As golf continues to embark upon finding the modern sweet spot for unique events, Asia arrives at the cusp of a new era, drawing inspiration from some of the sport’s most recognised events.
The Amata Friendship Cup presented by Toyota is the embodiment of this approach and recently announced itself onto Asia’s golf event calendar with a flurry of activity.
Golf Business News caught up with David Townend, Managing Director of Azalea Hospitality and General Manager of the host venue, Amata Spring Country Club, whose illustrious Board has been the driving force behind this new team concept.
GBN; David, tournament golf is not new to Amata Spring Country Club?
Headline events as a whole have been a centre piece in the Amata Spring story.
Since its launch in 2005 , the club has staged 5 professional events, including the Honda LPGA Thailand (2006) which was the first LPGA Tour event in Thailand, World Golf Salutes King Bhumibol (2010), the Thailand Golf Championships (2011-2015), the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (2012) and was the inspiration behind the Royal Trophy (2006-2010).
GBN: What was the inspiration for the Amata Friendship Cup and when is it taking place?
We are blessed with a Board at Amata who are always looking to explore new ways to stage events that showcase Thailand as a destination and a leading pioneer in golf. Each members appreciates the positive societal impact and the importance these types of occasions have for the wider community.
Amata Spring Country Club has strong ties with Amata Corporation, one of the nation’s leading business and industrial organisations. The surrounding corporate population and a significant percentage of Amata’s membership are from Japan. Thailand has always enjoyed the closest of ties with Japan, which shaped the founding principles of the event.
Coupled with the continual quest to seek out something new and champion distinct golf events, we ended up with our Friendship Cup concept.
The event will be staged between December 21 – 23 2018.
GBN: So talk us through the concept?
The equality rhetoric is something that we champion at the club and the conspicuous lack of mixed events in the game led us down the path of finding a way to bring men and women professionals together.
This stimulated dialogue around team-based events and what makes them such a successful spectacle in golf. Our conclusion was that the team spirit and camaraderie of team sport was largely absent in Asian golf, as was the opportunity for golfers to compete for national pride.
Our answer to that was to create a mixed team event, contested between the best professionals and two amateurs from Thailand and Japan. Drawing on the strong national bond, we have created a Ryder Cup and Solheim Cup-inspired team event for Asia with the mixed and amateur inclusion twist.
The aim is to celebrate the unique friendship between these nations under the spirit of the game and host members from all across the region to watch some of the world’s best golfers.
GBN: You have managed to amass an impressive line up?
The first piece of the puzzle was appointing our Captains. The world of Thai golf owes a considerable amount to Boonchu Ruangkit. He has championed the game at every level and paved the way for Thai golf to become a truly global force. Alongside Boonchu, Virada Nirapathpongporn, one of Thailand’s most recognisable female professionals has agreed to be co-captain. They were tasked with bringing together the strongest Thai team, which includes PGA Tour star, Kiradech Aphibarnrat; Thongchai Jaidee; World #1, Ariya Jutanugarn; world #17 Moriya Jutanugarn, recent runner-up at the Ricoh Women’s British Open; Pornanong Phatlum; and amateur sensation, Atthaya Thitikul who recently won gold medal for Thailand at Youth Olympics Games in Buenos Aires.
We were thrilled when Joe Ozaki agreed to co-captain the Japanese team. Joe was a key part of The Royal Trophy and is a true legend of golf in Japan. He is joined by Miho Koga, who had a very successful career. Their team includes world #51, Satoshi Kodaira, who is the husband of Miho Koga and Japan’s top female and world #16 player, Nasa Hataoka. They will be joined by the current #1 and #3 players on the Japan Tour in Ryuko Tokimatsu and Kodai Ichihara, as well as PGA and European Tour Bregular, Hideto Tanihara.
There is a compelling mix which came straight to the surface when we hosted our press conference announcing the event.
GBN: What has been the general reaction?
We have had a resounding response across the board.
When I reflect – the player reaction showed us we had struck the right chord. The team aspect immediately hit home that the players would compete for national pride and you could see from their first impressions how engaged they were.
The uptake from our commercial partnerships was reflective of this sentiment.
Thailand has been blessed with so many advocates of the game that when, they were exposed to the vision and positioning of the event, the decision was fluid.
Toyota in particular have shown such support in bringing this event to life and we look forward to seeing their teams activate their association to entertain their customers and the spectators.
We have, more recently, seen the appetite with our broadcast partners, who were drawn by the uniqueness. Fox Sports, PPTV and Golf Network will beam the event live across the region.
For a first-year event, we have embarked on a big project – but the positive sentiment fuels our commitment to delivering the most memorable inaugural event.
GBN: How intense do you expect the competition to be?
I think the competitive instincts will kick straight in.
At the end of the day, these players are some of the finest in the world, which doesn’t happen without having a competitive edge.
This has been founded under the banner of friendship. Golf is a game that stands head and shoulders above others in its sportsmanship, integrity and respect traits; we will see these in abundance I have no doubt.
But will the competitors want to lose any of their matches? Absolutely not.
The Thai players have been visiting us regularly. Many are in fact honorary members here. They have been continually checking in with me on the course set up, sharing their opinion on green speeds, rough, pin placements.
I expect when it comes down to it – we will see a great deal of spirited performances and national pride on show.
Also, keep in mind whilst the Thai’s are home favourites, our membership comprises almost 60% Japanese. The corporate client sector at Amata Corporation is a clear majority Japanese. I think Team Thailand will be doing all they can to rally the local Thai golf supporters to get them to come and cheer on the team!
GBN: What is the on-site experience set to be like?
Our campaign narrative is #strongertogether; I think this sums up how we will stage and host the event and the welcoming philosophy for all the community.
Golf is such a cherished pastime here and we know what it means to so many. We will have a wide range of entertainment and activities to break up the golf.
It will be a great occasion for all ages!
GBN: Is this the first in a series of events?
The plan has been to take a considered first step and assess the event’s uptake.
From conversations with the Board and owing to the reaction of the market, we can say the response has been one has been one of positivity.
We have ongoing discussions with our partners and the players, but also with where opportunity exists to introduce a third and maybe fourth nation.
The vision is to create a sustained team event for Asia.
Watch this space.
GBN: What measures have been made at the course since it last staged an event?
The course has undergone a major transformation.
The agronomy programme has been completely reworked to address some of the environmental factors and move the course closer to the vision of when it was created.
We have done some radical clearance to improve the airflow and ultimately the health of the grass. The improvement in the course aesthetics and conditioning has been amazing.
We have thinned out much of the vegetation to assist with sunlight and also reduce the fight for nutrients.
The team have bought into our vision of elevating the consistent condition of the course at every level.
The feedback we have had so far has suggested we are making the desired progress.
GBN: You have been in Asia for 28 years. How does your experience in Thailand compare with you experience in other countries and in leading the development of other events?
I first moved to Asia, and Japan coincidentally, in 1990 and have remained here ever since. I have been blessed with receiving roles developing and managing some of the finest clubs in the region, with one of the proudest being the development of the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, where I was instrumental in launching and operating the HSBC Champions for the first four editions.
I have lived and worked in Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, China and now Thailand, and have worked in a consulting role in Vietnam and Korea. The passion for the game was infectious and the welcome of every nation was such a redeeming feature that I never felt compelled to move out of the Asia-Pacific region.
Having started my own company, Azalea Hospitality, and made the progress with the Amata Spring Country Club as our first signing, it is clear to me that the Thais are without doubt one of the most hospitable and golf-passionate people I have worked with.
Also, the experience with the corporate sector has been a breath of fresh air. The depth of support and willingness to collaborate is something that struck me from the outset.
GBN: Who do you think is going to win?
I am impartial of course! But I think Thailand will edge it given their local knowledge. Kiradech holes the winning putt to win by 1 point!
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