The LPGA is preparing for the most-important unofficial, small-field, two-round golf tournament anywhere in the world. The HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup is just one ingredient in the recipe that can make the sport’s return to the Olympics a success. Tim Maitland reports.
Photo Credits: Getty Images, Golfblogger.uk
A 27-player, two-day tournament is not normally associated with the start of something big in the wide world of golf, but the HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup could be the veritable small acorn from which a giant oak tree grows.
Prize money of just US $720,000 might not seem much, but the event is the closest thing to a fully-fledged global tournament in the nation that will provide the stage for golf’s re-entry into the Olympics in 2016. As America’s leading female golfer Cristie Kerr put it when she committed to making her first trip into South America, the Olympics is “the biggest single opportunity that women’s golf has ever had.”
Kerr really didn’t need to add “women”; golf itself has never had such a great opportunity, but to make the most of it the sport has to realise what the opportunity is and how its own strengths and weaknesses may impact on its ability to capitalise.
“I would have thought [the Olympics was] about ‘how would you feel about four days in Brazil?’ It has nothing to do with four days in Brazil, and it has everything to do with four years pre-Brazil!” LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan says, capturing the Olympic opportunity in a nutshell.
Perhaps because, unlike almost any other sport, the players effectively “own” most of the biggest events around the world, the focus has initially been on what the Olympic tournament itself might be like and what impact that might have.
Europe’s top-ranked woman golfer Suzann Pettersen was part of golf’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Copenhagen when her sport won the vote to get back into the Olympic movement in October 2009. She’s maintained her commitment to the cause by joining Kerr as one of the highest-ranked players ever to tee it up at Rio’s Itanhanga Golf Club.
Her exclamation that “we’re on a mission!”, translated rather pleasingly into Portuguese as “temos uma missao!", summed things up quite nicely, but naturally enough, her prime focus is on her part of the business; putting on a show in 2016.
“I think it’s important to get everybody on board: all the players need to be on board. I think you have 90 per cent – the majority – with you. You need the last ten percent going in the right direction, so we’ll get the best golfers competing in 2016. I think the concept is there. What else can you ask for?” enquires Pettersen, or Tutta, as she’s affectionately known in Norway.
“Competing in the Olympics, you have the sportsmanship, the values, the ethics; there’s nothing better in sport. For me it’s a dream come true. I grew up in Norway and it’s always been the biggest thing for me, to take part and compete will be fantastic.”
Next Stop Rio
From the viewpoint of a player who will be at or near her peak in five years’ time, Pettersen is correct: getting the golf tournament right at Rio 2016 is essential. Like their fellow newcomers Rugby Sevens, the sport is back in the Olympics for two games, but has only one chance to prove its worth to the Olympic movement before the IOC convenes to decide whether or not to retain either sport or to vote them “off the island”.
One chance is hard enough to take; harder still when you’re asked to do it in a nation and a region that is not a stronghold for either sport.
The current status of tournament golf in Brazil is a far cry from the 70s or 80s when Gary Player, Ray Floyd, Jerry Pate and Hale Irwin had their names etched on the Aberto do Brasil or Brazil Open trophy. It’s not even quite up to the level of 2000, when the celebrations of Pedro Alvaras Cabral’s “discovery” of the country in 1500 led the European Tour to include the Brazil Rio de Janeiro 500 Years Open and Brazil Sao Paolo 500 Years Open in successive weeks on their schedule.
(Trivia fans might like to note that Padraig Harrington finished runner-up to England’s Roger Chapman in the former – at the same Itanhanga Golf Club – and won the latter ahead of America’s Gerry Norquist, who would become a fixture and eventually a senior vice-president on the Asian Tour. Completists would need to note that the Sao Paulo event survived a further year and to memorise Darren Fichardt).
The Aberto do Brasil, now also sponsored by the world’s local bank, remains the country’s most prestigious men’s tournament, with the 57th edition in December 2010 won by Paraguay’s Marco Ruiz.
Additionally Brazil hasn’t featured as a venue for the Tour de las Americas in recent years and their players appear only slightly more frequently in the regional tour’s tournaments.
That there is a shortage of opportunities for Brazil’s professionals can be inferred from the fact that their names appear sporadically scattered around the world, although in most cases it owes as much to nomadic childhoods or a shared connection with countries with a stronger golf tradition.
In terms of tournament wins, in the professional era Brazil’s greatest triumph might be Jaime Gonzalez winning the European Tour’s 1984 St Mellion Timeshare TPC in Cornwall, but Jaime’s father Mario – winner of the 1947 Spanish Open as an amateur and a two-time Argentine Open champion – is the one frequently described as Brazil’s golfing “great”. Most other notable Brazilian players have those mixed roots.
Angela Park, who has Korean parents but holds dual US and Brazilian citizenship after moving to the States at the age of eight, won the LPGA Rookie of the Year award in 2007, but faded dramatically after her second season. Adilson da Silva, Brazilian born but raised in South Africa, has had a successful career on the Sunshine Tour winning seven times there. Likewise Maria Priscila Iida, a Brazilian-Japanese and a dominant amateur winning both Rio and Sao Paolo city and state titles repeatedly, appeared briefly on the LPGA’s Futures Tour in 2004 and more recently on the Japan LPGA and even the Ladies Asian Golf Tour.
Alexandra Rocha had bounced between the European and Asian Tours before becoming the first Brazilian to earn playing rights on the PGA Tour this year, but he hasn’t yet come close to matching the attention-grabbing performances that could do for Brazilian golf what Jhonattan Vegas’s 2011 Bob Hope Classic win has accomplished for the sport in Venezuela.
Building on the foundations
Even though the numbers of regular golfers in Brazil have grown from 6,000 in 2000 to 25,000 currently, that number seems to have stabilised in the past five years. The number of courses has increased nearly 25% in those 10 years up to 110, but more encouragingly another 30 are under construction and there is a sea-change to more accessibility. Previously members-only clubs are said to be opening their doors to visitors and there is an increase in the proportion of “semi-public” and daily-fee paying courses.
Still, one could argue, with some justification, that the greatest exposure the sport has enjoyed in recent times was when the national football team chose to base themselves at a golf resort during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. So, golf, and perhaps especially women’s golf, needs to make the most of the toehold they have.
“Exactly right! We’d like to, from an early stage, showcase golf to that market,” Whan declares.
“At the same time we’d like to showcase that golf course, that city, that environment to the golfing population before we get there in 2016. One of the things we’d like to do, if we can figure out a way of turning the Brazil event into an official event, is not only show the golf tournament but show what else is going on. If [they] build a new course for the Olympics, [let’s] show the building of the venue, because we want to engage our fans into 2016, too.”
One senses that the world’s local bank would like the same thing, but as HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan points out, they will have to do the due diligence of ensuring that such an expansion would give a return on such an investment in the world’s biggest little event.
“It’s hugely important. We talk about championing golf worldwide and, if you look at all of our investments worldwide, the one continent where we haven’t been overexposed to in golf is South America and South America hasn’t been overexposed to golf,” says Morgan.
“This year is important to us with the HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup because we need to get a gauge of what the market is; what is the opportunity? It is fantastic for us to be hosting a professional golf tournament in the city hosting the Olympics where golf is first going to be played. As a starter for 10, it’s a great place to start, but this year is when we really look at what the opportunity is for golf, in the same way that four years ago we went into Singapore with the HSBC Women’s Champions to see what the opportunity was for women’s golf, and in the same way we did for China with the HSBC Champions in 2005. In those cases it’s mushroomed. I don’t think Brazil is going to be quite the same. There’s a fanaticism for golf in Asia and I don’t think it’s an exact parallel.”
But, and this a big but, Morgan is the first to point out that laying some foundations in Rio and producing a successful Olympic tournament, while essential, is about prolonging the Olympic opportunity. The opportunity itself is something completely different!
“The point of the Olympics for sports like tennis, football and golf – already hugely established sports in their own right that have their own world cups, top events or majors – is that it can broaden the base appeal to more countries. It’s very exciting and I hope both sports realise that’s what the opportunity is; it’s about development.
“That’s the opportunity for golf; now you’ll get funding from governments in all sorts of new countries saying ‘we’ve seen how Korea, for instance, can play golf. We can play golf, we can invest in that and we can medal’. That’s what’s exciting for both the sport of golf and rugby. They mustn’t look at their heartland, they must look beyond the heartland,” insists Morgan, who as well as managing the bank’s golf sponsorship portfolio also made them the first umbrella sponsor’s of rugby’s global Sevens tournaments: the HSBC World Sevens Series.
This is a point that may not have sunk in to the golf world completely. Certainly Mike Whan is brave enough to admit it was lost to him when golf successfully presented its case to the IOC two years ago.
“I wasn’t around for the vote and ‘should we go pros?’ [playing in the Olympics]. I don’t think I would have voted for it back then. I would have been naïve, back in the voting days. I would have said ‘c’mon we’re already worldwide and we already showcase the best players in the world’; I would have missed the extra excitement. I believe the Olympics is going to have a fundamental impact on the growth of the game. What I’ve seen as [LPGA] commissioner over the past year is what golf in the Olympics really means,” Whan confesses.
“The level of interest and support, and the excitement, is happening in individual countries – countries where it happens around Olympic sports, but doesn’t happen around non-Olympic sports. I was at the China Golf Association back in October and to see the training facilities that they’re building and the commitment to finding young athletes to become Olympic athletes from a golf perspective and what it’s meaning for women’s golf throughout Asia and throughout the world… I would have missed all that. It’ll impact Canada and the US and Europe, too; everyone’s going to want to keep up, that’s what happens in great sports whether it’s swimming, track or golf. It’s going to give a different plateau.”
As Morgan says, the impact is felt most immediately where an established sport will notice it least. Pettersen, for instance, says she’s noticed an immediate difference back in Norway.
“Once golf was taken in there’s obviously a lot of money involved and the distribution down from it. The [golf] federation can now start to build a team and do the stuff they want to do for the young players to have them ready for 2016,” says Pettersen.
“Money is one thing, but also wherever you go in the world you’ll find a golf course and you’ll find people playing golf; so I think it’s good exposure for golf.”
Investment x Interest = Growth
The combination of increased investment and added interest has the potential, as Whan quickly points out, to create a snowballing effect.
“After each Games, you get some profit sharing back into your sport and when we go to the Olympics and are able to reinvest monies in the different countries that participate, it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy where the Olympics made it important, and participating in the Olympics enables you to continue to fuel the growth,” says the LPGA commissioner.
However, to maximise the opportunity, golf does need to fully realise and fully adapt to the fact that its historical structure might work against it in making the most of the Olympic opportunity.
The rules, heritage and traditions of golf have been jointly governed by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (until 2004 when The R&A was created to take over the role of “engaging in and supporting activities… for the benefit of the game”) and the United States Golf Association (USGA).
Why is this an issue? Well, for instance, the new Executive Director of the USGA, Mike Davis, was recently quoted as saying “one of the things that has never been in the USGA’s mission is growing the game. We have never directly attempted to grow the game.”
Meanwhile the global remit, in big picture terms, has until very recently been in the hands of one single member’s golf club. True, the R&A in its new guise distributes GBP5 million annually from the profits from the Open Championship, but half is spent in the UK and Ireland.
The structure of the professional game could also be regarded as a weakness when it comes to making the most of the Olympics. The tours are, generally speaking, rival businesses run for their “shareholders”, the players. The International Federation of PGA Tours only formed in 1996 when the European Tour, Japan Golf Tour Organization, PGA TOUR, PGA Tour of Australasia and Sunshine Tour finally got around the same table.
It was only with the push to join the Olympic movement that it truly opened its doors to become fully inclusive, admitting women’s golf for the first time as the Canadian Tour and the Tour de las Americas were elevated from associate member status, and full membership was offered to the China Golf Association, Korea Professional Golf Tour, Professional Golf Tour of India, LPGA, Ladies European Tour, Australian Ladies Professional Golf Tour, Japan LPGA, Korean LPGA; and the Ladies Asian Golf Tour.
“Now you have to set up an Olympic structure; governing bodies for each of the countries that are going to develop and find the talent. Just creating governing bodies for golf, that’s one simple step but the Olympics takes you down that path. Then the governing bodies start coming together to ask ‘how are we going to develop programmes that not only grow the game but also develop superstars?’” says Whan, correctly identifying the process as a positive for the sport.
95% of jackpot is national
The reason that all of this matters is that the Olympics and the money that comes directly from being in the Olympics is not the big opportunity. The money that will be injected into the sport for playing their part in Rio 2016 will be small change compared to the investment that is really out there to be capitalised on.
Badminton, when it was fighting to retain its Olympic status prior to the 2004 games, did an audit of its member associations. While the TV money from the Athens Olympics would bring in around US$6 million over the next four years, the investment from National Olympic Committees and Governments was worth US$110 million over the same period.
In other words, 95% of the benefit from being in the Olympics comes from funding at local and national levels!
While Rugby Sevens may appear to have the bigger challenge in making a successful first impression in Rio – in TV terms it seems unlikely to beat golf – it is certainly better equipped to take advantage of Olympic status. It has one governing body, The International Rugby Board (founded in 1886), that sits over regional and national rugby unions in a far more conventional structure. It’s in the middle of its second long-term strategic plan (The Mission: Growing the Global Rugby Family), central to which is maximising the benefits of Olympic participation.
None of this is intended as criticism of golf, but the IRB’s structure gives it a global overview and development role that golf is going to have to work hard to catch up with.
Put simply, at IRB’s Dublin headquarters, Mark Egan, their Head of Development, can reel off a head-spinning array of numbers and details of where and how Sevens Rugby is growing exponentially all over the world even before the Olympic coffers are fully opened. More importantly he heads a department whose role it is to make sure those chances are taken advantage of. Does golf have someone who could match him? Probably not.
The Good News
Fortunately, as long as golf puts on the right kind of show in 2016, and survives the vote and stay in the Olympics, there will be plenty of time to catch up.
“The good news is that on this one we’re completely linked on objective. All of us agree that we want to put on the best world showcase of the sport as we can AND make sure that that showcase turns into future growth. Like anything, it starts if you’re on the same page to begin with and the good news is we’re on the same page,” Whan declares.
So, while designers like Jack Nicklaus and Annika Sorenstam, Greg Norman, Robert Trent Jones Jr., and Lorena Ochoa, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros are jostling for position to design the course that will host the historic return of golf to the Olympics, the HSBC LPGA Brasil Cup, regardless of how small it may be now, is the one cornerstone on which the golf world can build the foundation for it to be a success.
“I can tell you, if you’re looking for a corporate sponsor today, you’d look long and hard to find one better than HSBC. Not only are they a sophisticated, multicultural business – they really understand global events like nobody understands global events – they also have a passion for the game. It’s really important for them to not only bring a global event but also understand and respect the local culture. They really do embrace what’s going on locally and make sure we show that market a global experience, but we probably learned more about making sure we understood what was happening in a local market from sponsors like them,” Whan says, before casting his mind forward to what the medal presentation might be like in five years time.
“I remember Michael Jordan said one time that he didn’t expect standing up there with a gold medal to hit him the way it did. For some of our players, too, you might go down to Brazil to play four rounds of golf and you might stand on the podium and realise that it was bigger than a round of golf,” he says.
Photo Credits: Getty Images, Golfblogger.uk
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