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Analysis: The Presidents Cup Threat – Real or Not?

10.50pm 23rd September 2018 - Ryder Cup Business

It’s not a story that gets a lot of media coverage these days, but golf’s second most significant team competition, the Presidents Cup, is picking up speed in terms of commercial income, fan interest and player recognition. However, is USA vs The Internationals match a real threat to the Ryder Cup’s position as the No 1 team contest in the golf world?

The next Chinese breakout player to boost the Presidents Cup could be Liang Wenchong

Well, it would be easy to say that such a theory is nothing more than wild speculation, but a look into the history of the two events can reveal an intriguing future battle between the two events.

In 1927, the Ryder Cup settled the question about which was the strongest golfing nation of that era: Britain or America. There really were no other contenders in those days, so other countries were involved. But post World War II, the matches had become too one-sided, so in 1979 Europeans were added to the GB&I side and the matches were much closer and the vast majority of the world’s elite players were playing in each Ryder Cup.

But what will happen in another generation? Could it be argued that a large percentage of the world’s top players would come from Asia along with Australia and South Africa? The key country is probably China. Some forecasters predict that in a few decades time, the Chinese will have more golfers than any country in the world, so perhaps they will develop a majority of the world’s best. In sport, surely, stranger things have happened.

In 1927, the Ryder Cup settled the question about which was the strongest golfing nation of that era: Britain or America. There really were no other contenders in those days, so other countries were involved. But post World War II, the matches had become too one-sided, so in 1979 Europeans were added to the GB&I side and the matches were much closer and the vast majority of the world’s elite players were playing in each Ryder Cup.

But what will happen in another generation? Could it be argued that a large percentage of the world’s top players would come from Asia along with Australia and South Africa? The key country is probably China. Some forecasters predict that in a few decades time, the Chinese will have more golfers than any country in the world, so perhaps they will develop a majority of the world’s best. In sport, surely, stranger things have happened.

The theory is that America became golf’s supreme nation in the late 1920s simply because it was the country with the most golfers and, by sometime in the 2020s, Asia may hold that position. A recent survey by the PGA of America set the number of golfers in the country at 26 million in 2010, with that number down from a peak of 30 million five years earlier. There are many counter attractions for American youngsters and growing the game is a huge issue for the PGA of America. The so-called Tiger Woods ‘Bubble’ is over and even his recent return plus the rise of the young generation led by Jordan Spieth is nothing for the original Tiger-inspired boost for the sport two decades ago.

Ian Poulter, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood along with Chinese golfer Liang Wenchong

The statistics in Asia, by contrast, have shown incredible growth. Despite a short-term ban of the game three years ago, golf is back in favour under President Xi Jinping and the estimated number of adult (over 18) regular golfers in China is a little over 400,000. When given that the number was close to zero a decade and a half ago, the current figure is incredible.

Now it is projected that by 2020 there could be 20 million Chinese in a country currently populated by 1.5 billion people (around five times that of America).

The world’s best players already know what these statistics mean. Greg Norman told The Golf Channel as early as 2013: “The east will take over the west in the game of golf within a generation. When you have 1.5 billion people getting a taste of golf they will accelerate the progress.”

Other great players like Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo have spoken openly about this and believe Asian golf supremacy is not just a matter of economics and the growth of the golfing population – the Asian temperament suits the game, they say, a fact perhaps best proven by the rise of the women players of South Korea.

Another encouraging sign for Asia is the rise of top-level tournaments there including the annual World Golf Championship tournament, the HSBC Champions. In addition, European Tour and PGA Tour events are now staged there, while a PGA Tour Series China is developing new talent. The China Golf Association and the China Olympic Sports Industry are working together and layers on PGA Tour Series China will get access to American events to consolidate links between the two golfing nations.

On top of China and even Korea, other Asian countries are also likely to produce more stars of the future. Japan has long had its own highly successful tour, while to a lesser extent have Malaysia, Indonesia and the Phillipines. Then there is India, another country with an enormous population that has barely started to discover golf yet can already boast top pros like Jeev Milka Singh and a regular European Tour event.

So, the threat to the Ryder Cup will come when Asian players make up the majority of the best golfers in the world and that would elevate the status of the Presidents Cup.

When the PGA Tour invented the Presidents Cup in 1994 with an American team taking on an International team (that is, without any Europeans), it was a direct result of both the Ryder Cup’s success as well as the Tour’s own inability to gain any ownership of the world’s most prestigious golf team trophy.

The Presidents Cup is wholly-owned by the PGA Tour and is now established in the non-Ryder Cup years. The match attracts the best players (even the top Americans) and big-name captains such as Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman. There is also a growing interest from the fans. The 2013 contest at Muirfield Village, Ohio, was a sell-out of 35,000 fans on each of the four days of competition with around 2,000 travelling in from abroad. Then the 2015 contest took place in Asia for the first time in Incheon, South Korea. Most importantly, corporate America and the TV networks have been enthusiastic about the event, so the PGA Tour has more than balanced the books on the tournament.

As it sometimes feels like a made-for-TV-event (contrived pairings in the singles were thought to be an innovation in the early days, but that idea failed to capture the public’s imagination), the Presidents Cup has not reached anywhere near the heights of drama delivered by the Ryder Cup, especially because America has dominated almost every match. But the South Korean event produced a one-point difference between the teams and, when such close finishes become more regular, then the prestige of the Presidents Cup will rise accordingly. It’s worth remembering that until the mid-1980s, the Ryder Cup was often a snore-fest with large US victories.

If the Presidents Cup can wait for more top golfers from Japan, South Korea, India and China to emerge and unlock the Asian market – a match in China is only a matter of time – then it could stop being cast as the Ryder Cup’s baby brother. No golf forecaster will say the Presidents Cup will suddenly overwhelm the Ryder Cup in terms of viewer numbers and commercial revenues. However, it would have been a brave man to predict even in 1979 when Europe became the Ryder Cup opponent of the USA that the match would have ever reached such iconic status.

It’s worth recognising that if any bookmaker were to offer long odds ofnthe Presidents Cup one day becoming more popular than the Ryder Cup, it would make a very tempting bet.

This feature is abridged from Ross Biddiscombe’s acclaimed book Ryder Cup Revealed which is available at amazon.co.uk via this hotlink: https://tinyurl.com/y9w75whd

       

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