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Golf China still in the money
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When the Volvo China Open came to Beijing 15 years ago it was the first golf event to offer prize money of US$400,000 in the country and receive a live TV broadcast.

Now it is proving one of the most enduring events on the local sports calendar, weathering the global financial crisis and still attracting sponsorship despite a scaling back of operations by many major international brands.

The tournament, which tees off at Beijing CBD International Golf Club on April 16, lifted its total prize money to $2.2 million last year - the highest figure in its history - and keeps the same purse this year.

Title sponsor Volvo is even offering extra dividends for the winner, who will pick up $366,000 and an additional cash windfall of at least $155,000, according to Per Ericsson, president and CEO of Volvo Event Management. The latter sum will come courtesy of earning a spot in the elite 16-man field for the Volvo World Match Play Championship, which will be held later in the year in Spain.

The revamped championship features four groups of four players in a round-robin format. Those who top their respective groups will head straight into the semifinals, while those who finish fourth in each group will still benefit to the tune of $155,000.

As players need to scrape inside the top 60 on the European Tour money list to book a spot at the season-ending Dubai World Championship (at $10 million, the world's richest tournament), a win at the Volvo China Open has now taken on much more significance for players.

"Only the top third of events on the European Tour can offer a comparable prize money payout for the winner," said Ericsson. "We don't want the Volvo China Open to be just about money, but we do believe this move will lift the event to the next level in terms of the quality of players it will attract. This is the Open's 15th anniversary, so it's appropriate to do something special this year."

The tournament has increased its prize money five-fold since its birth and the current purse is double what was on offer when it joined the European Tour in 2005.

Ericsson said the rationale behind this continued growth was the fear that big long-term losses would result from the attempt to cut costs as a temporary band-aid measure.

"Virtually every international business is experiencing a prolonged drought in sales and profits," he said. "But (can) you do something for the present interest, you actually lose money in the long term.

"Volvo is committed to golf in China, especially the Open Golf Championship of China, and has made a conscious decision to maintain the level of prize money this year.

"We aim to be a partner for a long time to come - even through the bad times."

Bright future

Ericsson also believes that, with the right kind of support from sponsors and the sport's governing body in China, the Volvo China Open will within 10 years develop a similar status to that of the British or US Opens.

"I do not see any reason why the China Open should not be among the top three Opens in the world," he said.

"You know the Open championshipsthey do not pay the best players lots of money and they do not have the highest prize money.

"It's just that you build in so much quality and an ethic of being No 1 (there). To prove you are a good player, you need to have your name listed at the Championships. It's not about money.

"This has taken hundreds of years in the US and Britain. I think we can do this and achieve the target within 10 years (in China)."

Officials from the China Golf Association (CGA) said Volvo's gamble 15 years ago had already paid off handsomely.

"It really needed confidence and courage when they brought the Volvo Open into China in 1995," said Zhang Xiaoning, secretary-general of the CGA. "It's the same right nowVolvo have once again shown their determination and confidence regarding the sport's future - something that is desperately needed in these hard times."

Entries for next month's Open include former European Ryder Cup heroes Colin Montgomerie, Darren Clarke and Paul McGinley. Montgomerie comes in his new capacity as captain of the 2010 European Ryder Cup team but will be keen to show that he is still one of the world's best by adding the Volvo China Open to the 40 wins he has amassed worldwide.

(China Daily March 24, 2009)

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