During a press conference in Saudi Arabia earlier this year, Asian Tour commissioner Cho Minn Thant was extolling the virtues of one of his rising stars. He described the player’s career path: Paying his dues on the Asian Development Tour, working his way up to the Asian Tour, then winning an event at age 17, the second-youngest professional champion on that tour.
Cho then noted how the player used golf’s shutdown during the COVID pandemic to refine and raise his game before returning to competition in his homeland, winning two events and the Order of Merit on the Korean Tour. Once play resumed on the Asian Tour, the player won the Singapore International to crack the world’s top 100 ranking. He also claimed another Order of Merit.
“His story,” Cho said, “is very much a story that we’re very proud of.”
The commissioner then made a prediction, telling everybody in the room that day in February to remember the name of the player, still just 19 years old at the time. “He’s going to be a world-beater soon,” he said.
The player’s name? Joohyung Kim, although you may know him as Tom Kim, a nickname he gave himself due to his love of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’, the popular character in children’s books and TV shows.
And Cho’s prediction? In his 17 worldwide starts in the last six months , Kim produced seven top 10s, including a win earlier this month in North Carolina and a solo second in Thailand in April. On Monday, he became a top 20 player in the world, moving from 21st to 19th.
He’s now 20 years old and Korea’s top male golfer. A world-beater indeed. And an example of the impact the Asian Tour can make on the global game.
This is why LIV Golf has invested $300 million and is supporting the Asian Tour’s International Series. Last week, the International Series was in Singapore and this week they compete at Jeju Island in Korea. With increased prize money and more visibility, it provides the region’s players with a chance to hone their skills against some of golf’s best players.
Just as important, it’s a pathway to unlocking the Asian golf market.
According to a 2018 Singapore Golf Industry report utilising data from the R&A, there were 4,570 golf facilities in Asia and the Middle East to service 4.5 billion people. That’s an average of 974,000 people for each facility. Compare that to the established markets of North America (30,000 average) or Europe (102,000 average).
The number of registered golfers also indicate the large opportunity for expansion. In Thailand, it’s 22,016 among a population of 70 million (0.02 per cent). In Saudi Arabia, it’s 2,680 among a population of 34 million (0.008 per cent). In Indonesia, it’s 14,084 among a population of 270 million (0.005 per cent). These are all places that host Asian Tour events.
ROOM TO GROW
The eight countries in Asia and the Middle East hosting Asian Tour events this season, and the number of registered golfers in each. (Data from R&A Participation Report 2021)
COUNTRY, POPULATION, REGISTERED GOLFERS
India, 1.36 billion, 100,000
Indonesia, 270 million, 14,084
Japan, 126 million, 629,224
South Korea, 51 million, 214,000
Saudi Arabia, 34.2 million, 2,680
Singapore, 5.7 million, 40,000
Chinese Taipei, 23.8 million, 61,500
Thailand, 70 million, 22,016
“That’s 4.5 billion people sitting there with an opportunity for the game of golf to grow,” LIV Golf Commissioner and CEO Greg Norman said.
His interest in Asia and the Middle East didn’t just start with LIV Golf.
While still establishing himself as a professional golfer, he competed in several tournaments in Asia. In fact, the second of his 91 career wins came in 1977 at the Kuzuha International in Osaka in his first appearance in Japan. He was just 22 at the time.
In the early 1990s, he played in an exhibition match in China. The memory of that trip and the promise of an emerging golf country stayed with him.
His Golf Course Design portfolio includes 17 courses in Asia, and his focus lately has been on Vietnam. He serves in an advisory role as Vietnam’s Tourism Ambassador to help promote the game. He also built the first grass golf course in Jordan, and built a golf course in Oman.
And now there’s LIV Golf and its desire to enhance the game globally. Working with the Asian Tour and supporting the International Series is a key component of the overall mission. He calls it an “exciting new journey”.
“When you recognise these opportunities of the sleeping giant that’s sitting out there, the investment opportunities as a partner to come in and get involved with the Asian Tour and to launch what we have behind us, the International Series, is what I’m going back to in the beginning,” Norman said. “It’s a great honour.”
The support also is appreciated by the Asian Tour, especially after the challenges of the pandemic. The Asian Tour’s reach across multiple countries and the various protocols involved slowed its return to competition. It took nearly 20 months to resume play.
“We’re a young organisation,” Cho said. “We were trending upward before the COVID pandemic hit, and then it was disastrous for us for a year-and-a-half.
“But through a crisis, there’s always an opportunity. We worked with Greg and the team to work on how we would come back, how we would come back stronger and reach this arrangement with LIV Golf, which is going to propel us to new heights.”
Reaching those heights starts by exposing youngsters to the game of golf. The Asian Tour’s most recent donation was a $25,000 cheque to the Singapore Golf Association, specifically to support its grassroots and junior programmes. Among the initiatives are a junior development program for players between six and 12 years old called the SGA Future Squad.
Singapore already is making inroads on the global stage. James Leow tied for 31st as the low amateur among the four who played the International Series Singapore. In 2019, he won the men’s individual gold medal at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, his country’s first gold in golf in 30 years. He recently completed his senior season at Arizona State.
At age 25, he’s five years older than Tom Kim, so he has some catching up to do. Of course, that goes for all of golf in Asia. There are plenty of people out there, plenty of young boys and girls with natural athletic ability, curious minds and a desire to improve. Will they get the opportunity to play golf, to learn new skills, perhaps to even one day become a world-beater?
According to Norman, the objectives for the Asian Tour and LIV Golf involve much more than determining a final-round leaderboard. It’s making golf accessible to all – and particularly the young. “We have to reach down to that younger generation … down to the 12-13 and 10-year-old kids,” Norman said. “Pluck them up here and just allow them to have the opportunity of seeing golf in a different light.”
The opportunity came for Kim. Now he’s a top 20 player in the world. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots. “Asian Tour is the start,” he said. “This is the pathway to the big stage.”
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