‘An Asian Tour vs DP World Tour match would be quite fiery’

Cho Minn Thant used the Saudi millions to rebuild the Asian Tour. Now he wants to rival the global schedule on the DP World Tour with the help of LIV and an International Series that is setting up roots in the UK.

Back when LIV Golf was still just a fantasy and the Asian Tour was trying to remain solvent during the pandemic, its Commissioner Cho Minn Thant was quietly working from home in Thailand, hurriedly putting together a plan to change the established world order in golf.

Thant had only been in the job for a little over six months when the Saudis recruited him in early 2020 to help engineer the launch of a new breakaway league.

It was during those conversations that the topic of the Asian Tour came up, which is what led to the Saudi Invitational being presented as its flagship event from the start of 2022.

Asian Tour Commissioner Cho Minn Thant is on good terms with Greg Norman unlike many of golf's leaders.

It was there that Greg Norman, in his role as LIV Golf Investments CEO, stood alongside Thant and announced a $300 million commitment over the next 10 years to increase playing opportunities and prize money on the Asian Tour through a new premier series – what we now know to be the International Series.

“We are setting the Asian Tour up as a powerful new force on the world golf stage,” boomed Norman at the time, though he could just as easily have been talking about LIV Golf or Saudi’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). 

Together, they spent the better part of two years taking a sledgehammer to the doors of golf’s greatest powerhouses, waging a war that spilled over into the courts.

Thant – who ranks as one of the most influential people in golf – was there to pick up the pieces, offering World Ranking points to Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka and the other LIV members caught up in a storm of fines and suspensions.

Asian Tour Commissioner Cho Minn Thant has benefitted from the emergence of LIV Golf.

The $5 million Saudi International, in Jeddah, was the obvious draw, but the International Series grew from seven to 10 tournaments last year and contributed $19 million to a record prize pot on the Asian Tour that fell just short of $34 million.

“I guess the misconception that the name Asian Tour has is that it identifies our tournaments as only being in Asia and only for Asian players,” Thant tells TG. “We’re far from that right now.”

They have certainly rebounded from the brink after what Thant describes as “the worst time the Asian Tour has ever seen”.

The pandemic hurt every golf tour, but it almost killed the Asian Tour. Staff had to take substantial pay cuts just so players had a place to come back to. It took 20 months until a golf ball was struck again, which meant the 2020 season wasn’t complete until January 2022. 

“It was tragic for our players,” admits Thant. “A lot of them had to get teaching roles or find other ways to survive. We were by far the hardest hit out of all the tours worldwide, just because of the territories that we visit and the amount of border crossings that requires.”

That they were even able to get going again owes a lot to Thant’s connections and his desire to break free from the shadow of the DP World Tour.

Cho Minn Thant helped save the Asian Tour from financial ruin.

They were offered the security of an extended strategic alliance with the DP and PGA Tour, but Thant wanted more for the Asian Tour than just feeder tour status, which is why his eyes lit up at another proposal on the table.

“We decided prior to me joining as Commissioner that we wanted to go at it independently, without relying on partnerships,” he says. “There was this proposal from the PGA and European Tours, and then one from the Saudi camp. You really couldn’t compare the two.

“We came out of Covid with a 10-year plan with LIV Golf and Golf Saudi. Immediately, we picked up 11 new tournaments. We picked up money to develop our tour and quite a few of our members played LIV Golf in year one, which was last year. This year they’ve had the chance to qualify for LIV and that’s a great pathway for our members.”

The global nature of the Asian Tour membership is now reflected in its schedule, which last year included
events in England, Scotland, the Middle East and New Zealand.

Today, Thant is speaking to us from his home in Thailand, overlooking Black Mountain Golf Club, but his office is over 800 miles away in Singapore. He is married, with a child, but he struggles to spend much time with his family outside of the tour’s summer break.

“I’ve just been on the road for three and half weeks. I’m home for two days and then I leave again tomorrow! That’s pretty much my life during the season.”

Thant was raised and educated in Australia but he’s been with the Asian Tour since 2007, working his way up through the ranks before being promoted to the role of CEO and Commissioner in July 2019.

At the time his remit was to rebuild a sleeping giant, but now he’s working towards a five-year expansion plan to grow the schedule from 23 to 30 events, with an average purse of $2.5 million.

Whether he manages it or not is likely to hinge on TV exposure, which Thant has struggled to offer fans and sponsors over the last two years since the breakdown in his relationship with the DP World Tour.

Cho Minn Thant played in the International Series Pro-Am in Singapore.

The 2023 International Series was noticeably absent from TV screens in the UK, despite the star-studded fields they attracted. And Thant is unable to offer any guarantees for when it might appear again.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve found it quite difficult to do television deals because there was a bit of blockage from the DP World and PGA Tours.

“In the UK, we were always part of a package deal with Sky but now they only take the European Tour and they are not inclined to take the Asian Tour because of the DP World Tour’s influence. Hopefully, that type of market restriction will be history once this framework agreement is signed.”

Thant was preparing for a board meeting in Singapore when he first found out about the truce struck between his biggest financial backer and two of his biggest competitors.

Like everyone else, he has been kept in the dark ever since, raising fears among the players we’ve spoken to that the Asian Tour is at risk of being forgotten about if the Saudis can get their hands on another new toy.

“We’ve received assurances in terms of the International Series and our link to LIV remaining for the term that was signed,” admits Thant, “but there hasn’t been much discussion about how we move forward with this framework agreement.

“I’m kind of unsure of where the Asian Tour and LIV Golf will fit in because we don’t want to be a feeder to the DP World Tour again. We feel we are very strong on our own. The best-case scenario for us is that players have the right to choose where to play.”

It used to be the case that players could compete freely on the DP World and Asian Tours, until Keith Pelley put a stop to it in late 2021 and severed all ties, including every co-sanctioned event and exemption pathway. Now if a DP World Tour member wishes to play on the Asian Tour, they must seek a release in writing with 30 days’ notice.

“In a lot of cases, the releases aren’t granted,” explains Thant, “so they’re subject to fines and disciplinary action if they come and play the Asian Tour.

“We were open last season to co-sanctioning with them for our event in England, but then they went ahead with an event in Asia without co-sanctioning with us. I don’t think there’s much interest from the European Tour (in working together) and we’re perfectly happy with having our International Series as sole, sanctioned events.”

While prize money and revenue are on the up, much of that wealth is concentrated on the Saudi International and the International Series, which is underwritten by LIV Golf Investments.

Thant doesn’t want to be entirely dependent on Saudi money and is currently talking with venues in the United Arab Emirates, as well as prospective partners and sponsors to help cement the Asian Tour’s status as a thriving global circuit.

Sergio Garcia was one of a number of LIV golfers to tee it up at the Asian Tour's St Andrews Bay Championship.

“The funding from Saudi is a major blessing, but it’s also a little bit of a deterrent for sponsors to get involved because they think the Asian Tour has the ability to fund every tournament,” concedes Thant.

“We do have the International Series going for another eight years, but we don’t want to be reliant on that as our sole source of revenue. Our plan is to use that as a backup and to populate those tournaments with their own title sponsors so they would still survive if we didn’t have the funds from LIV Golf. We see it as an opportunity, rather than having a reliance on the money.”

Work on several holes on the back nine of Foxhills' Longcross course – renowned as one of Surrey’s top tree-lined layouts and consistently featured in GB top 100 rankings – has just finished and is now open to members and visitors.

Beyond these lingering concerns, Thant still needs to piece together the structure of the International Series and the full calendar for this season. Conversations, he says, are ongoing with several interested parties, with Foxhills already confirmed as host of the International Series England in August.

He talks up the idea of adding a mixed event, potentially in association with the Ladies European Tour, and likes the idea of rebranding the Order of Merit as the Race to Saudi. The mischievous smile on his face suggests he has a lot of big and bold ideas in mind – including, perhaps, a blockbuster match against a rival tour.

“Well, once upon a time we had the EurAsia Cup which is Asians versus Europeans,” he says, excitedly. “That was almost like a lead up to the Ryder Cup, so something like that, given the politics and everything, might be quite fiery.”

About the author

Today's Golfer features editor Michael Catling.

Michael Catling – Features Editor

Michael Catling is an award-winning journalist who specializes in golf’s Majors and Tours, including DP World, PGA, LPGA, and LIV.

Michael joined Today’s Golfer in 2016 and has traveled the world to attend the game’s biggest events and secure exclusive interviews with the game’s biggest names, including Jack Nicklaus, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Gary Player, Martin Slumbers and Justin Thomas.

Get in touch with Michael via email and follow him on X.

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