Plight of professional golfers in Singapore

Golf: Lack of sponsors, support hinder progress of pros

Regional rivals thrive on solid backing and strong domestic tours

Visit a major golf tournament, and you will see luxury brands dotting the landscape, from expensive cars as hole-in-one prizes to strategically placed clocks from upscale watch companies behind tee boxes, and the inevitable advertising boards.

These images reinforce the impression that golf is a rich man's sport, and pro golfers are well-to-do because of their profession.

While that may be true for top golfers like Rory McIlroy, who is sixth on Forbes' 2017 list of top-earning athletes with US$50 million (S$68 million), there are many Singaporean touring pros who are more worried about making ends meet than achieving their sporting goals.

For example, Singapore's world No. 1,137 Quincy Quek earned US$18,236 from 16 tournaments on the Asian Tour and Asian Development Tour this year. Compatriot Koh Dengshan, ranked 1,436th, earned US$15,393 from 18 starts on both Tours.

Fellow Singaporean Choo Tze Huang spends between $1,500 and $3,000 on each overseas tournament, and up to $45,000 annually on accommodation and airfare.

Local pros told The Straits Times that the lack of financial support and a strong domestic tour are barriers towards success and these factors are why 50-year-old Mardan Mamat, who has won five Asian Tour titles, is still the Republic's top pro golfer.

The world No. 917 proved his mettle when he won the Singapore Professional Golfers' Association (SPGA) President Cup Invitational at the Warren Golf and Country Club last week.

"I think all of us are just as capable as the Thais and the Filipinos, but one of our biggest struggles (as Singaporean pros) is the lack of financial backing," said Choo, who won the prestigious Putra Cup individual titles in 2006 and 2011 as an amateur.

SHORTAGE OF FUNDS

I think all of us are just as capable as the Thais and the Filipinos, but one of our biggest struggles (as Singaporean pros) is the lack of financial backing.

CHOO TZE HUANG , local pro who spends between $1,500 and $3,000 on each overseas tournament, on golfers' need for sponsorship

Koh, 29, added: "Nobody tees up a tournament thinking they would be there just to make the cut... but without a platform to give you the opportunity to push yourself to the next level, it takes a lot more effort, even if you have the hunger."

The duo, along with former pro Lam Chih Bing, pointed out that the domestic tours in the region, like Thailand and the Philippines, are strongly supported by brands such as Singha and ICTSI.

"The experience you gain on the domestic tour is invaluable," said Lam, 40, who retired last year and now works in a bank.

"Rather than to jump straight into the deep end on the Asian Tour, a strong domestic tour allows you to hone your skills."

SPGA president M. Murugiah concurred, but said it was a struggle to find sponsors for local events because of the lack of media exposure for such tournaments.

He has had to rely heavily on personal contacts for the nine events this year.

He said: "Even now, I am still looking for sponsors for the final event of the year, to be held next month."

On top of supporting local tournaments, companies and individuals in Thailand and the Philippines lend support through personal sponsorships of players.

"Golfers like (Thailand's Phadungsil) Chinnarat, who have a couple of sponsors to cover their expenses, are able to go out there and play well with no fear," said 30-year-old Choo, ranked 1,940th.

"But if I pay for everything (to go for a competition) and I miss the cut, then I would lose money."

Sports psychologist Emily Ortega, who previously worked with the Republic's elite athletes, acknowledged that monetary struggles can be a significant challenge but added that such struggles can also motivate them.

"To a certain extent, having such mental barriers is actually a good thing because it forces you into a situation that you are hungry to get out of," said the Singapore University of Social Sciences lecturer.

"A lot of times when you are stuck in these situations, you are only caught up with what is happening around you...

"The best advice is to look way beyond this and treat this suffering as something that would make the reward even sweeter and encourage you to work harder to make sure you get out of this poverty situation."

Terence Khoo, managing director of international sports marketing firm Enterprise Sports Group, acknowledges that the sponsorship market here for sports is "challenging", while athletes looking for money from companies' corporate social responsibility coffers face competition from other causes, like education and unprivileged groups.

He said: "Companies here can be pragmatic and more concerned about their ROI (return on investment), they would want visibility for their investment and be associated with success."

Khoo, a former national rugby player and the Singapore Rugby Union president, added that it would be tough for golfers to split their time between finding sponsors and doing well in their sport.

The 46-year-old said: "They are pro athletes, not pro marketers. They'd need professional help in developing their brand and media value such that companies would see value in using athletes in their marketing efforts."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Lack of sponsors, support hinder progress of pros '. Print Edition | Subscribe