Fifteen years after DP World Tour first travelled to South Korea & what’s changed?

Bernie McGuire

Graeme McDowell after winning the Ballantine's Championship at Pinx Golf Club on March 16, 2008 on Jeju Island, South Korea. (Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

Bernie McGuire

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Now, 15-years after attending the maiden DP World Tour event in South Korea, and I somehow find myself asking what has changed?

Back in 2008, I had travelled from a European Tour event in Malaysia north for the staging of the inaugural Ballantine’s Championship on the island of Jeju, located about 80 kms off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula.

There had been an outcry in 2007 when the European Tour announced it had signed an agreement with the Korean Professional Golfer’s Association to host the championship, a move that clearly angered the Asian Tour, who labelled the decision ‘invasive’ and showing ‘blatant disregard’ to the rights of the Asian Tour.

The sadly now deceased Asian Tour Chairman Kyi-Hla Han said this and more in a statement condemning the move by the European Tour without first consulting the ‘host’ tour: “The European Tour continues to proceed on its expansion programme to colonise Asia with the announcement of a Korean event today without the official involvement of the Asian Tour”.

Hahn added: “This represents the European Tour’s blatant disregard towards the Asian Tour, which is the official regional sanctioning body for professional golf in Asia”.

It was the second time in a handful of months the European Tour had arranged a tournament in Asia without consulting the Asian Tour after having announced also it would be hosting a 2008 tournament in India, and also an Asian Tour competing country.

Fast forward 15-years, and we recall here the events of earlier this year (2023) when the DP World Tour went ahead and staged two stand-alone tournaments in Singapore and then a week later in Thailand, without first consulting the Asian Tour nor involving the Asian Tour in the events played right in the Asian Tour’s front yard.

And in recents months the Asian Tour issued news of two events on British soil in late August, that will ignore any DP World Tour involvement.

The second event, the St. Andrews Bay Championship, will be hosted at the Fairmont Resort on the outskirts of St. Andrews, and just a few minutes drive from the R&A, who at the end of December 2021 ruled that the Asian Tour Order of Merit winner after so many years would not earn a tee-time into the 150th Open.  It’s still the same scenario for this year.

The Fairmont Resort is owned by a Hong Kong family but knowing how disappointed the Asian Tour was to lose an automatic Open Championship tee-time for their leading money-winner, one can only wonder what the R&A made of the news that an Asian Tour event will taking place right on the doorstep of the ‘Auld Grey Toon’.

Anyway, getting back to the 2008 Ballantine’s Championship as some six months after the Asian Tour labelling the European Tour ‘evasive’ and showing ‘blatant disregard’, both Tours shook hands in reaching an agreement so that the event was co-sanctioned.

But trouble was brewing of a different kind in Korea, as in the weeks ahead of the tournament there was a heightening of tensions in North Korea and with the US.  The Tour worked overtime with the South Korean government and Korean golfing officials before getting a green light to go ahead with the tournament.

Tiger Woods had been to Jeju Island in 2004 for a skins match against superstar Korean Se Ri Pak, in a golfing country where women were beginning to take over the golf world.  In stark contrast, it was like K. J Choi was playing a lone male role.

Choi teed-up in this first Ballaentine’s event with pretty decent credentials, winning a dozen times on his own Korean Tour, seven wins on the PGA Tour, including the 2008 Sony Open earlier that year, and once once on the European Tour, so he assured there would be good crowds, as there was, and South Korea was being seen as a great new golfing destination.

That was no more evident in glancing out the window on my flight of some 75-minutes from the South Korean capital of Seoul to Jeju Island.  I’d never seen, nor have seen since, so many golf courses.

The host Pinx course had been nominated in 2005 by Golf Digest as among the top-100 courses in the world, and it lived-up to that ranking.  It was a stunning golf course, set in spacious surrounds and with ample practice facilities and a great-looking clubhouse.

Graeme McDowell went into the history books as the winner of the inaugural Ballantine’s Championship, and he achieved something he’s done just once in his 16 worldwide professional victories.  McDowell defeated India’s Jeev Milka Singh in a play-off after producing four rounds in the 60s – 68, 64, 66 and 66.  He’d not done that before nor since. Indeed in all of his victories there has been at least one round in the 70s.  As well, his winning 24-under tally remains a career 72-hole best by six shots.

In the bigger career picture, his Ballatine’s victory was just a third in his career but it put McDowell in frame for a maiden Ryder Cup cap and he sealed that first European team cap four months later in winning the Scottish Open.

For me, it was a busy Sunday night March 16, 2008.  It was always a busy time whenever an Irish player would win but that’s what I loved about the job filing back then, in the pre-internet days, to three Irish newspapers.

However, while I was back in my on-course hotel room bashing away on the keyboards my room-mate that week, and the legendary caddie John ‘Ronnie’ Roberts was enjoying, and really enjoying, the post-tournament celebration party in a room within the hotel.

‘Ronnie’ would come back to the room every 30-minutes or so, saying something akin: “Bernie! Bernie! You’ve got to come.  The party’s brilliant. You’ve got to come”.  Of course, the enjoyment in drinking complimentary glasses of the sponsor’s product was starting to show, as the more Ronnie would come back to our room, the more this lovable caddie was beginning to have trouble standing and pronouncing his words.  You know what I mean!

Suffice to say, I filed all my copy and hurried to join Ronnie.  I don’t think I’ve ever drunk so much whisky then and definitely not since in those few hours I managed to join what was a long into the night celebration.  Oh, how good is it to have a tournament sponsor whose business is either beer, wine or whisky,

Yes, fond memories being present in South Korea for the hosting of a first European Tour event, and the then 38th different nation, as well as it was the 10th different Asian nation to be visited by the Tour, and recalling last week’s tournament in Japan to be a 51st.

However, this week is now the fourth DP World Tour event this year again without Asian Tour co-sanctioning and I wonder where it all went wrong with one Tour playing in another’s front yard without permission, but then that Tour now planning to play as well in their front yard.

What happened to the spirit of cooperation, goodwill and helping the game grow on both Tours, as had been the scenario for long-time with co-sanctioning?

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