And so, the penny drops

Written by meraj shah | Updated: Sep 15 2013, 17:50pm hrs
So, its official now: South African Thomas Aiken wont be coming back to defend his Avantha Masters title, which he won at the Jaypee Greens Golf Course in NCR earlier this year; Gaganjeet Bhullar wont get a chance to go one better than his runner-up finish to Aiken and win the biggest-ticket event ever held on Indian soil. And Jaypee Greens will have to be content with a solitary mention as the host of the tri-sanctioned, European-Asian-PGTI Tour event, which, realistically speaking, is unlikely to ever be held again.

Theres no villain of the piece here, least of all the Avantha Group. The events RoI over the four years of its existence, whether in terms of building brand equity or generating enough interest in the mainline media in India, has been suspect at the best of times. The top players on the European circuitthe stars, who add glitz and glamour to any event, attract fans and television viewershiphave routinely given the event a miss because of, among other reasons, its scheduling (which puts it right after a lucrative swing in the Gulf and too close to two World Golf Championship events). Also, for a tournament of this stature, the galleries have been sparse, swelling to respectable numbers only for the final rounds four Sundays in four years. The death knell, as is common knowledge, came with the recent vicissitudes of the rupee. Since the inaugural event in 2010, the total purse of the Avantha Masters went up from $2.1 million to $2.3 millionan increase of little over 10%. However, the depreciating value of the rupee in dollar terms and the fact that the prize money had to be raised meant that the sponsor had to augment the original amount significantly. And while associate sponsors pitch in on a number of fronts, the big event costs, which include course capitation fee and broadcast rights, also have to be borne by the sponsor, and these are at least as much as the prize money, if not more.

A statement released by the Avantha Group summed it up succinctly: Having successfully hosted the prestigious Avantha Masters for four consecutive years, the Avantha Group has concluded that in order to attract top talent, both the timing of the event in the golf calendar along with a substantial prize-money increase will be required. Given the current economic conditions, the Avantha Group has concluded that this is not the appropriate moment to do so and has, therefore, not renewed its contract with the European Tour, it said.

Even more predictable was the demise of the 2,00,000-euro Gujarat Kensville Open, of the second tier, European Challenge Tour. Given the slump in realty, the Savvy Group, the Ahmedabad-based commercial and residential company, has declined to renew its sponsorship contract.

That leaves professional golf in India on a pretty sticky wicket, with only three Asian Tour eventsthe Indian Open, the Sail Open and the Panasonic Openand with total prize money dropping to close to half of the $6 million purse in 2013.

Its bad news all around: The demise of the Avantha Masters is yet another setback for the European Tour, which has been struggling to attract sponsors in mainland Europe. There were interesting news reports in July this year about an audacious purported takeover-bid, of the European Tour by the USPGA Tour. While both tour commissioners eventually issued statements denying that any such development was on the cards, just the fact that the news gained any credibility was a testament to the stunning reversal of fortunes for the continental tour. Just a few years back, top players, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood made a strong statement of support to the European Tour by refusing to join the USPGA Tour full time. The banking crisis had taken its toll and threatened the future of many tournaments in the US. Then the euro collapsed, and coupled with Dubais tumultuous fortunes, the Race to Dubai (Europes rival to the USPGA Tours season-ending Fed-Ex Cup) has diminished both in stature and prize money. At the bottomline, this has translated into a sharp drop in players earnings on the respective tours. This year, the 100th-ranked player on the USPGA Tour has won $8,29,770, while his counterpart on the European Tour has won $3,12,992. Buoyed by its soaring fortunes, the USPGA Tour recently took over the Canadian Tour, rebranding it as PGA Tour Canada, and has also launched the PGA Tour Latino America. The Tour makes no bones about the fact that China is a big target for it, which also, in turn, is keen to attract top-ranked American players to boost the profile of the game in the country.

All of this makes for an interesting war of influence between the Asian, European and USPGA Tours. In the past, the European Tour has been the one to make deep forays outside its milieuthe tour has 18 tournaments outside Europe in the 2013 seasonincluding 10 events in the Gulf and Asian countries much to the discomfiture of the Asian Tour. But the tables are turning. Last week saw an exciting run by Anirban Lahiri at the Omega European Masters in Switzerland. What makes this tournament special is that its the first tournament co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour in Europe. As far as the European Tour is concerned, they need to revisit their policy of the minimum 1.5 million euros that a sponsor has to shell out for a European Tour event. Someone needs to tell them that theres a recession going on.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game