DUBAI, UAE – Creating heroes: it all starts here.
The catchphrase / motto / legend / promise that dominated just about every aspect of the landscape around the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club is one that the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship can more than justify, however definition of choice. . A springboard. A life changing moment. Call it what you want, this vast region’s premier amateur event has, since its inception in 2009, provided the ultimate springboard for a number of successful careers.
Jumping ahead on trips to the Masters and the Open Championship which are the immediate rewards for the AAC Champions, up to eight future PGA Tour winners: Cameron Smith, Cameron Davis, Lucas Herbert, Si-Woo Kim, Hideki Matsuyama, CT Pan, Satoshi Kodaira and KH Lee are proud alumni of the tournament which will become a teenager next year.
The most notable name on this list, of course, is Matsuyama, the current Masters champion. Winner of the Asia-Pacific Am in 2010 and again in 2011, the 29-year-old is the first man in his golf-mad nation to win one of the game’s four most important titles.
But here’s the thing. While Matsuyama and the late champion, his compatriot Keita Nakajima, collect the vast majority of the headlines, the AAC’s goals and aspirations are actually more about the competitors as well than these top luminaries. Together, the tournament organizers, the R&A and the Augusta National Golf Club, tick more than this obvious box.
â€œThere were two groups of people on the pitch here in Dubai Creek this week,â€ said R&A Managing Director Martin Slumbers, who, along with ANGC President Fred Ridley, attended the four days of competition. â€œOne contains the players who are ready to win and find out if they are good enough to compete as professionals. But just as important to me and the values â€‹â€‹of R&A … we want the game to grow, [and] this gives the rest of the field a glimpse of what level they need to get to. And to see how far they are from the best.
â€œWe had countries here with sophisticated development systems, countries like Australia, India and South Korea. But we have also had others who have nothing of the sort. For me the greatest value of this event is in this second group, more than the guys who went on and won. “
Indeed, the commitment of the R&A is beyond doubt. Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, the St. Andrews-based organization hosted the first AAC Academy at Sentosa Golf Club in Singapore. A full week-long training camp, the goal was to enhance the abilities of developing golfers with the aim of improving their skills and, over time, creating the buzzword used by many associated with this event and its counterpart in Latin American Amateur Championship – “hero”.
â€œWe brought in some of the best coaches, nutritionists and sports scientists from across the region, and we exposed the players to all of this coaching,â€ Slumbers said. â€œOur general intention was to help them progress and equip them with the skills to be able to fulfill their own destiny and their own level of competence. We are fortunate to be from a country where golf is well developed. We see the Masters. We see the Open. And we all know players who have played in these big events. But when you come here to Asia, it’s like these majors are on another planet. Now, thanks to AAC, we have put them on the same planet. All the things that took 100 years in the house have happened in 12 years here. We have accelerated the process.
This is true, as evidenced by the reactions of Cambodians Pich Meta Peou and Vanseiha Seng. Both were part of the Singapore experience, and both were in Dubai as better people and players as a result. Neither made the 36-hole cut, but the looks on their faces and the enthusiasm in their voices when they described their experience is proof enough of the success of the R&A mission.
â€œThe Academy and this event have been so important to my development,â€ said Seng, 28, the only man to play in the 12 AAC. â€œI feel like I’m a completely different player now. I knew how to hit the golf ball, but playing in the AAC and especially being part of the AAC Academy taught me crucial elements of the game such as course management, warm-up routines, physical training, etc. that we can do with the equipment … the list goes on. Plus, playing at this level is so exciting. They make us feel so special when we play. And it took me to some really good places. I made so many friends with players from other countries like Oman, Bhutan and Mongolia.
Elsewhere, clear progress is being made on the side of the game. The starting line-up at Dubai Creek included 93 players from 29 countries. The mid-term cup, which fell to two above par, brought the number of competitors down to 50. And within them, 15 nations were represented. Usual suspects like Australia, China, Japan and South Korea were still there, as one would expect, as were Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia and the Philippines.
â€œEvery time you get on a plane to go to AAC, it’s special. It’s such an incredible opportunity, â€said Leon D’Souza of Hong Kong who finished T-31 with an under par. â€œIt’s an incredible event, an event that helps so many players on so many levels. It is always played on a long course. And outside of the event, what Augusta National and the R&A are doing to develop golf in Asia is incredible. The game is developing in places where it was almost unknown, say, a decade ago, which is extremely important. I like to look around this event and see guys who will only be playing in amateur events. For them it must be such a special tournament and a great week that could be life changing. This is one of the best weeks in amateur golf anywhere.
This message has been repeated several times over the past week. It was impossible to find a player who was not grateful for the chance to play and who appreciates the backstory of the event. Ahmed Skaik from the UAE host was typical.
â€œIt’s pretty inspiring to play in the same event Hideki won,â€ said Skaik, who hit the opening tee shot in the first round on Wednesday. â€œNow he is Masters champion. It just shows how, if you play big events and keep practicing, how far you can go in the game. “
Slumbers noted that the 2021 tournament was for Royal Melbourne, but COVID prevented the Australian course from hosting, with Dubai stepping in to help. The change of venue, however, proved inspiring in other ways.
â€œIt has been more of an eye opener to come here and see how good golf can be in the UAE,â€ Slumbers said. â€œDubai and the other emirates can help us develop the game. The world is going to be different after COVID, and this part of the world is going to be bigger than before.
â€œWe’re going to see the platforms develop here at a rapid rate,â€ Slumbers continues. â€œFor the next generation of gamers. I have had conversations here. They want our help to make golf more than tourism and the European Tour. How to make it a sport for a wider range of the population. I’m excited to help with something I’m not sure we would have done so easily before COVID. Our goal may have been elsewhere.
Speaking of which, the third Asia-Pacific Women’s Amateur Championship takes place this week at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. First performed in 2018, the event (in retrospect) got off to a good start. The inaugural winner was Atthaya Thitikul, who topped the Order of Merit on the Ladies European Tour this year, with the Thai emerging from a five-a-side qualifying that also included current US Open Women’s champion Yuka Saso and winner from ANA Inspiration, Patty Tavatanakit.
â€œWomen’s golf has always been strong in Asia, but there’s another wave of great players on the way,â€ Slumbers says. â€œThis week will be interesting. The winner participates in the AIG Women’s Open, the Evian Masters and the ANA Inspiration. We pretty much covered the world with our event and the Latin American Championships. It is pure and correct golf. Business pays the price, but it’s real golf.
On and off the course he could easily have added.