Golf stars impressed ahead of ‘massive’ first women’s tournament in Saudi Arabia

Maha Haddioui setting a shining example for female Arab golfers at Saudi Ladies International

DUBAI: When - as a child - Maha Haddioui would watch with fascination professional golf players in her native Morocco, she could never have imagined that two decades later she would be the first female Arab golfer from her country to be playing on the Ladies European Tour.

Her list of firsts grows by the day. Tomorrow she will be the only professional Arab golfer taking part at the $1million Aramco Saudi Ladies International, presented by PIF at the Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Jeddah.

She’s been called a role model and trailblazer. An engaging and incredibly calm individual, she seems to be carrying that heavy crown easily, even when the questions seem to always focus on her identity more than her expertise.

With each question comes a smile which belies the obstacles she’s had to overcome in a region of the world where entering into professional sport is not always seen as a natural, or even respectable, career path.

“I started golf when I was 12 and at first it was just a game, just having fun with it,” Haddioui said. “I decided then to go to the US to pursue my education and play golf more seriously. That was ok, but when I finished university and graduated, that’s when I started facing some of the challenges. When I wanted to be a professional golfer and play on the Ladies European Tour, a lot of people kind of didn’t understand why. They didn’t really take it seriously, and I think that was the hardest thing to deal with, the doubts and also I didn’t have other women to play with, I was just used to playing against men. That was something that improved my game.”

“My grandma played a big role in that, she was always telling me it’s ok to be scared, it’s ok to be unsure just go for it head first. That’s what I’ve always done and it’s worked out ok for now.”

Playing at the first ever professional golf tournament for women in Saudi Arabia has shone a light on her personally, and also on the giant steps the game is taking in the region.

“This is a new page for women’s golf, a new page for women in Saudi and I’m really happy and proud to be part of that as the only Arab player, for now. I’m really proud to represent my region in my region. It’s a big tournament, it’s a big statement. As we know, women’s golf is sometimes not getting the recognition it should, and having Saudi put up such a big prize fund for two tournaments in a row is a huge statement to make, to close that gap between women’s and men’s golf.”

Haddioui is no stranger to playing in the Gulf. She has already visited Saudi Arabia four times, and last week she took part at Dubai Moonlight Classic. But she sees differences in the course she steps on tomorrow.

“This week the course is in really, really good shape,” she said. “It’s a course I really know well now, the greens are amazing. It’s going to be quite different from last week, the greens are not as grainy. There is going to be a bit less to worry about when it comes to chipping, and working out the grain. It can be really windy here so that’s going to be a big focus if the wind picks up. Off the tee, it’s a straight forward course, some long holes out there. So, it’s really about hitting the right sides of the fairways and from there trying to hit as close as I can on the greens.”

Haddioui has yet to claim a title on the Ladies European Tour and doesn’t see her participation as a token gesture. She is in Jeddah to win.

“Anywhere would be special for me to get my first win,” she said. “But it would mean a lot more to happen here, because it’s somewhere I call home, it’s an Arab country. I love the course, I love the place and feel really welcome here.”

The Moroccan is also hoping that in coming years more female Arab golfers will join her on the tour, and more events in this part of the world can only raise the profile of the game.

“When I started playing, I used to look up at the pros and go watch the Lalla Meryem Cup in Morocco,” Haddioui said. “I think it’s really important to be able to see the players, to see how they work, how they play. To see they are human, to realize this is something I can definitely do, and I think in doing that and creating events, it’s going to motivate a lot of young girls to take up the game.”

To celebrate the historic nature of both tournaments, Golf Saudi will this week launch a world-first ‘Ladies First Club’, which will offer free golf to 1,000 women living across the Kingdom.

“This is how you start, golf is huge all over the world and it’s huge when it comes to growing as a person, when it comes to tourism,” Haddioui added. “Saudi is opening up on a lot of matters, and opening up to golf is very important one and I think it’s really going to grow the game and I’m really happy about that.”

While all the events and initiatives are providing opportunities, Haddioui bellies that there needs to be a change in mindset of how golf and other sports are viewed as viable career options for young Arab women.

“To be honest, I’m always so grateful that I was able to take up this game when I was younger,” she said. “It’s something that completely changed my life, travelling the world doing what I love and I wish the same for every woman in the Arab world, to be able to pursue these kinds of opportunities. I would say the hardest thing for me is, when it comes to mentalities, people don’t really understand it or see it as a job.

“Unfortunately, I was told many times, when are you going to take up a serious job, a real job,” she added. “Making people understand that this is my job, that having a good job is not necessarily just being a doctor, that’s something that will help women’s golf, or golf in general, for any athletes. Taking sports more, a sport can be a job, it can be a career, it can be something amazing, so when people start looking to that, I think there will be a lot more great Arab athletes”

She reveals she is delighted sharing her experience and advice with up and coming golfers these days, and can already see the benefits some of them are reaping.

“I get a lot of questions, we had a young 11-year-old who comes and practices with me a lot of times, she just won the World Championship for 11-year-old [age group],” Haddioui said. “Seeing things like this happen, it’s just amazing. And this week there is an amateur playing from Morocco, Ines [Laklalech]. For me it’s the first tournament I play abroad where I’m not the only Moroccan, it’s a huge improvement and something that I’m very happy about.”

But does Haddioui feel like a trailblazer?

“To be honest I don’t really think of it that way,” she said with typical humility. “I’m just doing my thing, I’m just going for my dreams and my goals, and if that can inspire young girls, then I’m very happy about that. Sometimes it is hard being the only one doing something, but if it can inspire other people, then that’s the best gift I can ever have.”

In Jeddah this week, a lot of attention will focus on her, especially if she pull off what would be a sensational win.

You get the impression, however, that she would be as happy, if not happier, when what makes her stand out today, is no longer important enough to get mentioned. Should the day come when there are other talented Arab golfers challenging her, she will know that she has done her job right all along.

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