KUALA LUMPUR: The PGA TOUR’s annual Asian swing is primed to be its finest yet this month with an all-star cast of golf legends, FedExCup champions and major winners ready to impact the game in a region tipped to be the next bastion for golf’s growth.
The who’s who in the modern game will make a beeline to three of Asia’s biggest and most prestigious events, THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES in Korea, ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan and World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in China. These mega tournaments offer close to US$30 million in combined prize funds and more importantly, crucial FedExCup points towards the new 2019-20 PGA TOUR Season which kicked off earnestly in September.
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Gary Woodland, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele are amongst some of the biggest names who will feature across Asia this fall which in turn have heightened expectations of a truly spectacular three-week stretch of world-class golf.
Undoubtedly, tournament organisers are anticipating strong turnouts from sports fans in Korea, Japan and China which they are convinced will inspire kids to learn the game which also instils positive life’s values.
Koepka, the World No. 1, will start the ball rolling by defending THE CJ CUP from October 17-20 in the company of inaugural winner Thomas, Woodland, Mickelson and Spieth, with the latter two making their debuts in Korea’s lone PGA TOUR event.
“I enjoy Asia. It’s always a fun place to go and everyone is very respectful and it’s a fun place to play. I felt it was important to win in Jeju last year especially after a year that I had,” said Koepka, the 2018 PGA TOUR Player of the Year.
In the following week, the TOUR heads to Japan for its first official PGA TOUR tournament, the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, which will be headlined by Woods. The sporting icon resumes his chase to match Sam Snead’s winningest record of 82 wins on the PGA TOUR where he is one victory shy of the mark. Woods faces a stellar field which includes McIlroy, the newly minted FedExCup champion and 2019 PGA TOUR Player of the Year.
Woods’ first return to Asia since 2012 will certainly spark Tiger-mania as the American legend, whose mother is Thai, continues to be like a pied-piper capable of attracting hordes of fans with his mesmerising golf. The 43-year-old also has an impressive track record in Asia, winning six times including twice in Japan.
“I’m excited to play in the inaugural ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, and return to Japan, one of my favourite countries. The fans in Japan really enjoy, appreciate and understand golf, and I’m looking forward to competing there,” said the 43-year-old, who secured his fifth Masters title and 81st career PGA TOUR win in April.
Schauffele, who is amongst the new breed of stars, is fired up to successfully defend his WGC-HSBC Champions title against the likes of Koepka, 2018 FedExCup winner Rose and McIlroy in the region’s lone WGC tournament from Oct 31 to Nov 3.
The unassuming American with an Asian heritage wants to return to winning ways quickly. “Winning is the ultimate satisfaction on the PGA TOUR,” said the 25-year-old, a four-time winner on the PGA TOUR.
“The playoff with Tony (Finau), that was the biggest memory. Just the excitement of being in a playoff, the fans, and the celebration was incredible.”
Koepka is also slated to compete in Shanghai, a place where he finished second in 2017 behind Rose, and thinks Asia’s only WGC event is extra special this year.
“I love the vibe and energy that the Chinese crowds bring to the course each year. I think the scheduling changes with the majors has made the WGC-HSBC Champions an even more important event for us. With no majors scheduled after July, everyone will be targeting to win the final World Golf Championships of the year.”
While there is plenty to play for over the next few weeks in Asia which features 78-man fields with no halfway cut, the likes of reigning U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland believes the stars of the game have responded to a call of duty to help grow the game.
The revamped PGA TOUR Schedule, he said, has enhanced the importance of the Asian swing with top players keen to include them in their travel plans. “It’s huge now with the new schedule,” said Woodland. “With so many starts before the end of the year, you have to go over to Asia. There’s big money, no cuts and small fields. The fans over there love golf, they are golf hungry and it’s good for us to get out of our norm, spread the game and do our part.”
The Asian swing will also offer the TOUR’s young guns a further opportunity to establish themselves with up-and-coming Collin Morikawa and Matt Wolff, who have already won tournaments in their first year as a professional, and Korea’s Sungjae Im, voted the 2019 Rookie of the Year, determined to stamp their mark against the established stars. Other young players to look out for include Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, China’s Haotong Li, C.T. Pan of Chinese Taipei and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, who will gain entry to all three events through exemptions created for the Asian Tour which he leads the money list and Japan Golf Tour.
The ultra-talented Thomas, for example, has used his success in Asia to lay the building blocks to a burgeoning career which now features 10 PGA TOUR wins and a FedExCup title. Like Woodland, he also wants to grow the sport by impacting youngsters.
“It’s fun to have the opportunity to grow your brand and grow the game,” said the likeable American. “I’ve had some good success over there, hopefully I can channel some of those vibes in Asia.”
* Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur