Story by DOUG FERGUSON, AP
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. (Feb. 16, 2009) – The Masters and British Open, two majors with the most global influence, announced Sunday night a new Asia Amateur Championship that they hope will stimulate growth in a market teeming with potential.
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne and Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said their clubs will finance and operate the new tournament, to be played Oct. 29 at Mission Hills in China.
The winner will receive an invitation to the Masters and an exemption to the final stage of qualifying for the British Open.
“We started 18 months ago an overall effort to see how we can use our good reputation of the Masters and our resources to help attract kids to the game of golf,” Payne said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong, where the announcement was made.
“It became obvious fairly quickly that the place we could impact the most would be throughout Asia,” he said. “We thought if we could identify good golfers and create heroes who would be emulated by other kids, in the process they would be attracted to the game.”
It will be the first time since 1989 that Augusta National has expanded its invitations to amateurs. It now invites the U.S. Amateur champion and runner-up, and winners of the British Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Amateur Public Links.
The British Open, golf’s oldest championship, already provides exemptions to eight top players from Asian tours and events. Dawson said the new Asian Amateur champion will get into International Qualifying Finals, but someday could earn a spot in the Open.
“We do feel the main potential for growth is in Asia,” Dawson said. “America and the UK has plateaued. Growth in the game lies in these other territories. Our fields from the majors now are coming from a wide range of countries. I believe it’s wise for majors to reinvest in these countries.”
Dawson said it was the first time two majors have worked together. Augusta National and the R&A are partners in this program with the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation, which represents 32 golf associations.
The British Amateur began in 1885, and the U.S. Amateur was first held in 1895.
While those championships are open to amateurs from around the world, the Asia Amateur Championship will be for Asians only, at least in the initial years. Payne and Dawson said they were concerned that with the perks involved – especially a trip to the Masters – it might lead to top players from around the world trying to qualify.
“We’re really trying to target Asian players and Asian-Pacific players to give them the opportunity to come through and excel,” Dawson said. “We believe the right thing to do is a closed championship. I’m quite sure that will change.”
Payne said he hopes the new tournament will be equal to the U.S. and British Amateurs “in short order.”
The Masters already has shown interest in Asia, offering a “special foreign invitation” to Asian players the last six years, including three players last year. Augusta National this year invited Ryo Ishikawa, the 17-year-old from Japan.
“Those professionals have to a large degree been heroes,” Payne said. “We want to establish a more grass-roots program so that kids could be excited by seeing one of their own.”
The tournament will move to various countries, and is scheduled to be played in Japan in 2010.
The inaugural Asian Amateur Championship will have a maximum field of 120 amateur players. The field will be selected by the following criteria:
1. The top two ranked amateur players from each of the APGC member countries plus the four top ranked players from the host country, as ranked on The R&A World Amateur Golf Rankings (WAGR) as of Aug. 14, 2009. If there is not a sufficient number of players ranked from that member country, the member country may nominate a player(s) from their country with an established handicap of less than 5.4, to be approved by the APGC, to fulfill the two positions eligible from that country.
2. The remainder of the field (maximum 120 players) will be filled taking the next highest ranked players of APGC Member Countries, not otherwise qualified from the WAGR as of Aug. 14, 2009. The maximum number of eligible players from any APGC member country, with the exception of the host country, will be six.
3. The AAC reserves the right to invite additional players at its discretion.