GURGAON: In this file photo taken on November 17, 2019, Australia's Terry Pilkadaris tees off during the Panasonic Indian Open golf tournament in Gurgaon. While the world's top golfers begin to joust for an almost obscene $45 million prize fund at the PGA Tour Championship in Atlanta today, many of their fellow pros in Asia will not have swung a club, or earned a cent, for six months. –AFP

HONG KONG: While the world's top golfers play for an almost obscene $45 million prize fund at the PGA Tour Championship in Atlanta today, many of their fellow pros in Asia will not have swung a club, or earned a cent, for six months. Players from India to Australia have been idle since the Asian Tour was halted after the Malaysia Open on March 7, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some haven't even been able to practise.

They should have been teeing off next week at the Shinhan Donghae Open in South Korea, the first of three restart events. But along with tournaments in Japan and Taiwan it has been cancelled, with little prospect of the circuit resuming before 2021. Asian Tour CEO and Commissioner Cho Minn Thant had been hoping to stage 10 to 12 tournaments before the end of 2020 in the sort of bio-secure "bubbles" that have enabled the US, European and LPGA tours to resume.

"We've approached countries with the same protocols that the US, European tours and other sports have employed -- testing, players kept in a bio-secure bubble," Cho told AFP. "But we are bound by Asian countries who are not lifting the 14-day quarantine requirements."

A mini-swing in virus-ravaged India next month is also off and November's Hong Kong Open, a European and Asian Tour event, is likely to move to January, according to tour insiders. Next month's flagship WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai was cancelled this week as Asia lost its last remaining men's international tournament scheduled this year, after US PGA Tour events in South Korea and Japan were shifted to America.

Just four Asian Tour events were completed before the shutdown, with only domestic circuits in countries such as Thailand and South Korea managing to restart. Tournament professionals in Asia do not earn the multi-million dollar purses enjoyed by their counterparts in the US and Europe, leaving those in coronavirus hotspots such as India with a bleak outlook. "We have never stayed away from the game for so long," India's S.S.P. Chawrasia, a six-time winner on the Asian Tour, told AFP from his home in Kolkata.

"I was about to travel to the UK for a few European Tour events a month back when I tested positive for Covid," said the 42-year-old. "Though asymptomatic, my plans went haywire. "My mother also tested positive and her condition was bad. But thankfully she has now recovered." Australia's Terry Pilkadaris is under lockdown at his home in Melbourne, epicentre of Australia's latest severe outbreak. The 46-year-old, 24th on the Asian Tour order of merit, hasn't picked up a club for six months.

"At first I enjoyed the break because I needed it and I'm like, it's fantastic, I'm recharged and ready to go," he told AFP this week. "But we still can't practise, we can't do anything. We will have had 15 weeks of full lockdown." Chawrasia has playing rights on the European Tour, and plans to play in two Portugal tournaments from next week. But others are desperate. "Players who play full-time on the Asian Tour have tough times in store," said Chawrasia.

"The condition of players on the Indian Tour is terrible. No earning. Nothing." For many golfers, it's not feasible to get other employment. "The job scenario is very grim," Chawrasia said. "Knowledgeable people are losing jobs, so how can you expect sportspersons to join an office and start working?"

In Australia, pros are better off, but the long layoff is still being felt financially. "We're fortunate enough in Australia, the government have been subsidising us," said Pilkadaris, who has been coaching online to bring in some cash. "But it doesn't cover all my expenses."

The Asian Tour has logistical problems in trying to organise a travelling circus comprising players from more than 25 countries -- an obstacle that seems insurmountable during a pandemic. One avenue now being explored is to hold events in tourist areas as countries reopen. "Thailand looks like it could be the first to open up, so best case scenario we could look at October-November," said Cho, raising the possibility of a two-week bubble in a Thai hotel.

For the pros barely scraping a living, the restart can't come quickly enough. Pilkadaris tied for seventh at January's Hong Kong Open, where he finished two shots behind American Ryder Cup star Tony Finau, earning $21,200. His total 2020 prize money stands frozen at $30,176.17. On Friday, he will be confined to his home watching on TV while Finau chases the $15 million first prize at East Lake, Atlanta. Should Finau finish 30th and last at the Tour Championship, he will still pocket $395,000. It really is a world away. - AFP