It’s probably unfair to compare Ivan Khodabakhsh, the Chief Executive Officer of the Ladies European Tour, to Michael Whan, Commissioner of the LPGA Tour, but that is probably the best yardstick.
The 48-year-old Khodabakhsh, a mechanical engineer by training who switched to sports marketing very early in his career, is chartering a completely different boat to Whan.
While the LPGA is experiencing exponential growth in the last couple of years, the numbers have been sluggish for the LET.
But then, the LPGA has a couple of massive advantages over LET. To begin with, they attract the best talent, and that makes a huge difference to all the related numbers – whether it is the sponsorship dollar or the TV ratings.
And while the LPGA Tour operates in an established golf market like the USA and are also reaping the rewards of moving overseas and benefiting from the booming economy of Asia, LET is taking a hit because of the economic and political situation in Europe.
After being down to 23 events and $40.5 million purse in 2011, the year Whan took over as commissioner, the LPGA Tour has now announced a schedule of 34 events with $63.1m total purse.
On the other hand, there were 22 events on the LET schedule in 2013, the year Khodabakhsh took charge, but the number is down to 20 in the 2016 calendar.
However, Khodabakhsh is confident of not only adding a few more events to the schedule, but also about LET being on the right track of growth. Speaking to Sport360, he said he would rather have high-quality events like the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters than quantity.
“This tournament has always set standards. The way the tournament has been promoting itself this year has been fantastic. We can see the impact in the print media worldwide and in the interest of our broadcasters,” said Khodabakhsh.
“If you compare, in the past, Dubai used to be the biggest tournament at half a million Euros. This year, we already had seven tournaments at half a million Euros.
“For me, that is more quality than quantity. Yes, we could put a number of other tournaments at maybe €200,000 with non-live TV, small events. It’s good for the girls but that doesn’t grow the game. As you see, we now have a great number of tournaments which have prize money that shows the status of the Tour.
— Emma Dodds (@Sports_EmmaD) December 12, 2015
“Secondly, these tournaments invest in live television. We need to showcase women’s golf to the world. So, we went from having only Dubai as a live TV event in the past, to I believe 11 or 12 tournaments with live TV this year and 16 live tournaments in 2016. That’s what will make the difference, rather than just counting the number of tournaments.”
Khodabakhsh did not comment on the rumours of a new ladies professional tournament in Abu Dhabi, but said he expected at least three to four events to be added to the schedule soon.
“This is the schedule based on the 2015 tournaments. We have been working very, very hard to bring new regions to the tour. Unfortunately, we can’t necessarily announce them right now because we want also to give those new regions their own press conferences and they have got their own announcements to make,” he added.
“On a very safe estimate, I would say three to four new tournaments are coming on board.”
Unlike the LPGA, which is now very active in Asian countries as more and more top stars from Korea, Thailand, China and Japan take up membership in the US and become successful and popular, LET hasn’t really pushed hard into these territories, although seven of their tournaments are played in that continent.
— Valentine Derrey (@Val_Derrey) December 13, 2015
“Without doubt, we have challenges in Europe, and you can’t just play the professional game while you have an economic and other crisis,” said Khodabakhsh.
“I feel bad to go and press for more money or for tournaments where in the country there is a refugee crisis, and austerity measures are being pushed. “But we have not departed Europe. We have our Access Series where we develop young players, and the number of Access events are growing because we work closely with the national federations. We are actually growing the game there with other means, and hopefully, we will be looking for better times to bring bigger tournaments back to Europe. There are a few in the pipeline already.
“We very much respect other tours around the world, especially the national tours. We initiated the Queen’s event in Japan, which is four Tours (LET, Chinese, Japanese and Korean) coming together. But it’s not for us to go out there and tell the people. It is for the region to invite us.
“We work with all tours. We never play in a country if it’s not co-sanctioned with the national tour, and we have done it always on a 50/50 basis. We have never imposed ourselves saying we have the better players, so we need a bigger field size.”
Khodabakhsh is excited about 2016 and the impact that golf’s re-entry into the Olympics will have – especially on the LET. With healthy world ranking points on offer for LET members, the Tour is a perfect avenue for players from smaller countries to qualify for the quadrennial Games.
— Robbie Williams (@rejwilliams) December 12, 2015
“The Olympics is certainly a centre part of it, specifically because of the diversity of the nationalities on our Tour. At our last count, over 50 percent of the players projected to qualify for the Olympics, are LET members because we cover so many different countries,” he said.
“Maha (Haddioui) is a great example. She is the best Moroccan player, the same as the best Brazilian player, and so on… They are LET members. It’s not necessarily the matter of being the best in the world, but they are the best in their country and they will develop and inspire the girls in their country.”
The Tour chief refused to get downbeat on the problem of talent drain – some of his best players shifting to the LPGA Tour – and said it wasn’t hurting the Tour at all.
“I mean, the best battle is the kind between Nanna Madsen and Emily Pedersen for the Rookie of the Year this season. These are our best players…they are rookies, but not ranked 40th and 50th in the Order of Merit, they are in the top- 10.
Nicole Larsen, a rookie from last year, just look how well she is been playing this year,” added Khodabakhsh.
“We have many exciting young players. Charley (Hull) has been, of course, seen as a leading youngster, but we have fantastic young players coming from Scandinavian countries. We have fantastic winners from Asia in our tournaments.
“No, I think we are in a very, very good place. Just we need to do our job as good as we have been doing it and hopefully it will be better.”
With the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship just a month away, a grassroots golf programme has teed off in the capital hoping to inspire the next generation of Emirati golfers.
The Abu Dhabi Sports Council (ADSC) and HSBC launched the ‘Champions of Tomorrow’ programme yesterday, which will introduce more than 2,000 local schoolchildren to the game.
Students from eight local schools will receive coaching at the world class facilities of the capital’s four clubs – Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi City Golf Club, Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and Yas Links Golf Club.
The development programme aims to further enhance the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship’s legacy to grow the game of golf among youngsters.
With the trio of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler – the future of golf – set to lead the field at the Championship, which takes place between January 21-24, organisers believe it’s the perfect time for kids to pick up a club.
“One of the aspects of this programme is to have the kids come here and get a sense of what professional golf is like,” said HSBC’s David Kotheimer.
“To have that experience is something very tangible that they can take with them.”
For both HSBC and the ADSC, the ultimate aim of the programme is to be a breeding ground for a future crop of professional golfers from the Emirates.
Al Awani: after 10 editions of Abu Dhabi HSBC golf championship , it has been a must to look after young talented golfers…
— مجلس أبوظبي الرياضي (@AbuDhabiSC) December 13, 2015
“Our CEO was in Shaghai recently and they have a junior programme which graduates elite golfers by the end of it. We wanted to start something like this to focus on increasing golf awareness in Abu Dhabi,” said ADSC’s Saif Omar Thabet.
“We know the percentage of UAE golfers in the UAE is not a lot but with this initiative, we will definitely see an increase in numbers.
“We have fantastic facilities. We have great courses. The missing link is the UAE national families going to the golf clubs. The perspective here has always been the clubs were too private, that you need to be members. We’re trying to change that.
“Hopefully with this new approach we will see the numbers increasing and definitely the awareness of golf increase among the Emirati population.”
The grassroots programme is just the latest offering in HSBC’s long relationship with the UAE, according to Kotheimer.
— ADGolfChamps (@ADGolfChamps) December 13, 2015
“HSBC has been in the UAE for 70 years in 2016 and we have a long and important history in this country and we’re proud of that,” he said.
“It’s really good that we can do something like this programme in order to contribute back at the grass roots level and see the next level of Emirati golfers materialise.
“More Emirati golfers playing at the highest level is absolutely the goal. It’s something that’s not done overnight but you have to start somewhere.
“You’ll see that group of Emiratis emerge over time to grow this sport in the UAE and hopefully participate at some point in the future on the professional circuit.”
Two local youngsters who definitely see golf as part of their future are Emirati twins Mohammed and Hamda Al Mharbi, both aged seven.
“I think I would like to take up golf. Girls and boys can both play and I would like to play more,” said Emirates National School pupil, Hamda.
Mohammed added: “I haven’t played before, this was my first time, but I would like to take it up. Maybe one day I can come here and play professionally. Maybe my mum will let me play at the back of our house and then I will come here to play at the club.”
The most stunning four-round performance ever seen on Majlis course was when Thomas Bjorn put together a 22-under par effort in winning the 2002 Dubai Desert Classic.
Well…that can surely happen when a certain Tiger Woods is chasing you and he is on your tail for most part of the tournament. It’s easier to run when someone is either trying to hunt you down, or is running with you.
Which is why Shanshan Feng’s effort this week of shooting 21-under par is awe-inspiring. She was out their all alone, with not a single rival pushing her and yet she kept up the motivation and kept going for one birdie after another.
Majlis wasn’t playing easy. There was a steady breeze blowing on each of the last three days which made scoring difficult. But nothing mattered to Feng as she played as if in a zone.
Here are the bare stats of her dominance – just two bogeys in 72 holes, an average of 15 greens hit in regulation each day, not a single three-putt, 28 putts average each round and a winning margin of record 12 shots. These are sensational numbers indeed.
There are a few things about Feng worth emulating.
It was remarkable how rigid the Chinese world No6 was in following her game plan. There are four par-5s at Majlis course, and except for the 10th hole, the other three can be reached in two depending on the tee position.
— Joy Chakravarty (@TheJoyofGolf) December 12, 2015
On all four days, and on all four holes, she was content in laying up with her second shot, and then hit a wedge in. It resulted in only six birdies for her on the par-5s, but she was happy with it.
Feng seems to have mastered the art of keeping her own expectations down, and also of not letting pressure get on to her.
By her own admission, she did not watch the leaderboard even once, until reaching the 18th green. And throughout the duration of the event, she kept insisting that her only goal was only to finish inside the top-five.
And yet, while lowering her own expectations may be helping her win now, it might not be such a good idea if she wants to win majors and advance in the world rankings.
With 3 consecutive rounds of 67, Shanshan Feng is 5 strokes clear of Thidapa Suwannapura at -15 into final round pic.twitter.com/wbBYDcHMOX
— Ladies European Tour (@LETgolf) December 11, 2015
For someone with her quality and consistency, she has been hovering around the world No5 mark for quite some time now. She must step up and challenge the likes of Lydia Ko and Inbee Park on a regular basis.
The 2012 LPGA Championship winner did not win a single tournament in America in 2015, which seems like a rather ridiculous notion on the basis of her dominant performance this week. Feng must find out what is stopping her from winning on the LPGA Tour.
She is a very happy-go-lucky character and there is a possibility that she is not being hungry enough. Even when asked earlier in the week about her ambitions of becoming the world No1, she dodged the question by saying players like Ko, Park and Stacy Lewis were far too consistent.
What Feng now needs to do is use this win as a springboard to do better in her LPGA Tour season in 2016. Perhaps she can start by realising that dreaming of becoming the best player in the world is not such a bad thing after all.