First Published on Sport Asia
Two decades after floating the idea of a World Tour for golf, Greg Norman believes it’s still a relevant concept and that the sport he once dominated – spending 331 weeks as No. 1 – should follow the lead set by the ATP.
Greg, two decades ago, you were very supportive of the creation of a World Tour. With the majority of top players playing on the PGA Tour and The European Tour expanding its global footprint across Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia, do you think it’s still a relevant concept?
I think it’s almost here. The US Tour is late to the game and that’s why they’re trying to get into some of these countries; this is my opinion. Europe were the smart ones; they were the first to the game. They recognised the fact that they’ve got to go to these other parts of the world to grow the game of golf.
“The World Tour in its purest form … will it happen?”
The European Tour is probably eight years ahead of the US. The US really has only one market to go to outside of doing one tournament here or there in Asia. The only other market they’ve got is South America and that has not even been opened up yet, even though we’ve had a couple of major winners come out of South America in the last 10 years. That opportunity is there, with another portion of the global population ready to be exploding. When you see these massive pockets around the world with the opportunities there, it’s incredible.
The World Tour in its purest form … will it happen? I think it can do. I think the timing is right now, in the next couple of years, for a merging of the two or an independent coming in and creating it again. The reason why there’s a lot of corporate dollars is if you get television on a global basis. That’s what they look for and the players will come.
You hear rumours about different golf tournaments being started up as one‑offs. You only have to get four or five or six of those guys to team up and now you start getting 8 to 12 tournaments. And you don’t need much more than that for that type of magnitude. You do them in certain parts of the world that lead into the majors or lead out of the majors and guys can still play their regular tour events, 15 in the US or whatever it is in Europe now. So you can actually book‑end it very, very nicely. I think the opportunity is there.
Considering players on the PGA Tour prefer playing the majority of their events in the US, could you really see golf becoming more like tennis, following the model of the ATP World Tour?
I was actually talking to Paul McGinley about this when I was walking around with his group [at the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am]. I said to him, ‘Isn’t it a shame that golf is not like the ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals)?’ Roger Federer is the President of the ATP’s Player Council.
I would loved to have been President of the Players Association when I was the No. 1 player in the world. You know why? Because you know exactly what’s going on every second of the day, from the people who pay money to come in the gate, to the corporations that you’re involved with, not only individually but in totality. You have the connection, because we are there every damn second of the day. Same as Roger Federer is.
“I would loved to have been President of the Players Association when I was the No. 1.”
Now Stan Wawrinka is going to be taking over from Roger. You have this true Players Association. And yes, you have higher people who are business people who actually do it from marketing and operational sides. Yes, you’ve got them, but they have got to hear from the players.
I know in the mid-80s and ’90s when I was the No. 1 player in the world, I used to bang my head against the wall asking, pleading to be getting involved. It was just a shame. And when I look at the ATP, it’s incredible. And I’m really saddened. I’m probably more involved with tennis now than golf, outside of the CGA (China Golf Association), because of my association and friendships with a lot of the great players.
Take a look at tennis at some of the great ex‑players: Stefan Edberg working with Roger Federer; Boris Becker working with Novak Djokovic. I can go down and list half-a-dozen to a dozen. Name one in golf. None, right? And you think about these young kids who are growing up and thinking, ‘Why not tap into the brain of a Jack Nicklaus or Gary Player or Greg Norman or whoever and say, teach me something that you really learned that might make my game or life better?’ It’s nuts. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
And I see how successfully it’s being done in other sports; in soccer when you have ex‑players who go in and manage soccer teams or you have ex‑cricket players who do it. You think of this in every sport except golf. Now, what does that tell you? That tells you the whole thing is solid and protected by what? It’s nuts. I just hope one day the players wake up and realise it and take control of their own destiny; not only for themselves but everything else around.
Golf is different to most other sports in that it doesn’t really have one global governing body, but competitive commercial tours. Do you think there needs to be some kind of change?
“The Olympics wouldn’t look at golf because there wasn’t one governing body.”
Now there lies the problem with golf not being in the Olympics. The Olympics wouldn’t look at it because there wasn’t one governing body in the game of golf. It wasn’t until the International Golf Federation was born, where it was a combination of the PGA Tour and R&A and USGA, a combination of this quasi‑committee that’s supposed to run golf around the world, and then the IOC would look into it. And then who ended up running it? The PGA Tour. They led the task force to take it forward.
So, is that right? You could pick holes in that if you wanted to. I see it different today because I’m in business, but I really don’t see it any different than what I saw as a player. I just have a little bit more experience in the business world and understand a little bit more, and I would ask heavier questions.
All I care about is golf, but if these institutions try to become very possessive and protective … you just can’t do that if you really want to protect the game and grow the game on a global basis.
So, what are your thoughts on both the Asian Tour and OneAsia operating in Asia?
I think competition is good for the right reason, but I don’t know the real structure of OneAsia and the Asian Tour. At the end of the day, you look at The European Tour and the US PGA Tour fighting for the same space here in Asia, so you really have four entities going after it. You have the two big ones and two small ones, so somebody is going to fold, because somebody’s got to be financially backing them and sooner or later money dries up.
Or there’s going to be a merging, whether it’s the merging of the top two, the US Tour and European Tour, which would be hard to imagine, but it could be a possibility somewhere in the near future. You never say no; you leave your mind open in any business transaction.
And the same is probably going to happen with the other two Asian tours, but giving a place for players to play all the time on a regular basis is great.
Are you excited by China’s growing role in golf?
Absolutely. I know there’s a moratorium on golf course construction right now, which is understandable, because if you do let the reins just go in this country, you’re going to have to build 15,000 golf courses and you’ve got to be able to manage and make those golf courses sustainable going forward.
So at the end of the day, they’ve got to understand it themselves, the government. And then they’re going to implement that edict all the way through and then we as businesses have to adjust to that and go with it. But when they do get it right, it’s going to go; there’s no question about it. It will go. And then all of a sudden the magnitude of the sport will go crazy.
Look at the local celebrities they’ve got to play (at the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am). A couple of them, I know their Baidu accounts have like 30 million followers. They only have to Tweet out, ‘I love golf’, and you have everybody going, ‘Whoa!’ You have more people following one person who plays the game of golf, than those playing golf in the United States, so you can see how it would just massively go out.
A couple of them, I know their Baidu accounts have like 30 million followers. They only have to Tweet out, ‘I love golf’, and you have everybody going, ‘Whoa!’
And then you look at the growth market, from China all the way through Korea, and yes, we are going to have economic hurdles and downturns in the future, but if you do it in a sustainable fashion, golf will be in this country like it’s been in every other part of the world – just keep growing and growing and growing.
I did the first exhibition match in mainland China 1992, 1993, something like that. And you couldn’t even come in here on a private plane, so from 1993 to now, look what’s been done in a very, very short period of time. I was one of the first guys to go into and play golf in Dubai and look where Dubai, the Middle East, is now.
So you really have to be patient with it and you have to develop the right strategy and if you do it correctly, there’s so much wealth around dying to get into our sport. You’ve got to make sure that people don’t try and get selfish, take it for themselves. But if we do it all together on a collective basis, ‘rising tide floats the boats’ and everybody will benefit from it in some way, shape or form.
So, are you a fan of events like the Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am, which this year featured the likes of Yao Ming, Jessica Alba and Morgan Freeman playing golf with your fellow pros? It brings out a large non-golfing crowd.
These fans with cameras wouldn’t be out here if it wasn’t for the celebrities, so embrace it. Let it happen. Don’t be bitching and moaning because somebody is taking a photograph. Be lucky that you’re playing and enjoy it.
You go to the US Open tennis and in between each game, when there’s a television commercial going on, you sit there and you listen to what’s going on. There’s disco music playing, there’s people jumping up and down. The TV screens are zeroing in on it and a player like Roger Federer will be sitting there going, smiling, like this is really cool, this is really cool. That’s great for the sport.
The more exposure you can give the game of golf into a country … look, there are 405 million people watching this event. I guarantee the PGA Tour would like that every Sunday, and NBC and CBS. They would love those numbers watching.
But you only have to do it the right way, with the combination of promotion and marketing, and the sport will kick off. And the corporate dollars are here. Look at the names of the sponsors behind this tournament. They are all global companies.
So everybody wants to be in it. And to want to be in it, how do you get in on a sustainable fashion? It’s understanding and building the right business model in this country, as from the CGA standpoint and from a golf standpoint in general, whether it’s the USGA or whether it’s the PGA Tour, The European Tour or the R&A. Everybody’s got to be pretty much on the same page because if you screw it up, shame on all of us for screwing it up. There’s a huge opportunity.
Interview with Greg Norman conducted at Mission Hills World Celebrity Pro-Am at Mission Hills Haikou in Hainan, China