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Clearwater Bay Open is just the beginning for PGA Tour China Series as circuit starts to bear fruit

This week’s Clearwater Bay Open is leading the expansion of the burgeoning China Series that could see events soon added in Macau and Taiwan, with longer term plans for a 25-stop circuit across greater China, according to PGA Tour officials.

The 1.2 million yuan (HK$1.4 million) event at the spectacular Clearwater Bay Golf Country Club, which starts on Thursday and concludes on Sunday, is the first stop the series has made outside of mainland China since starting with its first season in 2014.

And with the calendar already growing from 12 events in 2014 and 2015 to 13 this year, all with a prize fund of 1.2m yuan, continued success from members Li Haotong, Zhang Xinjun and Dou Zecheng will only fuel the expansion backed by the might of American PGA Tour.

“There are a few others places in greater China that we can go, certainly to Macau and Taiwan, and China being as large as it is, there is enormous opportunity for growth there,” said Beijing-based PGA Tour vice president and greater China managing director Greg Gilligan.

“We anticipate continued growth to where we can get to be 20-25 or maybe even more events, so we have a lot of growth ahead of us.

“I would love near term to engage in discussions with folks in Macau and Taiwan.”

Watch: Clearwater Bay Golf Country Club

The PGA Tour as a whole have taken their time to start to expand their footprint in the region and have only just announced a permanent office base in Tokyo as well as a third event to be added to existing tournaments in Malaysia and Shanghai in South Korea next year.

And that mantra will continue with the China Series despite the recent success of the likes Chinese trio Li, Xinjun and current order of merit leader Dou raising the profile of the game and the circuit in the mainland.

Officials might also take note of the recent downturn of the OneAsia series which arrived in 2009 and was supported by the China Golf Association and had high hopes of challenging the established Asian Tour, but this year has dwindled to just four co-sanctioned events.

“There are no plans to expand outside of greater China with this tour. I think on growth, the way we think about it is slow and steady growth is the way we would like to do this,” said PGA Tour executive vice president of international business affairs Paul Johnson.

Get to know Clearwater Bay Golf Country Club for this week’s PGA Tour China Series event

“We are also very focused on quality, so if we wanted to take a risk on quality, we would probably add 10 events, but that’s not the way we want to do it. I would think in 10 years we would be at 25 events plus.”

The China Series order of merit winner is handed a full card on the following seasons Web.com circuit in the US, which is now effectively the year-long qualifying school for the main highly-lucrative PGA Tour after the traditional Q school format was ditched in 2013.

The same arrangement is in place for the PGA Tour Latinoamerica and PGA Tour Canada, with players ranked between second and fifth offered minimal playing rights on the second-tier circuit in the US, with places in the final stage of the Web.com qualifying school also on offer for the leading finishers on the money list.

“China can serve the Eastern hemisphere with China being a very promising market to give our guys the opportunity to earn their way onto the Web.com,” added Gilligan.

Five to watch at the PGA Tour China Series Clearwater Bay Open this week in Hong Kong

“Competitive golf at this level is very difficult, so players need some runway to develop their skills to take what are already phenomenal golf skills and then add in all the other skills they need which are only born out of experience as in how you manage your workouts, your nutrition, your schedule and dealing with jet lag.”

China’s Li won the inaugural China Series order of merit in 2014 and is this week is playing at the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open having claimed victory at the Volvo China Open earlier this year, while Zhang played with Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Matt Kuchar over the weekend at last week’s WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shanghai having been inside the top 10 for the first three rounds.

Zhang finished in second and third place on the China Series order of merit for the last two years, while current money list leader Dou also claimed a creditable finish last week having already won four times on the circuit this year.

And Australia’s Brett Drewitt, having finished third on the 2014 order of merit, is the first player to complete the transition from China Series to PGA Tour having eventually finished 33rd on the Web.com circuit earlier this year.

PGA Tour is coming to Hong Kong: Clearwater Bay to host a leg of China series

“I would say we have exceeded our expectations. We came in with very high expectations, and being an open tour we have guys from all over the world, but located in China we thought it was great relevance and opportunity for Chinese players,” added Gilligan.

“We had great confidence in the Chinese players, but maybe we thought it would take then longer to demonstrate their prowess and boy have they exceed their expectations.”