World Match Play needs new sponsor

DUBAI, Jan 31 (Reuters) - Organizers of the 43-year-old World Match Play tournament, which offers the biggest prize in golf, face a search for a new backer after HSBC announced it would no longer be bank-rolling the event from next year.

The bank's sponsorship was initially launched in 2003 as a 10-year agreement but the event has been criticized for failing to attract leading U.S. players despite a one million pounds ($1.95 million) winner's check.

HSBC had announced on Tuesday that 2007 would represent its fifth and final year as sponsor which is one of the flagship tournaments on the European Tour.

"We have had people who have made enquiries," Guy Kinnings, of tournament organizers IMG, told Reuters on Wednesday at the Dubai Desert Classic which tees off on Thursday.

"This is a great event. Last year we had the best field we have probably ever had and it is something that's going to be very appealing (for a sponsor)."

World number one Tiger Woods was the top attraction at Wentworth last September but he failed to progress to the latter stages of a tournament eventually won by Britain's Paul Casey.

Phil Mickelson, the U.S. Masters champion, did not attend and Woods was playing for the first time since the launch of HSBC's sponsorship.

"A business decision has been made to concentrate on supporting the game in the UK at grassroots level to target specific HSBC customers (e.g. seniors etc.)," the bank said in a statement.

"The World Match Play has taught us a lot about golf and led to the success of the HSBC Champions Tournament in Asia ... which has grown faster than we could have hoped and means now is the right time to make this decision." The European Tour has no fears about the future of the World Match Play which has a proud roll call of champions including Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo and Ernie Els.

"We are very confident this tournament will find a new sponsor," said director of international policy Keith Waters. "The World Match Play has a very strong 43-year history, is a very popular event and we have a place for it on the schedule.

"The marketplace for sponsorship is very positive."

Casey will begin the defense of his title on Oct. 11.

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