In June, China's Andy Zhang became the youngest player to compete in the U.S. Open. He was just 14.
Two months earlier, his 13-year-old countryman, Guan Tian-Ling, set a similar standard for a European Tour event when he played in the Volvo China Open.
The two talented teenagers are striking evidence of the golf's growing footprint in Asia. Ditto for 21-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, already a 10-time winner in his native Japan and a special temporary member of the PGA TOUR this year, as well as Korea's Seung-yul Noh and Sang-moon Bae, a pair of twentysomething TOUR rookies in 2012.
That's why well-traveled veterans like Lee Westwood and Paul Casey foresee a change in the professional landscape over the next decade. The two were quoted in a report commissioned by HSBC, the banking and financial services giant, entitled "Golf's 2020 Vision."
"The way things are going, we're looking at the balance of power turning more and more toward Asia -- they're producing better players and putting on better tournaments and this trend is definitely going to continue," Westwood said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see three or four of the world's top 10 from Asia by 2020."
Casey agreed. "Within 10 years, I predict that the top 10 in the world will be made up of an equal split of Asian, European and U.S. players," he said.
Small wonder, then, the PGA TOUR has sanctioned events in Malasyia and China that will shift the focus of the professional game to Asia for the next fortnight. And a year from now, both the CIMB Classic, which tees off Thursday at The MINES Resort in Kuala Lumpur, and next week's World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions at China's sprawling Mission Hills facility will be official TOUR events.
Ed Moorhouse, the co-chief operating officer of the PGA TOUR, expects the two events to quickly and seamlessly integrate themselves into the extended, wrap-around PGA TOUR schedule beginning in the fall of 2013.
After all, the field for this week's CIMB Classic includes Tiger Woods for the first time and eight other 2012 PGA TOUR champions. And a total of 10 members of the victorious European Ryder Cup team, as well as six from the American team, will be playing in the HSBC Champions.
"When they become official FedExCup events and award FedExCup points and provide a full exemption for the winner, count as one of the 15 events that the players need to play in for their membership requirements, it will become even that much more impactful," Moorhouse said. "I think our fields have been good but next year I would expect them to be even better as players take a look at CIMB and HSBC as just part of their normal schedule."
While he didn't rule out the possibility, Moorhouse said no other PGA TOUR events in Asia are currently in the works. But having the Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelsons of the world actually playing in places like China and Malaysia -- complementing a strong international TV presence -- helps build the TOUR brand and expand retail licensing activities.
PGA TOUR events have the potential to be seen in over 200 million households in 35 countries and territories across the Asia-Pacific region. Distribution in China will be dramatically increased in 2013. Major broadcast partners include NHK and Golf Network in Japan, SBS in Korea and Astro in Malaysia.
And already, there are 54 PGA TOUR Shops in China and within 3-5 years that number is expected to grow to 200. More than 500 stores in Japan sell TOUR-branded merchandise and there are 35 more outlets in Malaysia. Also on the horizon could be Tournament Players Clubs, which would give the TOUR a year-round presence, as well as a potential venue for competition.
"Another thing we're finding is our sponsors, our sponsors of PGA TOUR events here, have clearly an interest in those markets," Moorhouse said. "They're almost 100 percent global companies so to the extent we can build our brand there and get additional exposure to the PGA TOUR there, that's very important to our domestic business.
"I just think overall golf is growing, golf is becoming global. ... Certainly golf in the Olympics beginning in 2016 already has had a tremendous impact, especially in countries like China, and it's taking golf from being a recreational activity or a game to a real sport. So I think it's incumbant on us to capitalize on that as well and just help continue to grow and develop the game."
Bo Van Pelt posted a 7-under 64 to win by six strokes and set a new tournament record at 23 under.
CIMB and HSBC share that vision, too. Beyond their corporate sponsorship and desire to host a world-class event, both companies have well-established junior golf developmental programs. Zhang, in fact, was part of HSBC's program before moving to Florida to attend the David Leadbetter Academy.
A total of 128 juniors from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore who excel on the course as well as in the classroom are taking part in CIMB's program this year. They work with PGA TOUR Academy instructors and the top eight eventually will be selected for intensive training modules, as well as a trip to the U.S. to train and attend a tournament.
In addition, the PGA TOUR has been involved with the China Golf Association for the last five or six years. Estimates vary but there are more than 400 courses in a country with a population of roughly 1.4 billion people so "there's a big universe to introduce the game to," Moorhouse said. As such, the TOUR didn't want to simply go to China and pay a sanctioning fee.
"We wanted a relationship with them and assist them in growing the game," he said.
Again, this effort involves TOUR Academy instructors working with the country's elite players, including training sessions at the flagship facility at TPC Sawgrass, as well as implementing programs similar to The First Tee in schools across the country.
"They've shown tremendous progress in the development of their elite golfers, especially on the women's side," Moorhouse said. "... Obviously, golf in the Olympics and the prospect of winning a medal is of interest to them. ... It's a slow progression, but I think we've made some significant inroads."
Asian countries like Korea -- which has produced 2009 PGA champ Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi, who won the 2011 PLAYERS Championship -- as well as Japan, the home of World Golf Hall of Famer Jumbo Ozaki, already have thriving golf cultures. The 2015 Presidents Cup, in fact, will be played in South Korea at a course to be determined, marking its first foray into Asia and fifth outside the United States.
"Having 24 of the world's best players come and play in this competition with a nationalistic aspect to it -- Korea will have at least two and probably more players on the International team -- will generate a lot of excitement, I think, not only in Korea, but in the Asian region generally to have that kind of tournament there," Moorhouse said.
"When we take it to a place like Korea, it's a great country, they support it, the players will be comfortable there, they have good facilities, but it will also generate interest in the game which is what we're trying to do as we expand globally. You know, we have really very few vehicles to do this so we have to be smart about how we do The Presidents Cup. We've got CIMB, we've got HSBC, we've got our television product. So we need to take those relatively limited number of assets we have and maximize them to help grow and expose the game."