Asian Tour executive chairman Kyi Hla Han (pronounced Chi La Han) has been one of the leaders in the development of professional golf in Asia since the early 1990s. Like former PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, Han distinguished himself as a player before ascending to management. The 49-year-old Myanmar native, who now calls Singapore home, won the Order of Merit in Asia in 1999, a season that was highlighted by his victory in the Volvo China Open. He won 10 professional tournaments overall.
In 1994, Han, still active as a player, was among the founding members of the Asian PGA Tour along with marketing entrepreneur Seamus O’Brien. The APGA Tour lasted nearly 10 years until the region’s players – deciding they wanted more representation and say-so in charting their future – revolted in 2004 and formed the Asian Tour and named Han chairman of the board of directors. He was named executive chairman by the board in 2006.
Since last year, Han, married and the father of two children, has found himself at the center of a turf war with the fledgling OneAsia Tour, started in 2009 by former-friend-turned-nemesis Seamus O’Brien. OneAsia, offering million-dollar purses – which are nearly triple a non-co-sanctioned Asian Tour tournament – has lured some key events and former allies away from the Asian Tour. Han has termed OneAsia’s tactics as “unethical” and its strategy as “unsustainable.”
Han, who once tutored a young Vijay Singh, is confident the Asian Tour will survive – and even flourish – in the years to come. His interview with Global Golf Post follows.
GGP: Let’s jump right into it: Is there a conversation currently taking place between the Asian Tour and OneAsia Tour regarding a merger? And if not, do you foresee one?
HAN: There is no discussion taking place and we do not foresee this happening due to the fundamental differences in the setup of OneAsia. Just like the PGA Tour and the European Tour, the Asian Tour is a player-led organization. Our players believe the Asian Tour is taking the right path, and in player meetings to address the OneAsia issue, they have stated their support for the Tour management. The Asian Tour is structured along the same lines as other major tours, as a sanctioning body that works with promoters and tournament organizers on a level playing field, allowing the growth of the industry and the development of the sport. OneAsia has appointed a sports marketing agency to handle all marketing, sponsorship, commercial rights, television production and distribution. This fundamental difference in structure is a major deterrent to consideration of a merger.
GGP: Many believe the question is when – not if – a merger will take place . . . that the economics require it.
HAN: It was economics that caused the players to break away from the former Asian PGA in 2003, as it was managed by a sports marketing company. By the end of 2003, the players did not feel the management was acting in their best interest, so they broke away to form the current Asian Tour. The players support the current structure, which has a nine-man Tournament Players Committee that directs the Tour and makes decisions that are in the best interest of the players for the long-term development of professional golf in Asia.
GGP: Do you agree that a united Asian-Pacific tour, which is what OneAsia purports to be about, would be better positioned to succeed and provide increased financial opportunities for Asian players than the way the region is presently splintered?
HAN: The concept of OneAsia was discussed in 2005 as an amalgamation of the Asian Tour, the Japan Tour and the Australasian Tour. After serious consideration, the Asian Tour did not think the proposal was structured in the best interest of the players, so we did not pursue it, while the Japanese Tour felt that more time was needed to ensure a proper structure be put in place. Right now, the market forces do not indicate that OneAsia is an attractive option. We are an established Tour and we will continue to build on our structure, which market forces are clearly supportive of. The PGA Tour of Australasia decided to pursue the concept as professional golf in Australia had become stagnant and their Tour schedule diminished.
GGP: What was your reaction to OneAsia offering spots in each of its tournaments this year to players who finished in the top 10 on the Asian Tour’s 2009 Order of Merit? OneAsia made it sound as if it was trying to “work with” the Asian Tour – a peace offering of sorts.
HAN: We were not consulted nor informed by OneAsia and the Japan Golf Tour was also in the dark. Neither of us knew anything about this until the player criteria were publicly printed. We view this move by OneAsia as a public relations ploy to confuse the market. Tours do not create a playing category involving members of another Tour without discussion, consultation or agreement, and this action shows a lack of proper structure and protocol in the way OneAsia is doing business.
GGP: Will the Asian Tour again deny its members releases to play OneAsia events in 2010?
HAN: This is a decision to be made by our Tournament Players Committee.
GGP: What are the consequences to those who cross the line?
HAN: Once a player becomes a member of the Asian Tour, he is required to abide by our regulations.
GGP: Still, players have found loopholes. Thongchai Jaidee played in the Volvo China Open, a co-sanctioned OneAsia-European Tour event as a European Tour member, and players are free to enter OneAsia events staged in their home country. Is there anything that you can do about that?
HAN: It is stated in our Members Handbook and Regulations that a release can be granted to our players if the event is held in their home country or if they qualify through the European Tour. Our Tournament Players Committee followed closely this guideline last year. These are not loopholes, but guidelines designed to clarify players’ rights and protect their careers on the Asian Tour.
GGP: Isn’t it the way of any sport that players will always follow the money? It’s certainly not unique to the Asian Tour; the PGA Tour has similar problems keeping its players at home. It would seem a losing battle to wage in the long run.
HAN: Professional golfers are individuals who build their careers around properly structured Tours and a full schedule of events. Despite the recent challenges faced by the Asian Tour, we will still sanction more than twice the number of events offered by OneAsia in 2010, representing a substantially higher prize pool, and many career opportunities that OneAsia is unable to offer. It is normal for players to seek opportunities outside their Tours, and the Asian Tour supports this, and is able to manage this through its release policy.
GGP: You lost several strong allies when OneAsia convinced the China Golf Association, Korea PGA and Korea Golf Association, along with the PGA Tour of Australia, to support OneAsia. And there are rumors that another founding partner, the Japan Golf Tour, which remained loyal to the Asian Tour in 2009, may sanction a OneAsia event in 2010. If it does, how disconcerting would that be?
HAN: The Japan Tour has indicated it will remain neutral in the OneAsia issue. It has previously stated publicly that it would not be involved with OneAsia without the involvement of the Asian Tour, which is the correct protocol, and we don’t foresee this changing. We also continue to sanction the Ballantines Championship in Korea and the Omega Mission Hills World Cup and WGC-HSBC Champions in China.
GGP: You have termed OneAsia’s activities in the region as “unethical,” but isn’t it following the same blueprint – gaining rights to the national championships of countries – that the forerunner to the Asian Tour, the APGA Tour, used in the mid-1990s to get established and which you were a big part of. If not, what’s the difference?
HAN: As I said earlier, the structure of the Asian Tour is different from the previous Asian PGA Tour, whose commercial and marketing rights were managed by a sports marketing company. This company underwrote a majority of events back then that did not prove to be sustainable, and decisions were made that the players did not feel were in their best interest, hence the breakaway in 2003. The Asian Tour, which is a player-led organization, is structured so the playing field is level and all sports marketing companies are welcome to bring tournaments onto the Asian Tour platform through standard sanctioning terms.
GGP: Zhan Xiaoning, head of the China Golf Association, has been critical of the Asian Tour. He has said in the 15 years of being aligned with the Asian Tour, he saw no benefits, no increase in prize money or playing opportunities for Chinese players. How does the Asian Tour go about strengthening its relationship with the CGA now that it backs OneAsia? Can the Asian Tour survive without China?
HAN: We will continue to engage the China Golf Association in dialogue, but it cannot be denied that China golf has benefited from the Asian Tour. Liang Wen-chong was invited to play in The Masters, British Open and World Golf Championships in 2008 through his Order of Merit win on the Asian Tour, while Zhang Lian-wei was invited to play in The Masters in 2004. Between 2006 and 2008, Chinese players received an average of 31 spots in Asian Tour-sanctioned events in China, excluding the HSBC Champions, where Chinese players receive nine spots in this limited-field event. These spots no doubt created the opportunities that allowed a player like Liang Wen-chong to rise to the world stage.
It should be noted that from 2004 to 2007, six tournaments sanctioned by the Asian Tour were played annually in China, while five were sanctioned in 2008, which were co-sanctioned and full-field events. This contributed toward a cumulative prize fund of $45 million that helped grow the sport and the careers of Chinese golfers. In 2009, the Asian Tour sanctioned the WGC-HSBC Champions and the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in China through our position on the International Federation of PGA Tours. Wu Ashun established himself on the Asian Tour last year while a number of places are given to Chinese players in the final stage of Qualifying School every year. We will continue to engage the China Golf Association for the mutual benefit of both the Chinese players and our Asian Tour players.
GGP: In 1995, you and Seamus O’Brien were part of the team that set up the APGA Tour. He and his World Sport Group were very closely involved with the development of professional golf in Asia. Word is you two had a falling out a few years ago over TV rights. Could this “bad blood” be a reason for the aggressive push now by OneAsia, which is also the brainchild of O’Brien?
HAN: It is correct that, as a player, I worked with Seamus O’Brien and his company, World Sport Group (previously Asia Sport Group), on the APGA, and that OneAsia is his brainchild. The players broke away from the APGA to form the Asian Tour because they did not feel the management of the APGA was acting in their best interest. We also felt the TV platform was not correct as we were paying broadcasters to air our events, and there were other fundamental differences. The concept of OneAsia was then discussed in 2005, but the Asian Tour did not agree with the proposed structure because they had previously broken away from a similar structure that hands over all commercial and television rights to a sports marketing group.
GGP: One of the national championships you lost to OneAsia is the Volvo China Open, which the European Tour continues to co-sanction, but now with OneAsia. What impact does that have on the non-compete agreement and relationship between the Asian Tour and European Tour?
HAN: OneAsia claims it is the alternative to the European and U.S. tours, but why is it co-sanctioning the Volvo China Open with the European Tour? We have been in active dialogue with the European Tour and Volvo over the issue of sanctioning for the Volvo China Open, and though disappointed by the outcome for this year, we value Volvo’s long-term commitment to golf globally and understand the difficult decision that had to be taken.
GGP: What are your thoughts on the China Golf Association launching a new domestic tour?
HAN: We support and laud this initiative, as it will help raise the standard of professional golf in China. At present, the Chinese talent at the top level is very limited.
GGP: At last look, your 2010 schedule had five open dates and only 10 non-co-sanctioned tournaments with an average purse of $350,000. All big-money events are with co-sanctioning from the European, Japan and PGA tours. Can the Asian Tour survive as a distinct entity without outside assistance?
HAN: We let the market forces dictate how the Tour will grow. There are several other tournaments being finalized that will strengthen our 2010 schedule. With the future of the world’s economy pointed toward Asia, other international tours are inevitably looking to partner with the Asian Tour to grow and expand the game. The Asian Tour represents the cream of the crop in Asia, and it is natural for other major tours to wish to co-sanction with us. From a commercial point of view, this holds tremendous opportunities and appeal to sponsors as we offer a global reach through television and media exposure. From a developmental perspective, our co-sanction initiatives have created valuable opportunities for our players. They allow our members, who represent over 30 nationalities, the opportunity to compete against leading European and American players, and give them the chance to gain access onto other international tours.
With regards to the prize purse of Asian Tour events, it is recognized that many of our events are in emerging markets where events are held to support the development of the game. These events are supported by a stable pool of sponsors that ensure the long-term sustainability and commercial viability of the Asian Tour. These tournaments are the backbone of the Asian Tour, providing playing opportunities for our members, and we are confident that with continued organic growth that the prize funds will continue to grow.
GGP: Is it a good thing or a bad thing that the PGA Tour is starting to make inroads into Asia?
HAN: As a member of the International Federation of PGA Tours, our goal, like that of the other member tours, is to foster close cooperation between tours to grow the game, and we are happy to work with the PGA Tour, which will benefit both tours. We already work closely with the European Tour and have jointly sanctioned tournaments with the Japan Golf Tour, and the rewards have been immense. Our players, such as Jeev Milkha Singh, KJ Choi, Thongchai Jaidee, YE Yang, Liang Wen-chong, Charlie Wi and Arjun Atwal, have become world-class players through this structure.
GGP: OK, we’ve hammered you enough on OneAsia and other potential problems. Let’s talk about the good things happening on the Asian Tour. We understand you’re making inroads into untapped regions in Asia like Cambodia.
HAN: Together with the Cambodian Golf Association, the Johnnie Walker Cambodian Open was inaugurated in 2008, and it will be featured for the third time on the Asian Tour later this season. Part of our mission is to help emerging nations develop golf, and we have succeeded in doing so with countries such as Indonesia, Brunei and Vietnam. We hope to assist in the development of international-class tournaments in countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in the near future.
GGP: What else should we look forward to on the Asian Tour in 2010 and beyond?
HAN: Our focus is to create more playing opportunities for our members to enhance their careers and build champions. Last year, we witnessed many stunning performances. Thongchai Jaidee won an unprecedented third Order of Merit title, while Chapchai Nirat set a world scoring record for 72 holes of 32-under-par 256 at the SAIL Open in India. We’ve already seen Thongchai make his presence felt at the WGC-Accenture Match Play this year. We have new tournaments being established in Chinese Taipei, Malaysia and Singapore. The Myanmar Open will also return after a four-year lapse, and our traditional year-end events, the Iskandar Johor Open, Hero Honda Indian Open, Barclays Singapore Open and Hong Kong Open, will highlight the schedule.
The Asian Tour is producing a dynamic pool of up-and-coming young players, and it is only a matter of time before Asia produces the next global champion. At our first event of the year, the Asian Tour International, a Thai amateur, Atiwit Janewattananond, made history by becoming the youngest player to make the 36-hole cut, at the age of 14 years and 71 days. And just last week, 18-year-old Korean Noh Seung-yul won the Maybank Malaysian Open, his second victory on the Asian Tour. Sponsor support and commercial involvement is growing. New sponsor J. Lindeberg created a line of clothing for the Asian Tour, and Inetol is our official headwear supplier. With the establishment of Asian Tour Television to produce and distribute our content, we are talking to many more sponsors with announcements forthcoming.
GGP: Where do you see the Asian Tour five years down the road?
HAN: We believe the Asian Tour can grow toward 35 to 40 tournaments per year with minimum prize money of $1 million per event. I am pleased to say that even during the difficult economy of the last 12 months we have managed to add new Tour partners, event sponsors, tournaments and increased prize money, which is the key to long-term sustainability and longevity. Our players have stood steadfastly by the Asian Tour because they know that they are our main focus and that I am committed to continue growing golf in Asia for the players.