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Asian Tour

LIV Golf lifeline: How the Asian Tour was ‘flipped on its head’

The Asian Tour’s chief executive discusses the link up with LIV Golf, how Covid brought them to the brink, and how the future looks for the sport in the east
 

Talk about going from the frying pan into the fire. Just months after becoming chief executive and commissioner of the Asian Tour, Cho Minn Thant watched as the coronavirus pandemic threatened to deal it a mortal wound.

But the tour, which this year is running events across Thailand, Korea, Japan, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, has thrown their lot in with LIV Golf Investments, who pumped $300 million to establish the 10 event International Series.

With prizes ranging from $1.5 to $2 million dollars, and visiting Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, the Middle East and, most recently, England and Slaley Hall, the future landscape for the tour seems completely transformed.

We caught up with Cho, who has held a series of positions on the tour since joining 15 years ago, to assess the landscape, discuss the venture with LIV Golf, and how golf is looking in the east…

We’re speaking at the International Series England event at Slaley Hall. How did that series come about?

It’s something we’ve been trying to implement for the last year and a half. Obviously, during the Covid pandemic, it was back to the drawing board.

Asia was shut down and really couldn’t operate for 19 months. We were just looking at ways to, first and foremost, recover and come back.

We found ourselves, fortunately, in the position of working with Golf Saudi – firstly on the Saudi International – and then LIV Golf, or Performance 54, with the International Series.

Naturally, International Series – by name – means we won’t just operate in Asia, we’re spreading our wings a little bit by going into the Middle East.

Europe is a natural progression for us. I guess it’s no secret that we were scheduled to do the event at Centurion. But when the [LIV Golf] Invitational came about, we wanted to move ahead of that so we could get progression from this tournament into the Invitational.

Slaley Hall put their hands up, when we were looking for a host venue at late notice.

We’ll come back to LIV Golf a little later, but I wanted just to touch first on Covid. How is the Asian Tour coming out of that and trying to build a schedule about some of the restrictions that might still be in place?

It severely impacted the Asian Tour, probably more so than any other – just because we cross so many borders each year. Domestic tours like Japan, Australia, South Africa, and America recovered much faster, just because they didn’t have to travel across borders. Once you were in that particular country, you could operate within that country – not freely, but a lot easier than us.

We were devastated. We couldn’t play, our players weren’t playing, we couldn’t get any tournaments on TV and, obviously, our biggest source of revenue is TV rights.

So if we’re not delivering a product, we’re not getting paid by the broadcasters. It was not even a double whammy, it was a triple, quadruple whammy for us.

Then to come out with this plan for the next three, four and five years, was unbelievable for us.

Starting in Phuket last year, straight off the bat, we had $2 million events back-to-back and then a $1.25 million event at the Singapore Open the following week to finish the Covid hit season which spanned over 2020 and 2021.

Our first event of the 2022 season was the Saudi International at $5 million. Then we’ve had the International Series Thailand at $1.5 million and a whole host of other events around the million dollar mark.

We’re in a better position than pre-Covid day, to be quite honest.

How crucial has LIV Golf been to that? Did they essentially give you a lifeline?

Absolutely. I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to restart the tour in November of last year without their investment. The funding for those three tournaments at the end of last year, and the start of this year, was from LIV [Golf Investments]. So, obviously, our professionals who were playing during these events, stakeholders, broadcasters, were all very thankful for the investment.

We’ve obviously known them for a while. They started their relationship with the European Tour, doing the Saudi international for three years. We’d always been invited to the Saudi International, and they’ve always had a keen interest in the Asian Tour.

I guess they were going through discussions with the European Tour on a bigger project and, eventually, the European Tour went the way of the PGA Tour. The Saudis still wanted to invest in the game, they’re very keen to get more involved in golf, and a lot of it was being in the right place at the right time as well. It just developed from there.

Were there difficult discussions to be had? Whatever you think about LIV Golf, it comes with controversy attached…

I guess, first and foremost, I work for the members of the Asian Tour. My role is to run the tour, look at more playing opportunities for our players and career progression. We took it to board level, we took it to the players, and it was really a no brainer.

How pivotal are the International Series events going to be the growth of the Asian Tour?

The best way to look at it is pre-Covid, or for the last two decades, where we’ve been a series when you have your $500,000 events, your $300,000 events, and the odd million dollar event and the odd co-sanction [event] at $2 million. But it’s been flipped on its head now, where the norm is $1 million, $1.5 million, and $2 million at Slaley Hall. We have the odd $500,000 event, so it’s a very different landscape now.

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All of which makes you a serious player in the world game. How do you see the relationship going with the DP World Tour and PGA Tour, because you’re going to be expanding into some areas where they are as well?

I think for the DP World Tour, in particular, that was always the next step for our players – through co-sanctioned events, or going through qualifying school, our players were always looking up to the European Tour, to say, ‘look, we’ll play well in Asia for a couple of years, then we can get our cards in Europe and go and play over there. If we play very well in Europe we can go over to the PGA Tour’.

I think the mindset is very different now with the prize purses being elevated on the Asian Tour. They don’t necessarily have to look to go to Japan, to Europe, to progress their careers.

They can stay in Asia and if they do wish to go and play the PGA Tour later on, there’s nothing stopping them from going to qualifying school.

And if you look at the world top 100 or 150 over the last few years, the growing strength of the players has been apparent…

I think the PGA Championship was probably the best reflection of the talent on the Asian Tour. We got Joo-hyung King in the field. He’s our Order of Merit champion. Our number two, Sadom Kaewkanjana, played. Sihwan Kim got into the field.

Justin Harding, who’s a dual member of both the Asian Tour and DP World Tour, played. We had a decent representation in that field, which was based on world ranking. It’s quite evident that our players are playing a lot better than before.

Presumably, then, you’re pretty optimistic?

The future is the key for us. We’ve got a 15-year-old in TK, a 19-year-old in Joo-hyung Kim, and 23-year-old Sadom.

We’re not going to keep them here forever. They’re going to want to go and play majors. They’re going to want to go and play the PGA Tour at some point – just because it is the premier tour. But they might not have to take the longer road of going to Japan or Europe to make it there.

Cho Minn Thant was speaking at the Asian Tour’s International Series England event at Slaley Hall.

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Steve Carroll

Steve Carroll

A journalist for 25 years, Steve has been immersed in club golf for almost as long. A former club captain, he has passed the Level 3 Rules of Golf exam with distinction having attended the R&A's prestigious Tournament Administrators and Referees Seminar.

Steve has officiated at a host of high-profile tournaments, including Open Regional Qualifying, PGA Fourball Championship, English Men's Senior Amateur, and the North of England Amateur Championship. In 2023, he made his international debut as part of the team that refereed England vs Switzerland U16 girls.

A part of NCG's Top 100s panel, Steve has a particular love of links golf and is frantically trying to restore his single-figure handicap. He currently floats at around 11.

Steve plays at Close House, in Newcastle, and York GC, where he is a member of the club's matches and competitions committee and referees the annual 36-hole scratch York Rose Bowl.

Having studied history at Newcastle University, he became a journalist having passed his NTCJ exams at Darlington College of Technology.

What's in Steve's bag: TaylorMade Stealth 2 driver, 3-wood, and hybrids; TaylorMade Stealth 2 irons; TaylorMade Hi-Toe, Ping ChipR, Sik Putter.

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