* Olympic medal win in Rio stirs interest in sport
* Beijing has relaxed ban on officials playing golf
* PGA aims to more than double tour events in China
* Golf club maker Honma lists in HK with eye on China market
* China golf products market seen growing 38 pct by 2019
(Add Honma's performance on trading debut)
By Donny Kwok
HONG KONG, Oct 6 A year after China ordered
public officials off the fairways in a crackdown on graft, the
business of golf is betting hunger for the game among middle
class fans and an Olympic medal for a home-grown star can drive
the sport back to growth.
The PGA Tour, organiser of golf's flagship events, says it
wants to more than double the number of events on the Chinese
mainland as Beijing basks in the glow of a bronze medal in Rio
for Feng Shanshan - also a multi-millionaire winner on the
international Ladies PGA Tour.
Meanwhile Honma Golf Ltd, maker of the world's
most expensive clubs, made its debut on the Hong Kong stock
exchange on Thursday after a HK$1.26 billion ($162 million)
listing, touting the chance of China growth as a key attraction
in its prospectus. Feng, sponsored by Honma, also appears in the
document - and helped out in roadshow presentations.
"Double-digit or triple-digit growth in the population (of
golfers) is very achievable," said Gregory Gilligan,
Beijing-based head of the PGA Tour's Chinese affiliate, speaking
in a recent interview at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country
Club in Hong Kong, where the China PGA Tour will hold its first
event outside the mainland from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6.
After years of being unofficially tolerated, golf was
officially banned for members of the Chinese Communist Party in
October last year during a draconian anti-corruption drive. The
sport's popularity took a severe hit, and over a hundred courses
China has since softened its position, arguing earlier this
year that golf itself was "not a wrongdoing", according to a
report in China Daily, as long as officials pay their way and
stick to playing outside working hours, rather than stroll the
fairways while during work time on the public dime.
RETAIL SALES SEEN JUMPING
In the meantime, according to Frost & Sullivan, China is
primed to be one of the fastest-growing markets for golf
products, driven by its growing middle class and rise in
Frost & Sullivan estimates the China golf products markets
will jump by more than a third to $646 million in retail sales
value in 2019 from $469 million last year.
Still, Honma shares fell sharply on their first day of
trading amid doubts about its ability to attract buyers for its
high-end clubs on the mainland.
The hopes for growth in China come at a time when the sport
has seen player numbers dropping globally, prompting some
international sporting goods maker to cut back on golf and focus
on other areas.
German sportswear maker Adidas said in May it aimed to sell
most of its money-losing golf business including TaylorMade and
Adams, while Nike in August said it was looking to the exit golf
But for Honma, the time was right to prepare for expansion
in China. Based in Japan but controlled by Chinese businessman
and chairman Liu Jianguo, Honma's clubs can fetch as much as
nearly $5,000 for a top-of-the-range set, with celebrities
including Donald Trump reported to be fans.
"We have to prepare to capture the market in case the demand
explodes one day," said Honma's Liu, speaking at a pre-IPO
But if Honma's market debut was any indication, that
explosion in demand for its clubs could take some time. Its
shares were down 8.5 percent in afternoon trade to give it a
market capitalisation of HK$5.5 billion ($710 million).
"I doubt if golfers are still going to want to be so showy
with expensive clubs when concern over the crackdown on graft is
still haunting every industry," said Alex Wong, Hong Kong-based
director at Ample Finance Group.
($1 = 7.7574 Hong Kong dollars)
(Reporting by Donny Kwok; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Edwina