In our latest Sport Industry Insider Meets… we speak to Ismail Sharif, the UAE’s first ever professional golfer. A trailblazer in the region, Sharif has been the Managing Director of Jumeirah Golf Estates since 2017 and continues to be an influential figure in UAE golf.
Like every kid in the UAE I dreamt of playing football for the national team.
It didn’t happen but I did eventually achieve my goal of playing for the UAE national team… in golf.
I was always enchanted by sport and grew up watching stars like Pele. I also loved boxing and Muhammad Ali made a major impression on me. He was an incredible sportsman and beyond that, a very principled man.
My first golf experience could have put me off for life.
Fortunately I used it as motivation instead. Back in 1992, a Japanese friend had been pushing me to play golf with him for a while and eventually I joined him at Emirates Golf Club. I went to the driving range and he gave me a club – I didn’t know what it was, I called it a stick. It didn’t feel comfortable and I soon realised it was because I was left handed!
We went to ask the lady at reception about clubs and she started talking about tee times. I had no idea what she was talking about – I thought she was inviting me for tea! She realized I wasn’t a golfer and told me I wasn’t allowed to use the facilities as I was not a member. We had a heated discussion and I swore that I would get better at golf and come back to the club so many times that lady would be bored of my face. And that’s what I did – embracing UAE golf.
Ernie Els has been a friend for 25 years.
I first met him at the Dubai Desert Classic ProAm back in 1994. It was my first ProAm and I was really nervous. My first tee shot was so badly sliced that I could have killed one of the photographers. But Ernie came up to me and gave me some advice. Four years later in 1998 I was watching The Open at Royal Birkdale; Ernie saw me and walked towards the rope to shake hands with me. Everyone was looking at me wondering ‘who on earth is this guy’. It was a great moment.
I’m a father of six children, and three of them play golf.
One of my proudest moments was playing in the Nomura Cup with my son. It is an international tournament that takes place every two years and we played in 2003 in Australia. Imagine, both of us playing for the UAE team together. The winning team was not on the picture on any of the newspapers because it was this great story for father and son to play.
We will have an Emirati golfer on the European Tour very, very soon.
Encouraging new talent is a key aim of the Emirates Golf Federation but I also think that we as clubs need to take more responsibility for youth development in UAE golf. It isn’t just about the federation. We need to create a new program – the facilities are here. One issues is that a lot of UAE nationals don’t see golf as a potential career. Parents are not willing to wait for their children to develop; with football it is easier to spot and develop natural talent more quickly. But kids should see a future in golf. Whether it’s as a Tour golfer, or a club professional, or a manager of a club – there are lots of roles to work in within the sport.
Professionals adore playing golf in the UAE.
Managing Jumeirah Golf Estates, I have seen how difficult it is to maintain the very high standards we have. It is not easy as UAE golf events come with such high expectations – whatever you want to do you want to do it the best. When players come to Dubai they expect more than 100%; if you give them 99% they notice. In other countries it is not the same. I took over Jumeirah Golf Estates just six weeks before last year’s DP World Championship and was a little nervous about the challenge but nothing is impossible and I’m pleased to say we put on another great event here.
Tiger Woods could be back in the Middle East next year.
But it may be in Saudi Arabia. I remember when we first brought Tiger to Dubai for the 2001 Desert Classic – we doubled the spectators that year. He’s had such an impact on UAE golf. That always happens when he’s in town and all the players know that he is a vital part of the golf industry. It would be huge for the new European Tour event in Saudi Arabia if they can get him to play. It’s fantastic to have another event in the region – we see it as boosting golf in the Gulf, not as a competitor. Anything the organisers need from us, any help they want– they know we will back them up. We are here to help develop golf.