Before the recent Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, Keith Pelley was quizzed on Golf Channel’s Morning Drive as to whether he thought it “prudent” for his European Tour members to be playing in Saudi Arabia.
The reasons for the query had to do with reports of Saudi government involvement in the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, as well as a human-rights record in the kingdom that many Westerners find hard to take. According to Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed more people in 2017 than any country other than China and Iran while, to give another example of what many find unacceptable, it long has been customary for girls of 10 or younger to be sold into marriage.
The European Tour’s CEO, while certainly aware of these facts when the question came up, would maybe have found it easier to reply with a counterquestion. Namely, what would PGA Tour officials have done in the same circumstances? Would they have cancelled the event?
In this day and age, the different tours are understandably proprietorial about the places they play. They know that if they take their eye off the ball another tour will step in and Pelley, for one, cannot afford for that to happen. Especially in the case of the Middle East, where the rich tapestry of customs and cultures add such a compelling dimension to his European circuit.
No longer ago than 1975, three great writers of the day – Herbert Warren Wind, Peter Ryde and Donald Steel – assembled The Encyclopedia of Golf, a grand work in which the Arabian courses of old came under the single heading of “Desert Golf.” The entry began with an explanation as to how the golf balls were red rather than white (as the courses were sand) and the greens black or brown (mostly sand mixed with oil and raked smooth) as opposed to green. As for the fairways, they were likened to “runways on a deserted country airport.” Saudi Arabia, even then, boasted nine courses of one sort or another. Now, the kingdom has 14, and His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, chairman of the Saudi Arabian Golf Federation, expects another 13 to 20 to come into play over the next 12 or so years.
Apart from working on grassroots golf for Saudi nationals, the Saudis want to contribute more tournaments to the European Tour’s current tally of six in the Middle East. And, yes, they have not forgotten the women. A women’s event on the Ladies European Tour or the LPGA is being discussed.
Straightaway, you ask yourself how the dinky little skirts and shorts worn by the these players might go down in this land of abayas and hijabs. The answer is that the players would need to adjust. And why shouldn’t they? At the very least, they likely will do as the female caddies at the Saudi International did in wearing shorts which finish just above the knee. Almost certainly, original souls such as Michelle Wie and So Yeon Ryu would have fun in getting it right.
In the course of the Saudi International, an old friend of mine by name of Ismail Sharif, one the first Dubai nationals to play the game, explained how even the most traditional or religious of women have been surprised to discover the extent to which golf marries with everything that is asked of them. “They can play in their abayas, if they want to, and they can play in long sleeves and wear a glove on either hand,” he said.
Later, Sharif introduced me to the Almondaimeegh family, who were down from Jeddah for the tournament week. I asked Fatin Alkahtani, the wife of Mohammed Almondaimeegh, how sister wives had reacted when she and her children first showed an interest in golf. “Seven years ago,” she said, “my friends raised their eyebrows. Now they are asking me how to get themselves and their children involved.”
All of which suggests how golf has it over tennis. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, in which a father called the best tennis coaches to his desert compound and watched as his daughter grew ever more proficient. Alas, just as she was ready to take on the outside world, so it was no longer appropriate in Saudi culture and religion for her to dress in tennis gear. Career over.
While outsiders can teach the locals a thing or two about golf on grass, so they are ahead of us when it comes to mastering the old sand courses. Which explains why England’s Greg Owen and Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee did their homework before playing against fellow professionals of the calibre of Sir Nick Faldo, Pádraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie and winning the Abu Dhabi World Sand Golf Championship in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Both got their names on a coveted trophy which now would seem to be redundant.
Yet the hope is that some at least of the old sand courses will continue to operate side by side with their grassy green neighbours just as the ancient and secretive souks always will have at least as much appeal to tourists as the glimmering new shopping malls whose wares are available the world around.
In the case of the grass courses, Jeremy Slasser, from European Golf Design, deems it important that they never should be too far removed from their desert origins. “Our view is that if you’re building a course in the Middle East, it should look as if it’s in the Middle East; and if you’re building a course in Florida, it should look as if it’s in Florida.”
To this correspondent at least, none of the modern venues has made for more dramatic first-time viewing than Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, where past and present meet on the adjacent waterway. There are yachts worth millions to catch the eye but, all around, there are ancient wooden dhows (some going back 150 years and more) bobbing about on the water and ferrying local workers from one side of the creek to the other.
In the tournament-playing world, you can find more of past meeting present when it comes to those Middle Eastern companies that have taken to sponsorship. A few years back, one of the sponsors at the Qatar Masters was persuaded to tell the story of how he had started life as a Bedouin and paved the way for a formal education through listening by night to the American oil men on their walkie-talkies. Where the visiting professionals might have tuned out to sponsors’ golfing tales from the day’s pro-am, they were all ears at that revelation.
It goes without saying that improvements to human rights situations in the Middle East cannot happen fast enough. Yet, when it comes to growing sport and tourism, the news is all good.
What’s different in Saudi Arabia to the Dubai of 40 years ago is that the locals, with particular reference to the women, are infinitely more curious about golf than they were then.
Those women who came to Royal Greens to find out more were understandably intent on doing the right thing and, before too long, a handful of the them had gathered on the ladies’ first tee. No less than the women’s prayer rooms and eating areas still assigned to them in certain instances, they assumed that the tee was their dedicated viewing point.
The little party were delighted to find themselves so much in the thick of things – and never mind that the professionals’ drives started flying over their heads.
Back to Pelley, he did, in fact, answer the original question asked, but did so as he does so many that veer into sensitive territory. “We always monitor the progress of the places we visit,” he said.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?