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Nike and Titleist aren't just betting a combined $60 million that Tiger Woods will take them to new heights in America--they are venturing that he will be their ticket to the vast golf markets of Asia.

Winning the Masters will only widen the popularity Woods enjoys as an Asian American with a Thai mother and a Buddhist heritage. Says his agent, Hughes Norton of International Management Group: ''He can make a much bigger impact in the Pacific Rim than he has in the U.S.'' In November, Nike Golf plans to host a major event in Japan--with Tiger as its main attraction. Cobra Golf is considering marketing overseas a limited edition of the driver Tiger used in the Masters.

Tiger may give golf the same sort of boost overseas that he is delivering in the U.S., but golf mania hit Asia long ago. Limited space means many Asian countries have built an entire golf culture around the driving range. ''Go to any driving range [in Taiwan], and it is standing-room only,'' says John Cappo, assistant vice-president for marketing at Sports International, the leading golf tournament promoter in Taiwan. ''Not only men but younger college kids and women.'' And at the multitiered ranges in Japan, starting times are required.

STATUS SYMBOL. With the opening of Sai Kung, the first public course in the working-class Hong Kong suburb of Tun Mun two years ago, some 10,000 new golfers have taken up the game, says Don Allison, director of golf development for the Hong Kong Golfing Assn. Even China will have close to 100 courses by 2004, according to the Republic of China Golf Assn.

Some in the industry, such as Cappo, say Tiger will do for golf in Asia what Michael Chang has done for tennis. Others are less sanguine. What Tiger really will do, says

Callaway Golf Co. President and CEO Donald H. Dye, is bring the already enormous popularity of golf in Asia to the attention of Americans.

Since the late 1980s, improving economies in Asia have translated into more disposable income and an appetite for the status symbols that accompany it. Tommy Armour Golf Co., already in every Asian market, anticipates that its strongest growth will come from Korea, says President and CEO Michael Magerman. Unofficial estimates say there are more than 25 million golfers and 4,300 golf courses in the Asia-Pacific region. In the U.S., there are some 25 million golfers and 15,390 courses, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Japan, the second-largest golf market after the U.S., has been a driving force in bringing golf to the rest of Asia, but it is rapidly becoming a case of limited supply and increasing demand. The high cost of golfing at home--a round of golf can easily top $200 per person--spurred a rash of course development across Asia. Many are designed by high-profile players such as Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer. Now, many Japanese ''find it much cheaper--even with airfare--to play elsewhere in Asia,'' says Tad Fujimatsu, chairman of JAL International Services Inc. in New York.

Yet golf in Asia isn't just about playing the game. In most of Asia, golf memberships can be bought and sold like stocks. At the peak of Japan's period of wild asset inflation in 1988-89, the combined value of memberships represented some 10% of Japan's gross domestic product. Post-bubble, prices have come down substantially.

WAITING LISTS. But golf shares in other Asian markets such as the Philippines and Singapore are still strong. Brokers often use the shares as a gauge of economic strength. In the Philippines, some bankers prefer the securities over real estate as collateral for loans. At the tony Manila Club in the Philippines, fewer than half of the members or shareholders are active golfers. Indeed, even nongolfers may find the $1 million membership at the exclusive Hong Kong Golf Club--where the waiting list currently runs 19 years--a bargain.

Still, for all the hype and high cost of golfing memberships in Asia, Peter Yee, marketing director for the Hong Kong Debentures Exchange, which specializes in matching buyers with sellers, says the market is not as speculative as it once was. ''Golf is a prestige thing here,'' he says, adding that judging from the handicaps he has seen, the golfers at the private clubs are only ''so-so.''

Come to think of it, that doesn't sound all that much different from a lot of country clubs in America.

By Kerry Capell in New York, with Dave Lindorff in Hong Kong, Jonathan Moore in Taipei, and Tomoko Takahashi in Tokyo

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Updated June 15, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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