KINGDOM OF BAHRAIN, BAHRAIN l When Paul Casey won the Volvo Champions at the Royal Bahrain Golf Club last January, the result was hugely heartening for both parties. Casey, it seemed, was back at his best, while the Royal Bahrain GC, home of last Saturday’s Bahrain Invitational, seemed set to be a regular stopping point on the European Tour.
In the months that followed, things did not go according to plan for either. Though the tribulations of one man are hardly going to register vis-à-vis the troubles of a nation, Casey developed an acutely painful condition known as “turf toe” at much the same time as his marriage came to an end. Then, just when he was showing signs of a golfing recovery, he dislocated his shoulder in a snow-boarding accident and tumbled further down the rankings.
Meanwhile, the praises being heaped on Bahrain as a tournament venue had barely died down when the first of the protests took place at Pearl Roundabout.
What was to outside eyes a violent crackdown on the demonstrators had any amount of repercussions in a sporting context. The loss of the 2011 Bahrain Grand Prix was the first of them, while the switching of the 2012 Volvo Champions to South Africa was another major blow.
That the Grand Prix has returned this week could help with the country’s recovery process. Again, last Saturday’s Bahrain Invitational – it involved Casey, Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Björn and Suzann Pettersen – should have served as another step in the right direction.
The laws of the land in the different countries visited by the European Tour may differ wildly, but the great thing about golf is that its rules are the same the world over. Which, of course, is something that can only help when it comes to rekindling good relationships beyond sport.
Björn, chairman of the Players’ Committee of the PGA European Tour, does not believe that the players should at any point concern themselves with politics. However, he takes great pride in the degree to which his game can be a force for the good in areas where there is anything in the way of unrest.
“Our responsibility,” said the Dane, “is to spread the golfing word around the world. We can play a big part in developing people’s lives through our game.”
Though Montgomerie, in relation to his commentary work at Augusta, surprised no one when he said, “I like giving an opinion,” he advised that he had always refused to talk about race, religion or politics: “Speak on any of that little lot and you’re always going to annoy someone.”
Yet, the 2010 Ryder Cup captain did not mind saying – and someone, somewhere, will purport to be annoyed at this – that he feels safer in Bahrain than he does in parts of London.
“As a professional golfer,” he continued, “you go where the money is because you’re doing a job. But you also go where you feel comfortable and I have always felt comfortable in the Middle East.”
Montgomerie also drew attention to how, when he designed the Royal Bahrain course, he encouraged the creation of the “Wee Monty” children’s lay-out. He says he is satisfied that boys and girls from all walks of life on the island have the chance to get to grips with a game which, in fact, has been open to all since the 1930s when the Americans first started drilling for oil.
The Invitational, which was won by Björn on a play-off from Casey, provided the perfect golfing fix for the locals. Hundreds swarmed after the players and their celebrity partners, with Casey, following events of last January, a firm favourite.
Casey may be the No 1 in Bahraini eyes but the former Ryder Cup golfer has slipped to 42 in the world and is currently at a lowly 111 on the Race to Dubai.
His shoulder has mended but he knows he still has a long way to go to get back the old bounce and confidence which were never more in evidence than when he won the 2006 World Match Play championship.
At that stage of his career, there were times when he seemed to have the same level of focus as Tiger Woods.
“I was dancing in and out of that zone,” he agrees. “I didn’t have it like Tiger had it but I certainly knew what it was.”
He is starting to study old videos in a bid to rediscover those same feelings: “I have to look at how I was walking, how I was thinking. It all translated into playing good aggressive golf and doing it with a smile on my face.”
In Saturday morning’s news conference, Casey spoke of how he had longed to be back in Bahrain to defend his Volvo Champions title, only the event happened in South Africa rather than at the Royal GC and he could not have played anyway.
It would make for the best of story-lines if the end of all the troubles – Casey’s and Bahrain’s – could be marked with the Englishman coming out on top when the European Tour makes its return to the island.
The Bahrainis have their fingers crossed that that will happen sooner rather than later.