The European Tour’s business may be thriving on its own continent, but as was proved once again by the success of the Desert Swing this year and the DP World Tour Championship last November, the Middle East has assumed great significance in the world of golf.
In July, Tom Phillips – former CEO of the Hong Kong Golf Association and the Faldo Series – became Head of Middle East for the European Tour, replacing long-time leader Nick Tarratt. And Phillips believes the region has become absolutely pivotal for the organisation.
“The Middle East is crucial to the European Tour and it has been for over 30 years now,” Phillips tells Sports Industry Insider. “Since first staging the Dubai Desert Classic in 1989, we now have six tournaments plus the Jordan Mixed Masters. Throughout all of this, we have the narrative of the Race to Dubai too.
“We have three Middle East swings now across the calendar. We have the Dubai Desert Classic, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the Saudi International at the beginning of the year.
“Then at the end of February we have the Oman Open and Qatar Masters. And at the end of November, we have the DP World Tour Championship which concludes the European Tour season.”
The DP World Tour Championship is one of most eagerly anticipated tournaments on the regional sporting calendar. Only 50 of the top players in the Race to Dubai rankings can contest the $8 million event, one of the richest prizes in world golf.
And the original Desert Swing, taking place towards the start of each year, has emerged as a hugely enjoyable stretch of events for players on the European Tour, cutting through Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia from January to February.
The famed Middle Eastern hospitality and quality of courses have regularly earned praise from the sport’s biggest names, with the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka previously gracing the greens at Emirates Golf Club and Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
In 2019, the introduction of the Saudi International, the Kingdom’s first ever professional golf tournament, garnered headlines across the world – both positive and negative.
Four of the top five-ranked players in the world at the time – Justin Rose, Bryson DeChambeau, Koepka and Johnson – plus major champions Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Henrik Stenson were among the stars to compete in the inaugural tournament in Jeddah back in February.
The event is part of Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ strategy – a plan to showcase the Kingdom’s desire to expand its business, leisure and tourism industries beyond the reliance on oil and gas.
The decision to host a tournament in KSA stirred plenty of criticism but Phillips insists the move into the Kingdom was one made with social motivations as well as commercial ones – with the European Tour believing that tapping into the Saudi Arabian market could help further bolster the popularity of golf in the region.
“The Saudi Golf Federation are doing fantastic work at the moment,” Phillips said. “They have some big plans for sport and for golf specifically. Their Vision 2030 is a major initiative and golf is a big part of it. They are very committed and we are working hard with them. Saudi as a country and market is continuing to go from strength to strength.”
With the Saudi International now finding its home after the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and Dubai Desert Classic events, it means the Qatar Masters will remain in March and run back-to-back with the Oman Open as a ‘second swing’.
Formerly a key part of the original Desert Swing alongside Abu Dhabi and Dubai, political tensions between UAE and Qatar has meant no direct flights between the countries since 2017. However, changes to the scheduling two years ago has made it easier for players to commute from Muscat to Doha to compete in the respective tournaments and that will continue in 2020.
While it seems that Qatar has been shunted out of the spotlight, Phillips welcomes having separate swings – insisting it creates more playing opportunities for the European Tour’s golfers.
“We have two swings at the moment and we feel that works well. We have three events in a row from mid-January to the start of February, and then two events in a row at the end of February and start of March. Then essentially a third at the end of the year with the DP World Tour Championship.
“Qatar is part of its own Desert Swing. I don’t think that one swing is more preferable to the other. It slots into the right place for the players so they can come out and play at a time of the year that suits them.”
Should the Middle East continue to attract the word’s elite players, it will help to bolster the popularity of golf in the region further.
“Ideally we are about providing playing opportunities for our members. We want to keep as many tournaments as possible,” Phillips said. “This means expanding and changing the different formats. What it essentially comes down to is playing opportunities.
“After each event, we have a full debrief with stakeholders, governing bodies and sponsors. And see how we can keep this tournament going and keep improving it for the next year. For the most part, if you look at some of the tournaments, we’ve been in action in Dubai for over 30 years, 20 years in Abu Dhabi and 12 years in Jumeirah Golf Estates.
“Other things to consider are: How to work with existing tournaments and make them bigger and better? And how can we look at new formats to bring in to the region?”
With six tournaments now on the regional golf calendar, plus the Jordan Mixed Masters in Ayla in June, there remains a hope that a local player can one day blaze a trail and inspire a new generation of stars to compete professionally on the European Tour.
It is a perceived failing that no player from the region has yet threatened the top of the leaderboard at a professional tournament, despite a number of Arab players competing in their home events over the years.
However, Phillips is optimistic that in time this could change, given young players have a chance to watch and learn from the biggest names in the game when such prestigious tournaments roll into their home cities.
“Having these big tour events and star players can only inspire the next generation of local talent. But bringing in that next generation does take time. You have to start right at the bottom and be inspired by one of our events.
“They have to take up the game, and we have to let them learn and give them opportunities along the way to help them get better. But we are hopeful it will happen.”