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European events as strong as any in world: Tour chief

(Reuters) - Europe's economic plight has not affected the continent's premier golf circuit and the tour still has some of the best events in the world, chief executive George O'Grady said on Tuesday.

The European Tour is increasingly spreading its wings beyond Europe to the Far East in terms of venues and O'Grady is full of optimism for this season despite the move to the U.S. PGA Tour of top performers like world number one Rory McIlroy.

"We have a lot of great tournaments on our schedule in 2013 and we have certain periods of the year where we have groups of tournaments that are as strong as any in the world," O'Grady told the tour website (www.europeantour.com).

"We have had a very challenging five-year period but part of the reason we have managed to retain a lot of our biggest sponsors is the fact the European Tour is a tremendous product for someone looking to spend their sponsorship or touristic dollars."

The tour is poised for a three-week Middle East swing after this week's 2013 opener, the Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa, before visiting countries like India, South Korea and China over the next 11 months.

The first event to be played in Bulgaria, the World Match Play Championship in May, is another highlight for a tour which has been battling against the Eurozone crisis.

"Through our television platforms in key markets, as well as making our events as good as they can possibly be, we bring visibility and credibility. We have had great success in many countries as a result of that," said O'Grady.

"In Ireland, Scotland and Portugal the golfing tourism numbers are growing again.

"You see that in a lot of the countries we visit across the world and I think it shows that if you can get the structure right then we can face the future with optimism."

Less than half of the tournaments on the 2012-13 schedule are due to be played in mainland Europe and O'Grady spoke late last year of his "disappointment" at losing events in Eurozone countries.

O'Grady added there were some sponsor-less tournaments on the schedule that were now owned or promoted by the tour, citing the Hong Kong Open which is absent for the first time since 2001 but will return next season.

However 2013 paints a different picture, said O'Grady.

"Money is one factor in tournaments being a success but if you look at the strongest parts of our international schedule the money is already very strong," he said.

"So, in terms of our top events, I think we are now trying to focus on running the tournaments exceptionally well which we have done for the past year."

(Writing by Tom Pilcher editing by Tony Jimenez)

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