QUES­TION MARK OVER NEW EURO­PEAN TOUR SAUDI EVENT

New Zealand Golf Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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.

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