The Champions Tour has come to Asia and golf greats Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson predict the sport has a bright future in the region.
Watson is one of 57 players set to tee off in the Posco E&C Songdo Championship beginning Friday at a course designed by Nicklaus.
The tournament is the first Champions Tour event to be played in Asia, and will take place on the 7,087-yard, par-72 course at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in the port city of Incheon, west of Seoul.
The event has a purse of $3 million. The winner will take home $455,000.
Golf is hugely popular in Asia and players from the region have made their mark in the sport in recent years, most notably female players from South Korea and Japan and male golfers from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
In a highlight for Asian golf, Y.E. Yang of South Korea outdueled Tiger Woods to win the 2009 PGA Championship.
“This is a wonderful golf market,” Watson said. “I think it fits with the work ethic and the culture of the eastern countries.”
Watson, who has won the British Open, Masters and U.S. Open, also said he expects China to become a market for international pro golf within his lifetime, following on from Japan and South Korea.
Nicklaus said he is impressed with the quality of the Asian game.
“We have many players from this part of the world that are actually starting to play very, very well on the world circuit,” Nicklaus said. “Were going to see the growth of the game and I think the Olympics have a lot to do with that. We’ll have a tremendous growth of the game (throughout Asia).”
Golf is set to become an Olympic sport at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janiero.
As for the Champions Tour event itself, Nicklaus said that the greens will be a challenge.
“The greens here have a little bit of movement in them, a little bit of spice,” he said. “And that will be the difficulty. But I still expect to see the scores to be very good here.”
Champions Tour money leader Bernhard Langer, Watson and Mark O’Meara are among the field. Langer, a two-time Masters winner, has won five Champion Tour events this season, the first golfer to accomplish the feat since Craig Stadler in 2004.
Nicklaus is not playing in the tournament.
O’Meara, who won both the Masters and British Open in 1998, declared himself ready for the event.
“It’s always good to come to an exciting new country that’s thrilled about having golf,” he said. “(I) played the golf course yesterday. It’s a nice layout and Jack’s done a nice job.”