The long-awaited PGA Tour China Series – a collaboration between the PGA Tour and the China Golf Association – teed off on Thursday at the Mission Hills resort in Haikou on Hainan island, the first of 12 tournaments that will run throughout the year.
First some background, then some analysis…
The first five tournaments (in Haikou, Guangzhou, Wuhan, Shanghai and Beijing) run roughly every two weeks between now and mid-June, before the final seven run from August to December. A few of the venues have yet to be finalized but the full schedule is here.
The series is effectively operating on the third tier of the PGA’s global pyramid, level with similar tours in Latin America and Canada. The winner of each China tournament will take home roughly $35,000 of the $200,000 purse, but the main goal is to be one of the top five players at the end of the year, thereby earning full 2015 playing rights for the US-based Web.com tour, which itself feeds into the main PGA Tour.
The top 70 players from last year’s CGA rankings will join 40 international players who progressed through one of two Q-schools in Shenzhen and Haikou on the China tour, plus a few last-minute qualifiers and sponsor exemptions for each event.
So does this matter?
I went on CNBC a few months ago to talk about the PGA Tour China Series when it was first announced and those thoughts are still relevant, namely that while these tournaments are nowhere near as big as the other major tournaments in China (eg the $7m BMW Masters or the $8.5m HSBC Champions), it’s an important next step for golf in China.
Up and coming professionals, like 19-year-old Li Haotong who signed a Nike contract last year, now have a place to get their feet wet in the waters of international golf and find out if they will sink or swim. Jumping straight into the depths of the European or PGA Tour events in China as wildcards and competing alongside the likes of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy can occasionally be inspiring, but typically is a step too far. This will help to bridge that gap as well as provide sterner competition for those Chinese players for the rest of the year.
The Olympic factor is also important when it comes to golf in China. Don’t expect the Chinese men to do anything in Rio in 2016 or even in Tokyo in 2020 (though world number 8 Feng Shanshan could spearhead a decent charge for the women), but there’s a good chance China could become competitive by 2024.
Of course the most ambitious youngsters have already left school to train full-time or spend several months each year in the US, like 2012 US Open entrant Andy Zhang or 2013 Masters star Guan Tianlang. It will be interesting to see how these two routes compare a few years from now. But once China’s Tiger Woods (or the Yao Ming of golf, if you prefer) does finally emerge – and he will – then expect golf to really take off in China.