BANGKOK (AFP) – Golf’s Asian Tour returns after 20 months of pandemic inaction in Thailand this week, buoyed by a US$200 million (S$273 million) cash injection from Australian legend Greg Norman into 10 new lucrative tournaments from next year.
When the US$1 million Blue Canyon Championship tees off on Thursday (Nov 25) on the idyllic Thai island of Phuket, it will see the first shots played on the Asian Tour since the Malaysian Open on March 7, 2020.
The restart comes just weeks after Norman shook up the world of golf by announcing his new Saudi-backed series of 10 events from 2022, triggering speculation that it could be the first step towards the Great White Shark’s oft-touted dream of a golf “super league”.
Asian Tour Commissioner and CEO Cho Minn Thant insists Norman’s move is not a takeover of the circuit and his priority is to finish the 2019-2020 campaign which ground to a halt to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
“This week will help us to finally begin the process of completing our season, following the most difficult period in our history,” Cho told asiantour.com.
Australia’s Wade Ormsby has led the order of merit since winning the Hong Kong Open in January 2020.
He will head a strong field for back-to-back events in Phuket which will also feature home favourite Jazz Janewattananond and American John Catlin, fresh off a top 10 finish in the US$9 million DP World Tour Championship in Dubai on Sunday.
Jazz, the 2019 order of merit champions, will be joined by Asian Tour luminaries such as Scott Hend of Australia and Shiv Kapur of India in the 144-player field.
Players will make the short journey next week to the Laguna Phuket Championship, followed by two more US$1 million events slated for Singapore in January to round off the longest season in Asian Tour history.
Both Thai events will be played in “bubble” conditions, without spectators, and players have to be fully vaccinated to compete.
Resuming play in Asia had been complicated by the variation in Covid rules across different countries.
But Thailand dropped its strict quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated visitors, allowing the Tour to stage the back-to-back tournaments in Phuket.
The 2022 season schedule is yet to be announced but will begin with the US$5 million Saudi International in early February, which is not be part of 10-event series funded by the Norman-helmed LIV Golf Investments.
The company is majority owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds, which was behind the recent takeover of Premier League football side Newcastle United.
The Gulf kingdom’s move in to sport has brought allegations of “sportswashing” – buying positive publicity to distract from its human rights record.
But Cho said the new partnership would help the Asian Tour stabilise and recover from the impact of the covid shutdown.
“To have 10 tournaments with prize money above US$1 million each has basically never before been seen on the Asian Tour,” Cho told AFP.
“It’s very likely to be the Asian Tour’s most lucrative season.”