Foreign policy: Open’s Asian pivot

Strategy vindicated: NZ Open boss Michael Glading

Golf heads might have been scratched when the New Zealand Open announced a deal with the Japan Tour in 2013. But the strategy’s working, tournament boss Michael Glading tells David Williams

People are getting it, Michael Glading says, and last year’s New Zealand Open leaderboard tells you why.

Aussie pro Matthew Griffin may have won the Queenstown golf tournament, extending Australian dominance over our national Open to five consecutive titles.

Kiwi Michael Hendry finished tied for third but the other names rounding out the top five were Japanese – Hideto Tanihara, Shunsuke Sonoda and Yoshi Fujimoto.

“All five of them play in Japan – Mike and Matt play there as well,” NZ Open boss Glading says while sipping coffee at Millbrook’s Hole In One Cafe.

“I thought that vindicated, to a large degree, our strategy.

“People are accepting the tournament has a strong Asian focus.”

The $1 million ISPS Handa New Zealand Open – held at Millbrook Resort and The Hills courses, near Arrowtown – is a tier one event on the PGA Tour of Australasia, in partnership with the Japan Golf Tour.

It’s a pro-am format which sees more than 140 pros playing with the same number of amateurs, with a sprinkling of sporting greats and other celebrities on the side.

Twenty-five spots are allocated to Japan Tour players, and this year 24 have been taken up, including the return of Sonoda and Fujimoto.

The leading Japanese golfers might not be household names but they’re top-drawer.

Yusaku Miyazoto, with three tour wins, has more than $7m in earnings and was second on Japan’s money list in 2015. Another star is Toshinori Muto, with six career wins and total earnings approaching $7m.

Glading also picks out Korea’s Young-Han Song. At world No.78 he’s the highest ranked player in the field – and he’s only 25.

Song’s best known for holding off world No.1 Jordan Spieth to win last year’s 2016 Singapore Open. At the same tournament this year he tied for second.

“Women’s golf is dominated by Koreans,” Glading says.

“If you look at both the US PGA Tour and European Tour, you’re seeing Koreans up near the top more often than ever before.

“I think this boy might be the next one of those.”

Glading says the original vision for the tournament, laid out in 2013, has largely been realised. Now the tournament’s Asian pivot will embrace the Asian Tour.

In February, tournament committee boss John Hart, the former All Blacks coach, announced a deal to give 10 spots to Asian Tour players – the same initial deal with the Japan Tour.

In return, the tournament will also be broadcast live on the Asian Tour’s TV networks to a potential 750 million homes throughout Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Europe and North America.

For the first time, the tournament will be on the US Golf Channel.

Glading says the goal is to cement the Asian Tour deal and grow it. Open officials will meet Asian Tour and Australasian Tour reps post-event and try to hammer out a co-sanctioning deal.

Glading imagines a deal involving 30 spots for Asian Tour players.

Hopes are high, but Hart said last year he hoped this year’s tournament would be co-sanctioned with the Japan Tour and it’s not.

The advantage of co-sanctioning is obvious – any money won in NZ counts on that tour’s money list.

Co-sanctioning with the Asian Tour may attract its top players here, but could also open doors if a Kiwi wins the Open.

One side-effect could be moving the NZ Open – “only a week or so,” Glading says – to avoid clashes.

This week’s open runs at the same time as the $US1.75m ($2.5m) Indian Open.

Glading: “We’re in discussion on that right now. We hope to have that finalised by the end of this tournament, frankly.”

New Zealand’s premier tournament hasn’t been won by a Kiwi since Mahal Pearce in 2003.

Does the embrace of Asia mean Glading imagines continued dominance of the event by overseas players, but with Asian names?

“Yes, I agree with that,” he says, pointing out a 17-year-old Thai player, Phachara Khongwatmai, almost won the ISPS Handa World Super 6 in Perth last month.

Sponsorship’s tough. After three years, last year being the last, luxury car brand BMW has moved on.

The tournament – propped up by Sir Michael Hill, and now the Millbrook-owning Ishii family, plus handouts from government major events funding and Queenstown’s council – has generally struggled away from The Hills, including its time at Christchurch’s Clearwater Course.

It’s not surprising its latest move isn’t just about getting better players, but also making the tournament more attractive to sponsors, with exposure into countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia.

Glading: “We don’t do deals with people unless there’s a commercial reason to do so, but it can’t always just be about the money.

“It’s got to be about the golf, because you don’t want to have a bunch of Johnny No-Names who are useless – people won’t come and watch it and it won’t be watched on television.”