While the stars of Asian golf shone brightly in 2015, the Asian Tour heads into an uncertain new year with players unhappy with a proposed European Tour merger. On the fairways and greens all was well, as Asian players matched their international rivals and made an impression at events across the globe.
India’s Anirban Lahiri wrapped up the Asian Order of Merit with two wins in co-sanctioned Asian-European Tour events—the Malaysian and Indian Opens—and a slew of top-10 finishes around the world, including an admirable fifth place at the US PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
South Korea’s An Byeong-Hun took Rookie of the Year honours on the European Tour and carried off the biggest prize of his career with a stunning six-shot triumph at the PGA Championship at Wentworth to pocket a cool $1 million.
Evergreen Thai Thongchai Jaidee showed he was still young at heart with a game to match, winning the European Open in September, recording eight top-10s and reaching a career-high world ranking of 28, at the tender age of 45.
His fellow countryman Kiradech Aphibarnrat won three times globally with nine other top-10s, while Wu Ashun became the first Chinese player to win a European Tour event on home soil when he lifted the China Open trophy in Shanghai.
Thongchai and Lahiri then capped their stellar year by making the Presidents Cup debut against the United States in Incheon, South Korea, the first time the prestigious team matchplay event had been staged in Asia. The event proved a roaring success with huge crowds and a nail-biting denouement. The US won on the final green of the final singles match, when home favourite Bae Sang-Moon agonisingly fluffed a crucial chip to the 18th green to hand Bill Haas the winning point in a 15.5-14.5 victory. It was a sad end for Bae, who now has his pro golf career put on hold while he serves at least 18 months compulsory national service in the South Korean military.
Off the course, meanwhile, major developments were brewing in Asia that will rumble on into 2016. In August, the European and Asian Tours announced in a vaguely worded statement a “joint vision” for the future.
It soon emerged that the proposal was for a fully-fledged merger of the two organisations to form a mega-tour stretching from Ireland to the shores of the Pacific in the Far East. While the increased presence, sponsorship and prize money opportunities such a tour could harness were broadly welcomed by the European players, their Asian counterparts were less convinced.
The players held a long meeting at the Macau Open in October and it became clear there were deep divisions in the ranks over the merger. Players who ply their trade on both tours seemed in favour, but some members of the Asian Tour were scared their opportunities to make a living could be eroded by an influx of higher-ranked players from Europe.
Asian Tour CEO Mike Kerr came under fire at the meeting and European Tour CEO Keith Pelley flew in to meet the players. At the beginning of December, the Asian Tour confirmed Kerr had stepped down as CEO, without giving any reasons for his resignation, while the body’s board also had a shake-up in personnel.
European Tour tournament committee chairman Thomas Bjorn told AFP in Thailand last week that the merger is “the only way forward”, and said Asian players had no need to worry. Indian veteran Jeev Milkha Singh said players were awaiting the Asian Tour’s next move. “We have a new board and we will wait to see what they recommend,” he said.
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