour up as a powerful new force on the world golf stage,” said Norman.
“In my 40 years as a professional golfer, I’ve seen many parts of the world that have benefitted tremendously from golf and its growth and development. We now have the opportunity to do that in the Asia Pacific region and the Middle East with this incredible investment platform. Everyone benefits – professional players, amateurs, grassroots golf, fans, economies, communities, stakeholders. I’ve never been so optimistic about the future of the sport.”
Tuesday’s media conference is set to light a fresh fuse under the PIF Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers. The Asian Tour’s new “flagship” $5 million season-opener is not part of The International Series but has assembled, with the help of Golf Saudi, the circuit’s strongest ever field. It includes two-time defending champion Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Bryson DeChambeau, the world numbers five, eight and nine respectively. Also in the field are Tony Finau, Matthew Wolff, Abraham Ancer, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na and major champions Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Shane Lowry, Henrik Stenson and Jason Dufner.
Korean teen Joohyung Kim, the freshly minted Asian Tour Order of Merit champion, leads a contingent of more than 50 Asian Tour members in King Abdullah Economic City.
“I have been fortunate to enjoy an amazing start to my professional career but for this to happen at the same time as the Asian Tour is going through such incredibly positive changes is a huge bonus for me, as well as for all the Asian Tour players,” said Kim.
In related news, the 102nd New Zealand Open, scheduled for March 31-April 3 as the fifth event on the 2022-23 Asian Tour schedule, has been cancelled for the second successive year due to the country’s strict border restrictions.
The tournament in Queenstown was to have offered starts in the 150th Open Championship to the top three players not already qualified for St Andrews. The R&A has yet to say if those spots will be reallocated to an Asian Tour event.