Gary Murphy might have lost his European Tour card but the Kilkenny man has earned the right to tee it up on the OneAsia Tour this season.
Murphy, who will only earn limited starts on the Challenge Tour after failing to make last year’s European Q-School finals, travelled to the OneAsia Qualifying School at the Sandbelt Trails of the Mission Hills Haikou from January 11-14, finishing 23rd on seven under par - comfortably inside the crucial top-40.
The former Irish Close champion was tied for 50th after opening rounds of 74 and 72 but he played superbly over the final two days, carding rounds of 67 and 68 to earn his OneAsia membership.
So far, 13 events have been confirmed on OneAsia’s preliminary schedule for 2011, with further additions to be made in the coming weeks and months.
The first event of the 2011 season, the Indonesian Championship, will take place from March 24-27.
The tour was founded in 2009 as a joint venture between the PGA Tour of Australasia, the China Golf Association, the Korean Golf Association and the Korean PGA.
Its establishment has been vehemently opposed by the Asian Tour which has lost events to the new, rival organisation.
“They are flat out stealing our tournaments and forcefully doing it,” the Asian Tour’s Kyi Hla Han said in 2009.
The Chinese Golf Association jumped ship last year, aligning the Volvo China Open, which is co-sanctioned by the European Tour, with the new circuit.
Relations between the two tours are non-existent, as the Global Golf Post pointed out in an in depth interview with Han in March last year.
In 1994, Han, still active as a player, was among the founding members of the Asian PGA Tour along with marketing entrepreneur Seamus O’Brien. The APGA Tour lasted nearly 10 years until the region’s players – deciding they wanted more representation and say-so in charting their future – revolted in 2004 and formed the Asian Tour and named Han chairman of the board of directors. He was named executive chairman by the board in 2006.
Since last year, Han, married and the father of two children, has found himself at the center of a turf war with the fledgling OneAsia Tour, started in 2009 by former-friend-turned-nemesis Seamus O’Brien. OneAsia, offering million-dollar purses – which are nearly triple a non-co-sanctioned Asian Tour tournament – has lured some key events and former allies away from the Asian Tour. Han has termed OneAsia’s tactics as “unethical” and its strategy as “unsustainable.”
GGP: Let’s jump right into it: Is there a conversation currently taking place between the Asian Tour and OneAsia Tour regarding a merger? And if not, do you foresee one?
HAN: There is no discussion taking place and we do not foresee this happening due to the fundamental differences in the setup of OneAsia. Just like the PGA Tour and the European Tour, the Asian Tour is a player-led organization. Our players believe the Asian Tour is taking the right path, and in player meetings to address the OneAsia issue, they have stated their support for the Tour management. The Asian Tour is structured along the same lines as other major tours, as a sanctioning body that works with promoters and tournament organizers on a level playing field, allowing the growth of the industry and the development of the sport. OneAsia has appointed a sports marketing agency to handle all marketing, sponsorship, commercial rights, television production and distribution. This fundamental difference in structure is a major deterrent to consideration of a merger.
GGP: Many believe the question is when – not if – a merger will take place … that the economics require it.
HAN: It was economics that caused the players to break away from the former Asian PGA in 2003, as it was managed by a sports marketing company. By the end of 2003, the players did not feel the management was acting in their best interest, so they broke away to form the current Asian Tour. The players support the current structure, which has a nine-man Tournament Players Committee that directs the Tour and makes decisions that are in the best interest of the players for the long-term development of professional golf in Asia.
GGP: Do you agree that a united Asian-Pacific tour, which is what OneAsia purports to be about, would be better positioned to succeed and provide increased financial opportunities for Asian players than the way the region is presently splintered?
HAN: The concept of OneAsia was discussed in 2005 as an amalgamation of the Asian Tour, the Japan Tour and the Australasian Tour. After serious consideration, the Asian Tour did not think the proposal was structured in the best interest of the players, so we did not pursue it, while the Japanese Tour felt that more time was needed to ensure a proper structure be put in place. Right now, the market forces do not indicate that OneAsia is an attractive option. We are an established Tour and we will continue to build on our structure, which market forces are clearly supportive of. The PGA Tour of Australasia decided to pursue the concept as professional golf in Australia had become stagnant and their Tour schedule diminished.
GGP: What was your reaction to OneAsia offering spots in each of its tournaments this year to players who finished in the top 10 on the Asian Tour’s 2009 Order of Merit? OneAsia made it sound as if it was trying to “work with” the Asian Tour – a peace offering of sorts.
HAN: We were not consulted nor informed by OneAsia and the Japan Golf Tour was also in the dark. Neither of us knew anything about this until the player criteria were publicly printed. We view this move by OneAsia as a public relations ploy to confuse the market. Tours do not create a playing category involving members of another Tour without discussion, consultation or agreement, and this action shows a lack of proper structure and protocol in the way OneAsia is doing business.
GGP: Will the Asian Tour again deny its members releases to play OneAsia events in 2010?
HAN: This is a decision to be made by our Tournament Players Committee.
GGP: What are the consequences to those who cross the line?
HAN: Once a player becomes a member of the Asian Tour, he is required to abide by our regulations.
GGP: Still, players have found loopholes. Thongchai Jaidee played in the Volvo China Open, a co-sanctioned OneAsia-European Tour event as a European Tour member, and players are free to enter OneAsia events staged in their home country. Is there anything that you can do about that?
HAN: It is stated in our Members Handbook and Regulations that a release can be granted to our players if the event is held in their home country or if they qualify through the European Tour. Our Tournament Players Committee followed closely this guideline last year. These are not loopholes, but guidelines designed to clarify players’ rights and protect their careers on the Asian Tour.
GGP: Isn’t it the way of any sport that players will always follow the money? It’s certainly not unique to the Asian Tour; the PGA Tour has similar problems keeping its players at home. It would seem a losing battle to wage in the long run.
HAN: Professional golfers are individuals who build their careers around properly structured Tours and a full schedule of events. Despite the recent challenges faced by the Asian Tour, we will still sanction more than twice the number of events offered by OneAsia in 2010, representing a substantially higher prize pool, and many career opportunities that OneAsia is unable to offer. It is normal for players to seek opportunities outside their Tours, and the Asian Tour supports this, and is able to manage this through its release policy.
GGP: You lost several strong allies when OneAsia convinced the China Golf Association, Korea PGA and Korea Golf Association, along with the PGA Tour of Australia, to support OneAsia. And there are rumors that another founding partner, the Japan Golf Tour, which remained loyal to the Asian Tour in 2009, may sanction a OneAsia event in 2010. If it does, how disconcerting would that be?
HAN: The Japan Tour has indicated it will remain neutral in the OneAsia issue. It has previously stated publicly that it would not be involved with OneAsia without the involvement of the Asian Tour, which is the correct protocol, and we don’t foresee this changing. We also continue to sanction the Ballantines Championship in Korea and the Omega Mission Hills World Cup and WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
GGP: You have termed OneAsia’s activities in the region as “unethical,” but isn’t it following the same blueprint – gaining rights to the national championships of countries – that the forerunner to the Asian Tour, the APGA Tour, used in the mid-1990s to get established and which you were a big part of. If not, what’s the difference?
HAN: As I said earlier, the structure of the Asian Tour is different from the previous Asian PGA Tour, whose commercial and marketing rights were managed by a sports marketing company. This company underwrote a majority of events back then that did not prove to be sustainable, and decisions were made that the players did not feel were in their best interest, hence the breakaway in 2003. The Asian Tour, which is a player-led organization, is structured so the playing field is level and all sports marketing companies are welcome to bring tournaments onto the Asian Tour platform through standard sanctioning terms.
GGP: Zhan Xiaoning, head of the China Golf Association, has been critical of the Asian Tour. He has said in the 15 years of being aligned with the Asian Tour, he saw no benefits, no increase in prize money or playing opportunities for Chinese players. How does the Asian Tour go about strengthening its relationship with the CGA now that it backs OneAsia? Can the Asian Tour survive without China?
HAN: We will continue to engage the China Golf Association in dialogue, but it cannot be denied that China golf has benefited from the Asian Tour. Liang Wen-chong was invited to play in The Masters, British Open and World Golf Championships in 2008 through his Order of Merit win on the Asian Tour, while Zhang Lian-wei was invited to play in The Masters in 2004. Between 2006 and 2008, Chinese players received an average of 31 spots in Asian Tour-sanctioned events in China, excluding the HSBC Champions, where Chinese players receive nine spots in this limited-field event. These spots no doubt created the opportunities that allowed a player like Liang Wen-chong to rise to the world stage.
It should be noted that from 2004 to 2007, six tournaments sanctioned by the Asian Tour were played annually in China, while five were sanctioned in 2008, which were co-sanctioned and full-field events. This contributed toward a cumulative prize fund of $45 million that helped grow the sport and the careers of Chinese golfers. In 2009, the Asian Tour sanctioned the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in China through our position on the International Federation of PGA Tours. Wu Ashun established himself on the Asian Tour last year while a number of places are given to Chinese players in the final stage of Qualifying School every year. We will continue to engage the China Golf Association for the mutual benefit of both the Chinese players and our Asian Tour players.
GGP: In 1995, you and Seamus O’Brien were part of the team that set up the APGA Tour. He and his World Sport Group were very closely involved with the development of professional golf in Asia. Word is you two had a falling out a few years ago over TV rights. Could this “bad blood” be a reason for the aggressive push now by OneAsia, which is also the brainchild of O’Brien?
HAN: It is correct that, as a player, I worked with Seamus O’Brien and his company, World Sport Group (previously Asia Sport Group), on the APGA, and that OneAsia is his brainchild. The players broke away from the APGA to form the Asian Tour because they did not feel the management of the APGA was acting in their best interest. We also felt the TV platform was not correct as we were paying broadcasters to air our events, and there were other fundamental differences. The concept of OneAsia was then discussed in 2005, but the Asian Tour did not agree with the proposed structure because they had previously broken away from a similar structure that hands over all commercial and television rights to a sports marketing group.