QUESTION MARK OVER NEW EUROPEAN TOUR SAUDI EVENT
After recent events could the first ever professional event in Saudi Arabia be under threat.
SINCE ITS FORMATION BACK IN 1972, THE EUROPEAN TOUR HAS TAKEN-IN SOME UNUSUAL AND CONTROVERSIAL DESTINATIONS, A REGULAR VISITOR TO SOUTH AFRICA DURING THE APARTHEID ERA, BAHRAIN HOURS BEFORE CIVIL WAR BROKE OUT AND COUNTRIES SUCH AS RUSSIA, BAHRAIN, KENYA, QATAR, KAZAKHSTAN AND BULGARIA FROM WHERE NOT A SINGLE TOURING PROFESSIONAL HAS EMERGED.
But there can be few more contentious
– some might say ‘Inappropriate,’ – locations than the Wentworth outfit’s announcement of Saudi Arabia as its latest host, the Wentworth-based outfit clearly nervous in making no mention of the new US$3.5m Saudi International in its 2019 press release published at the same time as the 2019 schedule.
More than a few eyebrows were raised in early March this year when the European Tour and IMG jointly announced they were to promote a brand-new event in the controversial gulf state of Saudi Arabia, the first time the Kingdom would host a professional golf event, but the tournament came into question following the fallout from the killing of respected US-based Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Two-months-later, as a ‘Goodwill’ media event was staged in the country, further details were announced by the Saudi Arabia Golf Federation, confirming the event would take place over the luxury Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in the King Abdullah Economic City from 31st January to 3rd February 2019, featuring current world number-one Dustin Johnson and reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed.
Recent Ryder Cup captain Thomas BjØrn and Englishman Paul Casey, a member of the European team which defeated the USA – both IMG clients – took part in the PR event and were subsequently announced in the line-up for the tournament.
The new event is planned as part of a new-look European Tour International Schedule, part of the mitigation exercise following its flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship being forced to move for May to September, displaced from its traditional date by the PGA TOUR’s unilateral decision to allow the USPGA Championship to be brought forward from the autumn, to May as part of a significantly remodeled 2018 / 19 schedule.
But the Tour’s nervousness concerning its first significant new event since the Turkish Airlines Open in 2013 is evidenced by the fact that, in a 1,000-word press release trumpeted by the Wentworth outfit at the end of October, not a single mention, not even one sentence, was made of the US$3.5m Saudi International.
Now with Khashoggi’s, the respected Washington Post journalist’s, alleged murder in the
The event would take place over the luxury Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in the King Abdullah Economic City from 31st January to 3rd February 2019, featuring current world number-one Dustin Johnson and reigning Masters champion Patrick Reed.
Kingdom’s Consulate in Istanbul looks set to cast serious doubt over the event in general and, in particular, the wellbeing of more than 150 foreign journalists and broadcasters expected to be invited - and it is said, paid - to attend and cover the tournament, as well as the 156 players and 500-plus officials and support staff.
Many of the stakeholders in the inaugural Saudi event have so far, over a month after Mr. Khashoggi’s death, remained tight-lipped about the prospects for the US$3.5m event, including the Saudi Arabian Golf Federation, The Saudi Arabia General Sports Authority, which is thought to be underwriting the event, whilst the proposed venue, the luxurious Royal Greens Golf & Country Club – designed by the European Tour IMG joint-venture European Golf Design - has also so far declined to comment.
Indeed, the Saudi event, scheduled for 31st January to 3rd February 2019 did not warrant a single mention in the 1,000-word press release the European Tour issued when announcing its International Schedule at the end of October.
Omitting a brand new US$3.5m tournament in a destination yet to be visited in dispatches is surely a sign of nervousness on the part of Wentworth bosses in accepting the best part of US$10m from a government that, from what is published, would appear to arrange for the assassination of its critics.
Meanwhile, SkySports, whose sister station SkyNews has been giving extensive coverage to the incident with correspondents in Istanbul, London, Washington and Riyadh is another stakeholder yet to comment on the status of its contractual obligation to cover the new Saudi event.
The brouhaha is a mirror-image of the difficulties Tour officials and IMG encountered in 2011 when they staged the inaugural Volvo Golf Champions event in Saudi’s near neighbour and ally Bahrain, internecine violence kicking-off as the international field, led by eventual champion Casey were flying out of the Kingdom.
One player, a former European Ryder Cup player who was unwilling to be named said, “There were clear undertones as soon as we arrived in Bahrain and it was an uncomfortable experience; I know I, and many of my fellow Tour professionals have never been so glad to get out of a destination in all our years on the circuit.”
He added, “As for the leading American’s scheduled to play, we all know how risk-averse they are and many may be reluctant to travel and take part in such a volatile destination.”
The European Tour, and its partner Volvo for which the Bahraini event was the beginning of the end of a 30-year, 80-event love affair with golf, vacillated and prevaricated over the venue for the 2012 Volvo Golf Champions, eventually extricating themselves from a three-year, US$20m agreement to remain in the tiny Gulf Kingdom on the grounds of political volatility, security and safety.
It’s interesting too that, if part of the European Tour’s raison d'être is, as is claimed, to inspire youngsters and up-and-coming golfers in new territories, it is patently failing; just where are the Russian, Bahraini, Bulgarian, Kazak, Kenyan and Qatari professionals moving up within the Tour’s development programme?
Like the Bahraini showpiece, the Saudi initiative is understood to have been the brainchild of ex-IMG Golf boss Guy Kinnings, now Deputy CEO of the European Tour, and recent developments will doubtless be an embarrassment to him so early in his tenure at the Wentworth organisation’s HQ.
But international geopolitics is a bigger game than the European Tour’s International Schedule, and much more unpredictable. With more, much more of Mr. Khashoggi brutal murder yet to come out, in the words of tour CEO Keith Pelley “we’ll [The European Tour] continue to monitor the situation.” So, consider the US£3.5m Saudi Government-funded tournament to be in pencil rather than carved in tablets of stone.
(T-B) Royal Green Golf & Country Club, in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia Patrick Reed during the Honma Hong Kong Open.
Keith Pelley , CEO of the PGA European Tour.