Numbers smile on Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship

Growing presence of top-10 players shows tournament's rise in prominence

Phil Mickelson hits a shot during the pro-am on Wednesday at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club prior to the start of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Scott Halleran / Getty Images
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Golf might be the most numerically fixated game on the planet.

Holes are sequentially numbered, just like a set of irons. Tee markers this week have measures noted in yards and metres. Balls are emblazoned with numerals. Even the courses have calibrated difficulty ratings.

The European Tour ranks its members based on earnings and players are reshuffled from top to bottom each week by a world ranking. Every day, players sign a scorecard denoting a fateful final number.

The fans attending this week’s event at Abu Dhabi Golf Club will be awash in data, although the calculations that are used to measure the calibre of the tour events as individual entities will doubtlessly pass unnoticed.

Too bad, because in the rather brief existence of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, those particular figures have become the most important metrics of all for an event that has scaled the chart of European Tour success.

“What HSBC has done is bring world-class golf to Abu Dhabi,” five-time major winner Phil Mickelson said.

It sounds so simple. There are more elements in play than just a marketing-savvy title sponsor, yet by any fanciful standard, the tournament has grown in stature thanks to star-strewn fields and a series of memorable finishes featuring top-gun players.

In fact, the tournament’s trajectory is not just a matter of perception. Entering its ninth year, making it the youngest of the three Desert Swing stops, the Abu Dhabi tournament has ascended past the majority of events on tour, with last year’s field underscoring the climb.

The 2013 tee sheet in Abu Dhabi, featuring Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods at Nos 1 and 2 in the world, listed 12 players from the global top 40. The only other regular European Tour event with more top-40 players last year was the BMW PGA Championship, considered the tour’s flagship event. It drew 13.

Sometimes, to the alarm of title sponsors at lesser events, field strength has become the coin of the realm as it relates to measuring firepower. With the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority underwriting the event, sports-management giant IMG handling the infrastructure and HSBC as a deep-pocketed and proactive sponsor, few financial corners have been cut. If that means paying appearance fees to ensure a quality field, then so be it.

“Golf is good for our business and connects with our customers in major regional hubs around the world,” said Giles Morgan, HSBC’s global director of sponsorship. “Therefore, it follows that we need to invest, to put on events that the demographic of golf will follow.

“How do you do that? You attract players, which attract media, which attracts interest and eyeballs.”

In pitching brand identity and the UAE as a holiday destination, eyeballs are precisely what the title sponsor and tourism authority crave, respectively. Securing commitments from compelling players such as Mickelson, who won the British Open last summer, prime the pump.

“It’s been thought through,” IMG’s global golf director Guy Kinnings said. “All the way through the field.”

So say the numbers.

The neighbouring DP World Tour Championship had a tour-high 14 top-40 players last autumn, but it is a limited-field, play-off-style tournament with an unusually fat purse and is not a regular-season event, per se.

The majors and World Golf Championships events – which are not run by the European Tour – also are not included for purposes of comparison.

Every year, HSBC and the tourism authority jointly pitch in money to underwrite the purse and appearance-fee pools, then target selected players. With Woods scheduled to play this month in Dubai as part of the silver anniversary of the Desert Classic – he played in Abu Dhabi in 2012 and last year – the second-biggest drawing card in the game was secured.

“We debate who has the best resonance,” Kinnings said.

The personable Mickelson won three times in 2013 and dazzled the crowd at an HSBC social function on Tuesday night. It was Mickelson, who has signed more autographs and posed for more fan photos than any prominent player in the game, in his milieu.

“He is astonishing,” Morgan said.

HSBC certainly knows the player personnel. The banking giant also sponsors three other tour events globally, including a mega-money WGC event in China, which last autumn drew 40 of the top 50 players in the world.

The marketing hook for this year’s Abu Dhabi tournament is “expect the unexpected”, though fans have grown accustomed to watching one of the deepest fields of the year.

Abu Dhabi has averaged 14.5 players from the top 40 during the previous four years and landed four players from the top 10 this week.

“I wouldn’t say it’s by happenstance,” Morgan said.

In one of the rare instances in which the European circuit outguns its American cousins, this week’s PGA Tour event outside Palm Springs, California, has one top-10 player.

The field strength directly correlates to another key yardstick of success. Every year, a list of every global event in which world ranking points were awarded is compiled, from high to low. The only regular European Tour tournament that was awarded more ranking points than Abu Dhabi (54 points) last year was the BMW PGA Championship (64), a distinction that requires an asterisk.

As the designated premier event of the tour, it annually receives a ranking bonus, skewing the figure.

In an era when talent is increasingly gravitating towards tour membership in the US, Abu Dhabi offered more ranking points last year than 29 PGA Tour events.

Partly because of the talent drain of European players to the US and following the withdrawals of No 4 Justin Rose and No 30 Victor Dubuisson over the weekend, the number of top-40 players entered this week stands at nine, a downturn compared to recent years. But with four top-10 players entered, the ranking formula will not suffer much.

Besides, wait until next season, which will mark the 10th anniversary of the Abu Dhabi event, a fact that has not escaped anyone’s attention.

“On Sunday at around lunchtime,” Kinnings said, “we’ll meet to start talking about next year.”