Asia: Golf's New Superpower

Sang Yul Chun’s career as a television executive spans nearly 25 years.



Sang Yul Chun’s career as a television executive spans nearly 25 years, a period during which golf in Asia has been transformed from an expensive hobby for business executives and a very few wealthy into a televised sport for the masses. This popularity is inspiring a wave of course construction, tourism and newcomers to the game.

In April 2010, Chun’s portfolio expanded when the newly organized OneAsia Tour appointed him chairman. Under his guidance, OneAsia now is contending to be the most important sanctioning organization for golf tournaments in the region, in part because of its ability to broadcast the events to 400 million homes. With dozens of tournaments already scattered across the continent to attract present and future stars, his group will guarantee a prize purse of at least $1 million for each of the 15 events it will stage in 2012.

The rise of golf in Asia represents opportunity as well as vindication for Chun and his employer, SBS, the former Seoul Broadcasting System. With Chun, who is vice chairman, guiding strategy and bidding against rival TV networks, SBS has been looking for ways to popularize golf ever since the company’s founding in 1991. The first step in the strategy was purchasing Asian broadcast rights for elite tournaments in the United States and Europe, like the Masters and the British Open. Lately, local interest is no longer limited to elite golf in the West but has been extended to homegrown players and tournaments like the $1 million Nanshan China Masters, to be held at the Nanshan International Golf Club in China on Oct. 11.

“My job has been all about figuring out how to create content for SBS,” Chun said. “We now have a platform for that content. Television drives enthusiasm for golf. In our part of the world, we don’t have the same craziness for soccer, as in Europe, or for basketball, as in the U.S.”

Because of golf’s appeal among big sponsors and its high financial stakes, the struggle to manage and control the development of Asian golf is fierce. A rival sanctioning body, the Asian Tour, began operating in 2004, with the same basic goal as OneAsia: to sanction golf tournaments and oversee highly lucrative broadcasting and sponsorship deals. The Asian Tour lists Rolex watches and BlackBerry among its partners.

Chun asserts that OneAsia has gained the upper hand over the Asian Tour, citing the number of homes it reaches with broadcast tournaments, as well as the size of the purses offered in tournaments. “Yes, we are the top tour,” he said. “And, yes, others might dispute that. But our numbers prove we are right.”

Rivalry between sanctioning bodies is a familiar narrative in modern sports. It is exemplified by the National Football League’s absorption of the American Football League in 1970, or by the squabbling among open-wheel car racing teams, which created rival leagues in the United States, leading to the Championship Auto Racing Teams circuit in 2003.

Golf in Asia so far has avoided open acrimony. To strengthen its position, OneAsia earlier this year recruited Tenniel Chu, whose family operates two enormous golf resorts in China, both under the Mission Hills brand. Since the early 1990s, the Chus, who are prominent in real estate development, have allied themselves with Jack Nicklaus and other eminent names in golf. Chun calls Tenniel Chu “one of the most important and respected people in the sport,” someone whose influence will no doubt lend weight to Chun’s leadership of the sanctioning body.

The son of a prominent Korean banker, Chun was sent to the United States to study business, graduating from George Washington University in 1964. He chose advertising as his specialty, working first for what was the Ted Bates agency and then with Dentsu Young & Rubicam in New York.

Today, from SBS’s Los Angeles office, Chun manages a vast Rolodex of contacts at the P.G.A. Tour, the premier men’s golf sanctioning body in the United States; the L.P.G.A. for women’s golf; the U.S. Golf Association; IMG Worldwide, the agency that represents many athletes and sponsors; and the European Tour. His current role — promote and develop golf for television audiences, while pursuing sponsors for events and for commercial time on SBS — is a natural extension of an earlier career on Madison Avenue.

“His worldwide perspective makes Sang unique,” said Ty Votaw, executive vice president of the P.G.A. Tour. “He’s a diplomat. He knows and can speak to every executive in the sport. He and his boss, Chairman Se-young Yoon, very early on saw that golf would be good for Korea, for Seoul Broadcasting and for Asia, so they tied up the television rights. They have been visionaries.”

In 1995, SBS had been in business for only four years when Chun grabbed the Asian TV rights to L.P.G.A. tournaments for a mere $3,000, a price that reflected minuscule interest among Korean viewers for women’s competitive golf in the United States. By 1997, the annual rights fee had risen to $50,000, still a relative bargain. But a bombshell was about to explode, and her name was Se Ri Pak. The previously obscure young Korean professional was about to win the women’s U.S. Open.

After rolling up her slacks, removing her shoes and hitting a miraculous shot out of the water at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., on the final day of the 1998 tournament, the 20-year-old Pak qualified for a two-woman playoff and the next day prevailed in a contest that lasted 20 holes. She became the youngest player and the first Asian to win the U.S. Open, arguably the world’s most important women’s event.

“Korea had been suffering in the Asian financial crisis” that was devastating markets in the region since the year before, Chun said. “When she won, it was like a sign for everyone that you never give up, that you can come back from anything if you try.” An overnight media sensation across Asia, Pak had been the only Korean player competing in the L.P.G.A. Her victory unleashed a torrent of interest, especially among young women; a decade later, she was one of 45 Korean women who had qualified for the L.P.G.A.

Since the arrival of Arnold Palmer in the 1960s and through the current era of an on-again off-again Tiger Woods, crowd-pleasing stars have always been critical to the sport’s vitality. When Tiger is winning on Sunday, United States television ratings spike. When less familiar names sit atop the standings, viewership suffers. Korea has contributed a handful of male stars to the attention of American golf fans, among them K.J. Choi, Anthony Kim and Y.E. Yang, who upset Woods to win the 2009 P.G.A. Championship. On the distaff side, beyond Se Ri Pak, Taiwan’s Yani Tseng is regarded by some as the most formidable talent in the game.

“I don’t think televised golf in Asia will prove as dependent on a few big-name stars as in the West,” Chun said. “We will be more interested in showing how broad the talent is, highlighting the number of young players who are hoping to make their living playing as professionals. In America everything is about who’s winning. In Asia people care about who’s playing.”

According to Votaw, the main challenge now facing Chun is to find companies willing to spend the millions it takes to sponsor championships.

In the meantime, Asian nations are looking toward 2016, when golf will make its debut as a full-fledged Olympic sport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The rules for Olympic golf aren’t final, though to qualify a golfer will have to achieve a high ranking in global competition, not just in his or her home country. Some Asian nations could be cut out of competition if none of their players are ranked highly enough.

The only way to develop highly ranked players will be to anneal them in competition, which means the cost of televising golf tournaments should keep rising. In the post-Pak world, the price for the L.P.G.A. rights in Asia eventually reached $10 million annually.

“The price of broadcast rights got so much higher, SBS decided that we couldn’t afford to televise the men’s and women’s tour,” said Chun, explaining that a rival Korean network made the winning bid. “I couldn’t sleep and was sure I would be fired. The L.P.G.A. tour was the chairman’s baby,” he said, referring to Se-young Yoon.

Fortunately, he said, Yoon forgave him. As for rival Asian networks trying to make their own mark by broadcasting golf, “the more the merrier,” Chun said. “My goal is to make the pie bigger, not get it all for SBS.”

There is a custom in Asia of children following in the father’s footsteps, and that is happening in Chun’s family. His son David works for Singapore-based World Sports Group, whose clients include the 26-year-old Sang-Moon Bae, who golfs in Asia and on the P.G.A. Tour.

China’s Golf Stars

If tens of millions of Chinese eventually take up golf — as now seems likely — there is eventually bound to be a fully Asian version of Tiger Woods, who is only partly of Thai and Chinese ancestry.

A female Chinese star already has grabbed center stage. Shanshan Feng, 22, won the Wegmans L.P.G.A. Championship in June, making her the first golfer of either sex from China to win professionally in the United States.

Feng, a Beijing native who began playing at the age of 10, exemplifies the vision of the late David Chu, who opened China’s Mission Hills golf resort, the largest in the world. A tycoon who made his fortune manufacturing corrugated paper, Chu became a golfing enthusiast while residing in Toronto. He and investors created the resort, which has 12 courses and 216 holes, in 1992, when only about 100,000 Chinese were playing the sport, compared with 26 million playing golf today in the United States.

“As the economy moves forward and the standard of living improves, more Chinese will take up golf,” said Tenniel Chu, David’s son, who answered questions via e-mail messages. “The Chinese golf awakening” occurred, he said, because of his late father’s vision that business executives would one day need a place for recreation.

With golf stagnant in the West because of weak economies, Asia — especially China — represents the sport’s best chance for growth. In contrast to Japan, where golf has been popular since before World War II, the sport was virtually unknown in modern China before the first course, an Arnold Palmer design, was constructed in 1984. (One Chinese historian theorizes that the sport actually was invented during the Song Dynasty 1,000 years ago and exported to Europe by Mongolian travelers and eventually to Scotland.)

Notwithstanding economic liberalization that began under Chairman Deng Xiaoping, the ruling Communist Party has been cautious about allowing activities that could be construed as elitist or decadent. Golf courses consume much arable land and water in a country that can’t grow enough food for its inhabitants. But China’s rulers also realize that golf can spur tourism, currency inflows and real estate values, as well as providing a boost to China’s global athletic prestige.

In 2004, China officially banned the construction of new courses. But in a country where much happens that the central government unofficially tolerates or can’t control, many were built anyway. In 2009, the government’s own tourism directives referred to the “regulation” of new courses. A new ban on course construction was enacted in 2011, but there is little indication of how effective it will be.

Forward Management Group, a Shenzhen-based golf course design company, said in its most recent annual research paper that the number of “core” golfers in China, who played at least eight rounds a year, had grown 11 percent year-over-year in 2010 to about 330,000. The country was host to 24 professional events, up from 18 in 2009. And developers opened the equivalent of 60 new 18-hole courses in 2010, bringing the total number of courses in the country to 490.

Linda Lim, a native of Singapore and professor of business at the University of Michigan, says golf blends well with business in Asia, perhaps better than in the West. “It’s not about the game as much as the context of the game,” she said. “It can take four or five hours to play a round. If someone agrees to play with you, it means you are important. Besides, Asians are drawn to the environment of a golf course because they have so little of it in their everyday lives.”

The U.S.-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, signed by President George W. Bush in 2003, was said to have been hatched after a midnight nine holes of golf in Brunei between then-President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Asia-Pacific summit in 2000. The matchup turned heads across Asia. Later, Goh acknowledged that Clinton had played better than he that night. Perhaps that put the United States president in a mood to consider Goh’s request for a free trade pact. Chu predicted that the inclusion of golf in the 2016 Olympics would spur growth of the sport in China. It has been a reason for increased government financing of grassroots projects designed to stimulate interest, especially among juniors.

If golf is to grow globally, it’s got to come from Asia, and for that to happen it’s got to move from the privileged to the masses,” said Steve Mona, chief executive of the World Golf Foundation in Jacksonville, Fla.

Shanshan Feng didn’t have the spotlight to herself for long. The week after her L.P.G.A. championship victory, 14-year-old Andy Zhang, also from Beijing, qualified for the men’s U.S. Open tournament in San Francisco. Though Zhang didn’t play well enough to survive the cut after two rounds, he was the youngest male ever to qualify for the elite event — another harbinger that Chinese golf is rising in a manner that Mao Zedong could never have imagined.

Asian Woman’s Golf

The year 2008 marked a financial turning point for the Ladies Professional Golf Association, and a defining moment in its relationship to a rising wave of talented Asian players.

The onset of the global economic crisis arrived at a peak in L.P.G.A. history: $60 million in prize money at 34 tournaments. But that year, the L.P.G.A. commissioner unwittingly set off an uproar by warning Asian golfers on tour who spoke little or no English that they better learn in order to attract more sponsors and viewers. Or else.

The ensuing backlash from Asian players and rights groups was explosive. Carolyn Bivens resigned as L.P.G.A. commissioner. Meantime the global financial crisis began wiping out prize money and whole tournaments. Numbers fell by a third, victimized by tighter budgets and fewer big-money sponsorships. The sport’s prospects had turned gloomy indeed.

Four years later, the L.P.G.A. is rebounding — and its connection to Asia through the women on the tour turns out to be one of its key assets. Michelle Wie, a Hawaiian of Korean ancestry, is sponsored by Kia and McDonald’s.

“After sponsorships, our most important source has become the sale of international TV rights,” said Mike Whan, who in 2009 was named L.P.G.A. commissioner, the eighth in its 62-year history. He declined to quantify the value of television rights, though many say new broadcast deals in Asia are worth tens of millions of dollars annually — driven by a new generation of Asian stars and their fans watching at home in Shanghai, Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City.

For a tour whose membership once was almost entirely from the United States and Europe, Asia now contributes more than a quarter of the top 200 players, including 42 from South Korea and the No. 1 in the world, Yani Tseng from Taiwan. From one or two events in Asia during the 1970s, six L.P.G.A. tournaments are now held on that continent, including one in Thailand and another in Malaysia.

The L.P.G.A. earlier had worried that United States audiences might not relate to Asian stars who speak little English and who might be treated as ciphers by the United States media. Led by Whan, the association is striving to provide more information and color about players who are less familiar to Western audiences. Representatives of Indianapolis-based Language Training Center travel from tournament to tournament to give players lessons in English.

“Almost all the Asian players now can handle themselves in interviews with the media,” said Mike Scanlan, an L.P.G.A. spokesman.

Among innovations introduced to make all L.P.G.A. players more familiar to TV audiences are bibs worn by caddies that include players’ Twitter handles, so fans may discuss them during broadcasts.

“The N.B.A. probably has spent $100 million trying to take basketball around the world, and we have the L.P.G.A., which has gone global in a very short time,” Whan said. He could have added Major League Baseball and professional football as other examples of sports that have struggled to find interest among non-United States audiences.

Whan, 47, started his business career at Procter & Gamble in 1987 and had jobs in sports at Wilson Sporting Goods, Mission ITECH Hockey and TaylorMade Golf.

After falling to a low of 22 tournaments after 2008, the L.P.G.A. has increased that number to 27 this year, paying $48 million in prize money. He said viewership is up 40 percent year-over-year. But he acknowledges that the current number of tournaments “isn’t where we need to be.”

An especially bright spot, he said, is the rising interest resulting from Asian stars. “I remember when I first came in as commissioner, everyone was asking me how I was going to deal with ‘the Asian influence,’ ” he said. “Tell me again why this is a bad thing. It’s an incredible opportunity. We’re going to make faux pas, sure, but so what?”

Proof of Whan’s optimism is that almost a quarter of this year’s L.P.G.A. tournaments will be held in Asia. Sime Darby, a leading Malaysian multinational, is title sponsor of the $1.9 million contest in Kuala Lumpur on Oct. 11.

While touring Asia and meeting sponsors and hosts, the L.P.G.A. has taken precautions to brief its non-Asian players about cultural differences with the United States, particularly as it relates to respect for elders.

“We’ve told our American players, you need to respect them, to study their business card when they hand it to you, to drink when they offer a toast,” Scanlan said. Praising the efforts that Asian players have made to blend in to American culture, he cited the example of Yani Tseng.

“At the end of 2011, Yani came to me and said she wanted to throw a dinner party for the media at her house” in Orlando, which she had purchased from her hero, the retired golf champion Annika Sorenstam, Scanlan said. It was a jolly affair, he said, featuring darts, billiards and table tennis.

Whan recalled watching the Russian gymnast Olga Korbut when he was young. “We didn’t like the Russians, but how could you not cheer for her once you knew her story?” he said. “We have a hundred Olga Korbuts.”


Doron P. Levin is a Detroit-based journalist and author. He has covered the world auto industry for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Detroit Free Press, Fortune and Bloomberg.


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