Finchem's Wise Preemptive Move in China

By: Marino Parascenzo

Tim Finchem is the commissioner of the PGA Tour and, as such, is shepherd to five tours, a couple-hundred million dollars in prize money and several hundred golfers, many of them among the best in the world. So why would Finchem take on a dinky little developmental tour of 12 tournaments worth a mere $200,000 each in China, halfway around Earth?

Therein lies another chapter in the geopolitics of golf.

Unless and until history proves otherwise, chalk this one up as a coup for Finchem. In what looks like a preemptive move, he just got the PGA Tour a pipeline to every good golfer who comes out of China and possibly a good toehold in the immense market that is China, whatever form that stake might take. The effects will be felt on the European Tour, the Asian Tour and the OneAsia Tour, with other shoes possibly dropping in Australia, Korea, New Zealand and Japan.

It's called the PGA Tour China, a partnership between the PGA Tour and the China Golf Association, the organization without which nobody does golf in China. If the brand name sounds familiar, think PGA Tour Canada and PGA Tour Latinoamerica. They used to be the Canadian Tour and the Tour de las Americas, and they were struggling. The PGA Tour lifted them aboard, making Finchem the emperor of the Western Hemisphere. And now the PGA Tour China? Put your own title on him.

The PGA Tour China will give Chinese golfers a place to develop. But what puts Finchem and the PGA Tour in the catbird seat was this simple statement in his announcement earlier this month.

" . . . the top players on this tour," Finchem said, "will have the opportunity to advance to the Tour, which is the pathway to the PGA Tour, and as such, creates a new pathway for China elite players to move to the global stage, as well."

The "global stage" has that ring to it. The CGA wants Chinese golfers playing the big room.

The PGA Tour, with all of its riches, will continue to be the destination of the marquee players in the world and any others who think they can crack it. What's changed is that the Tour is now the port of entry to the PGA Tour. There are four ways to get on the the famed Q-School (the qualifying tournament), and a rationing of spots from the Canadian, Latin American and now China tours.

Golf is in its growing pains in Asia. Turmoil might be another word for it. China's first attempt at a domestic tour was the China Omega Tour, launched by the China Golf Association in 2005 with only six events. The CGA folded it in 2009 to make way for the current OneAsia Tour, a mix of the Australasian Tour, Korea Golf Association and Korean PGA. It started in 2009, and this year staged eight tournaments worth $1 million or more each. Three were in China. The OneAsia is trying to replace the older, bigger Asian Tour, which had 24 tournaments this year, but only a few in the range of $1 million and more.

Speaking of the geopolitics of golf, note that the OneAsia runs a qualifying school in the U.S. But for how long? Finchem said in his statement that PGA Tour China would not affect either the OneAsia Tour or the three European Tour events in China. But with players wanting to reach the big time, chances are they will be rushing to the China Tour. So it would seem that anyone working for the OneAsia Tour might start looking for another job.

Just how the world of golf got into this tumble is chicken-and-egg conjecture, but it seems as good a starting point as any was the day Volvo, the Swedish car maker, took a good look at the China market. Volvo, long a tournament sponsor on the European Tour, decided to get its name in front of the Chinese buyers, who were growing fast in numbers and cash, and thus began the Volvo China Open. It was staged first by the China Golf Association in 1995, then was co-sanctioned by the European Tour in 2003.

The Euro Tour long since had to look far and wide for tournament sponsors, and so ended up in South Africa, Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the Middle East. And one day Tim Finchem woke up to find that the Euro Tour was in China as well, in the biggest undeveloped golf market in the world. He had been out-flanked.

Surely this was a coincidence:

The BMW Masters, a $7 million European Tour event, was played October 24-27, in Shanghai.

The CIMB Classic, a $7 million event, was played at the same time in Malaysia. It was the first event ever sanctioned by the PGA Tour in Southeast Asia.

Which way was a golfer to turn? The BMW drew more of the Europeans who normally play the PGA Tour, among them Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy, and a number of Chinese who finished well up the track. The CIMB drew the marquee American names - Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Keegan Bradley, along with Ernie Els and Sergio Garcia.

Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano won the BMW and the $2 million first prize, said to be the biggest in golf, apart from Tiger Woods' appearance fees. Ryan Moore won the CIMB, worth $1.26 million and a berth in the Masters.

It all had the looks of a face-off. Probably just a coincidence.

At all events, a week later, Finchem was in Shanghai for the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, and there he announced the new PGA Tour China.

You can trace all this to the early 1980s, when Communist China discovered that golf was really good for business, communism notwithstanding. Soon enough, Arnold Palmer was building the first modern course at Chung Shan, which resurrected the despicable bourgeois game Mao Tse-tung thought he had stamped out in the late 1940s when he destroyed the six or so courses built by British businesspeople in the late 1800s.

There was an intriguing little interlude.

Palmer offered a laborer a bright, shiny new golf ball for his coolie hat. The laborer politely declined. He would much rather have his hat for the hot sun. Besides, what was he supposed to do with a silly little white ball? Chase it?

Before long, golf spread through China like Thanksgiving-to-Christmas shopping. Pity the poor laborer. Who knew? He could have had Arnie autograph the ball. Think what that would fetch on eBay.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional honors. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.