ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES | There were glimpses of the European Tour’s past, present and future in Abu Dhabi last week. The past was represented by the annual reminder that the European Tour has been playing in the Middle East since the first Dubai Desert Classic in 1989.
The present was represented by the playing of the seven-year-old Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship that has leaped to such prominence and attractiveness that it had six of the world’s top 10 players and Tiger Woods competing in it and thus more world ranking points than the concurrent Farmer’s Insurance Open in the U.S. In fact, it had one of the strongest fields for any event on either tour other than major championships and World Golf Championships.
And the future of the European Tour in the Middle East? There’s the Arab Spring to deal with, the series of democratic uprisings that spread across many of the nations of the Middle East, starting in 2010, which caused the Volvo Golf Champions in Bahrain to fall off the schedule for 2012.
Once the Arab Spring becomes a thing of the past and Bahrain and Syria return to stability, the future surely includes more events in a part of the world where the sun (almost) always shines, the fairways are firm, the greens fast, the purses adequate and the appearance money is enough for a sheikh to shake a club at.
The advance into the Middle East has been one of the European Tour’s greatest recent achievements. Suddenly, the cold weather in wintry Europe does not matter. The poor condition of many golf courses on that continent at the beginning of the year is not a worry and nor is the lure of the U.S. tour, which is so strong at other times of the year. Good golf events are being staged on good, well-prepared courses in sunny, almost windless conditions.
The players have noticed and are grateful.
“To start with, the courses are usually in good shape,” Sergio Garcia said. “They are usually good challenges for us to start the year. It is usually nice weather, which is tough to get in most parts of Europe at this time of year. And they manage to get great fields. When you get a tournament with the calibre of players that you get here, in Qatar and in Dubai … it is obviously an asset.”
If it’s easy to see the attraction of the events for players and administrators on the European Tour, it is equally easy to realise why more countries in this part of the world want to stage big golf tournaments.
“This event has been invaluable in establishing (Abu Dhabi) on the international golf tourism map,” Faisal Shaikh of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority said. “Our golf tourism proposition is being driven by the diversity of our offering; we have three stunning championship courses within a 25-mile radius of the capital city as well as an 18-hole country course, a unique sand golf course. Golf tourists can now come to Abu Dhabi and play a different course for six consecutive days. That is diversity.”
Abu Dhabi was at its diverse best last Friday. While a cricket Test match between England and Pakistan was going on down the road, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship was putting on a show of its own a few miles away. Little girls in pigtails and with painted faces ran around behind the ninth and 18th greens. The sky was blue and cloudless and the palm trees swayed gently in the soft desert wind. English was the predominant language, often spoken with a Scottish accent, though German was heard as well as Arabic. It was a reminder that this part of the Middle East is where the Occident meets the Orient.
This desert swing dates to the 1980s after the European Tour moved into north Africa and embraced the 1982 Tunisian Open followed by the Moroccan Open five years later.
“I think these factors influenced Karl Litton, the designer of the Emirates course in Dubai, to approach us with a view to starting the Desert Classic,” Ken Schofield, the former executive director of the European Tour, said. “We were immediately keen to add the event to the growing Tour schedule and we had little or no issue with the players in this further extension “away from Europe.”
After the Desert Classic started in 1989, another event was added in 1998 in Qatar, a sovereign Arab state bordering Saudi Arabia on the Arabian peninsula. Suddenly, a run of events in this part of the world became a possibility. But for the Arab Spring, the Bahrain tournament might still be on the European Tour’s schedule.
“I am not hearing good things about Bahrain being back in 2013,” George O’Grady, the European Tour’s chief executive, said last week.
On the other hand, there are rumours about Oman wanting to join the swing of tournaments in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia might join in, too. So, from one event in this part of the world 23 years ago, it could be as many as six in the next couple of years.
“Abu Dhabi is the first fully sanctioned event of the year,” O’Grady said. “The course is in great shape. The players are feted and put up in the world’s best hotel. Despite the economic recession and the Arab Spring, I would have to give it close to ten marks out of ten.”
It is doubtful if even a single voice was raised in disagreement.