Masters, R&A open doors for amateurs
At first glance, it might not look like much. The announcement of an amateur tournament in some faraway place not exactly known for its golf prowess is more likely to elicit yawns than applause.
But look a little closer, and you see the significance of Monday's news from Hong Kong about the new Asian Amateur Championship.
The Masters Tournament is involved. So is the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, golf's governing body outside of the United States. And the event is not just backed by their names, as the leaders of two of the game's four major championships are funding the venture.
Perhaps most important of all, they are giving playing opportunities in their respective events, the Masters and the Open Championship.
"I genuinely think this is a historic announcement for two reasons," said Peter Dawson, the R&A's chief executive, in a phone interview from Hong Kong, where Masters chairman Billy Payne was also in attendance.
"First of all, what it would do for golf in the Asia-Pacific region, causing excitement in the amateur game. And it also links in with championship golf worldwide with this invitation to the Masters and the qualification tournament for the Open Championship.
"It's the first time, really, that two major championships in golf have come together in any kind of initiative to develop the game. I hope to see more of this going forward. It's very appropriate with the way our fields in our major championships are ever-expanding."
It is one thing to talk about trying to expand the game globally. Lots of folks have those kinds of goals and ambitions.
But few have the money and clout of Augusta National, or the worldwide reach of the R&A.
Starting this year, the inaugural Asian Amateur Championship will be played at Mission Hills Golf Club's World Cup Course from Oct. 29-Nov. 1. The event will move to other countries affiliated with the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation, with the 2010 tournament scheduled for Japan. There are 32 national golf associations throughout Asia-Pacific with about 18 million golfers and 4,000 golf courses.
Players, who will earn their spots in the field based on the World Amateur Golf Rankings, will tee it up with the knowledge that a victory will get them a coveted spot in the 2010 Masters while the winner and runner-up will be exempt into the Open Championship's International Final Qualifying -- meaning the opportunity to earn a place in the 2010 Open at St. Andrews.
"We really think this is going to help develop the game in Asia-Pacific," Dawson said. "You can do things at the grassroots level, but by putting money into the elite level, players have something to aspire to."
Dawson said the original idea for an amateur event came from Payne, who took over as chairman at Augusta National in 2007 and has made growing the game a big priority through several initiatives.
The club is a big supporter of the First Tee program, is behind the effort to make golf a part of the Olympics (starting in 2016), and last year began a junior pass program at the Masters allowing children 16 and under to attend the tournament for free with a badge holder.
Last month, Payne extended a special invitation to Japan teenager Ryo Ishikawa to play in this year's Masters.
And now Payne is following through on what he had hinted at nearly a year ago.
"From the very beginning of our tournament, considerable emphasis has been placed on amateur participation," Payne said prior to the 2008 Masters. "Early on our founders, including the greatest amateur of all, Bobby Jones, established qualification standards which ensured a permanent and prominent place for amateurs in our competitive field; the ultimate prize of a Masters invitation has inspired amateur golfers over the decades to compete at the highest level. As they have done so, and as they have become heroes to their contemporaries, they have influenced others to take up the game."
Over the years, amateur participation in the Masters has varied. At times, the tournament invited the semifinalists of the U.S. Amateur as well as those who made the U.S. Walker Cup team. Today the tournament invites the U.S. Amateur winner and runner-up, as well as the winners of the British Amateur, U.S. Public Links and U.S. Mid-Amateur.
Now add, starting in 2010, the winner of the Asian Amateur Championship.
"There remains, we believe, an untapped opportunity in Asia and other parts of the world, where amateur golf has its greatest growth potential," Payne said.
The Open Championship gives exemptions to the winners of the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur and European Amateur, as well as spots into final local qualifying for the runners-up in those tournaments.
The Masters and the R&A will underwrite the event, which includes the staging of the tournament as well the financial assistance allowed under amateur rules for the players.
Dawson estimated the sum to be "hundreds of thousands of dollars," and said it is "a strong financial commitment from both sides, but we think it is the right thing to do."
And, upon closer inspection, a pretty significant thing to do as far as a couple of major championships are concerned.
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.
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