Sport Industry Insider speaks exclusively to European Tour CEO Keith Pelley about bringing golf to Saudi Arabia and the potential further growth of the Desert Swing.
Last month’s announcement of an inaugural European Tour event in Saudi Arabia caught plenty in the world of golf off guard. After all, the Kingdom has only a handful of courses and just one Saudi golfer, Othman Almulla, has ever played in a professional tournament.
But to those involved in the near-12 months of discussions leading up to the big reveal, adding Saudi Arabia to the 2019 golf calendar made perfect sense. After seeing how the Dubai Desert Classic and Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA played a key role in developing golf in the United Arab Emirates, the European Tour saw a similar opportunity to try and capture the imagination of the Saudi public.
Keith Pelley, CEO of the European Tour, was always convinced in principle, given that spreading golf to different markets is one of the organisation’s key strategies. But it was the quality of the course at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City that proved to be the decisive factor.
THE SEAL OF APPROVAL
“The first thing that we talk about in any new location is do you have a golf course and facility that is good enough and strong enough for a European Tour event?” Pelley explains to Sport Industry Insider.
“Our COO Keith Waters, who played 18 years on Tour, went to see Royal Greens and immediately gave it the seal of approval. It is a world class course with a state-of-the-art clubhouse and great practice facilities.
“The golf course is fantastic, it fits wonderfully in our schedule – we know the weather is going to be super – and we love the vision of 2030 that Saudi Arabia is talking about. All these factors mean we believe it is an opportunity for us to have an event that can run for many years to come.
“Saudi Arabia and Royal Greens is a perfect fit for the European Tour.”
The opening up of Saudi Arabia as a sporting destination is a source of much excitement for a number of brands, who are starting to seriously eye up a market that has for many years remained largely untapped from the outside. Unsurprisingly, the European Tour event has caught the attention of potential partners.
“Sponsors are certainly excited about the prospect of Saudi Arabia,” Pelley says. “The very first conversation we had was with Rolex and they immediately said that they wanted it to be part of the Rolex Series [of elite European Tour events]. They were very supportive.
“Performance 54 and IMG are now involved in the event and they are both very optimistic about partnerships. There is definite excitement from a business side about Saudi Arabia hosting a European Tour tournament.”
Proud to have been involved with @performance_54 in developing golf’s newest @EuropeanTour venture into an exciting new market – Saudi Arabia #golfinsaudi #royalgreensgolfclub #troon pic.twitter.com/vP4IH1L0pD
— Jed Moore (@JEDGOLF) March 8, 2018
No golf event could happen without the backing of the players and, despite a lack of knowledge about Saudi Arabia among the Tour’s golfers, Pelley insists all of those he has spoken to are looking forward to landing in the Kingdom.
“There are many reasons why the players decide to play events: ranking points, prize fund, location, how it fits on the schedule and, of course, the golf course. These are the five key elements that determine how they will make their decision but the quality of the golf course is very high on the priority list.
“Very few conversations I have with players don’t at least include some discussion of the golf course. They want to know what the practice facilities are like, what the accommodation is like.
“The players trust us when we say Saudi Arabia has a world class course and even if they didn’t, Ernie Els and Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston are playing at the Royal Greens grand opening this weekend! I’m sure they will report back on a positive experience and that will only encourage more players.
“Across the board, our golfers love playing in the Middle East. They feel incredibly safe there, they are treated exceptionally well and all of our host courses are terrific. Every player I have spoken to is excited and optimistic about the event in Saudi Arabia.”
Next January’s event will join the Middle East’s two customary early-season showpieces, the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in the UAE Capital.
Traditionally known as the ‘Desert Swing’, the tournaments have proven a fantastic advert for the region, along with the season-ending DP World Championship in Dubai.
With Oman and Qatar also having hosted events in 2018, Pelley – who is set to play Royal Greens this weekend for the first time – now sees potential for a ‘Double Desert Swing’.
“To be honest, in the Middle East we’re open to hosting tournaments in any countries that want to support golf.
“At the moment we have six events but could we feasibly have another one in there? I think so. Seven would probably be the maximum but I think there is room.
“We could see two Desert Swings of three. Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia would be the first – high end tournaments that are attracting the top players in the world. Then Oman, Qatar and perhaps another country like Bahrain could host a tournament that would perhaps not be the same stature of those in the first Swing but would still be a very solid golf tournament.”
The European Tour’s arrival in Saudi Arabia next January is unquestionably the highest profile addition so far to the country’s burgeoning sporting calendar. And Pelley is delighted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a keen golfer himself – has decided to place golf at the heart of Saudi’s Vision2030 transformation.
“We love the Vision2030 plan,” Pelley says. “For us, it’s exciting to be part of something new. Saudi Arabia is making a determined effort to open up to the world and for us to be part of that is terrific.
“Golf can play a key role – we’ve seen how the sport has been embraced in the UAE thanks to events in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Golf can help raise people’s awareness of destinations. Personally, my first real exposure to Dubai came when Tiger Woods was hitting balls off the Burj al Arab!
“The fact that Saudi Arabia have involved golf at the heart of the country’s development is something that we take very seriously and are very privileged to be a part of.
“We want to do everything we possibly can to raise the visibility and profile of golf in Saudi Arabia.”