Open Championship 2018: Greater participation, improved performances from Asians highlight rise of golf in continent

Members of the Asian Tour may not have set the Open Championship on fire with their performances, but there is no doubt that the world is slowly sitting up and taking note of them.

As many as 15 Asian Tour players made it to the field in Carnoustie this year. The Tour hasn’t kept a record over the years, but this is by far the best count.

These 15 players are those who have taken up the Asian Tour membership. There were nine other players of Asian origin in the field (from other Tours like Japan and Korea), thus taking the total to 24 and making up almost one-sixth of the starting field of 156.

 Open Championship 2018: Greater participation, improved performances from Asians highlight rise of golf in continent

India's Shubhankar Sharma in action during the third round at The Open. Reuters

Just as a comparison, at the 1990 Open at St Andrews, Japan’s Ozaki Naomichi was the only one player to make the cut out of five Asian players, all of them members of the Japan Golf Tour. Even as late as in the 2010 championship, the Asian contingent comprised eight Japanese and eight Koreans (all of them coming through various qualifying route), but only one true Asian Tour member, Thongchai Jaidee, who missed the cut.

This year in Carnoustie, six out of the 15 Asian Tour members made it to the weekend. Japan’s Masahiro Kawamura had the best result — tied 39th — with India’s Shubhankar Sharma tied 51st. Also making the cut were stars like Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat and the reigning Asian Tour Order of Merit champion Gavin Green of Malaysia among others.

Anirban Lahiri, a graduate of the Asian Tour, said he had no doubt that number is only going to increase.

“With so many good players coming out of India, Thailand and China, I won’t be surprised if we have close to 30 Asian Tour players in major fields by 2025,” said the World No 104, now a regular member of the PGA Tour in the US.

“As we get more and more opportunities to play the bigger tournaments, the confidence in our own ability is only going to go up. The success of Kiradech and Shubhankar in recent times show that we are not there just to make up the numbers.”

Cho Min Thant, Chief Operating Officer of Asian Tour, was a proud man when he spoke to Firstpost in Carnoustie during the Open Championship.

“It is obviously very satisfying to see so many members of the Asian Tour teeing up at The Open. It also validates our presence in world golf. We are part of the Federation. However, we are always looked as one of the minor Tours where it is nice to have Asian participation, but no one is really in contention,” said Cho.

“I know there have been the odd Japanese players in the mix, but we really cannot take any credit for that. The best Asian finish in a major, I think, is Anirban (T5 in 2015 PGA Championship).

“These next few years are our chance to break through and claim our place as a legitimate force in world golf.”

One of the exciting things about the Asian players is that many of them are very young and already making their mark on the world scene.

India’s Sharma just turned 22 last week, while Thailand’s long-hitting Phachara Khongwatmai became a member of the European Tour and is still a teenager at 19. Miguel Tabuena of Philippines, 24, is another promising star.

“I know players like Anirban and Kiradech are already considered veterans at the age of 31 and 29, but we are seeing so many young Asian players doing so well. We all know of the talent in countries like China, India and Thailand, but the pipeline is just ongoing,” added Cho.

“Indonesia is an interesting example. The Asian Games are happening there and they are concentrating a lot on amateur golf under the guidance of Australian coaches. Two out of the last three professional events there have been won by amateurs. So, that is very encouraging.”

The inclusion of golf in the Olympics is another factor that is expected to catalyse the growth of the game in Asia. In many countries, like India and China, the funding for sports is linked to the quadrennial games.

The recent decision to award official world ranking points to the domestic tours in India and Thailand will also be a boost.

Aphibarnrat, who has been in sensational form this year with two top-five finishes in two World Golf Championship events, however, said that more work needs to done in order to Asian players contending in majors.

“It’s good to see the rise of the number of Asian players in the field. It’s a great improvement compared to the past, but I think we should continue to work hard,” said the World No 30.

“We need more exposure on the world scene. Like this week (at the Open Championship), we need to learn how to tackle the links course and tame the winds out here. It’s not easy because we’re not used to it as there are not many links course in Asia.”

The next major is the PGA Championship in three weeks at Bellerive Country Club in Missouri and at least 10 Asian players (including five from Japan) are guaranteed to tee up there on the basis of their world ranking inside the top-100.

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Updated Date: Jul 23, 2018 11:44:30 IST