Despite growth, Middle East ‘has to be patient’ in wait for a golfing superstar
JAKARTA: Among the giant dragonflies and swooping sparrows at this weekend’s Asian Games at Pondok Indah Golf & Country Club, only two flags from the Gulf region are on display. The United Arab Emirates and Qatar are the sole representatives of a region that, courtesy of Saudi Arabia’s inaugural event next January, is expected to appear on the 2019 European Tour calendar six times.
The announcement of the Kingdom’s first event, to be held in Jeddah from January 31 to February 3, has prompted optimism that the game will quickly grow in the country.
Faisal Salhab, one of Saudi’s most promising young golfers, told Arab News earlier this year he expects the event at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club to result in “a surge of new golfers in the Kingdom”.
The goal, eventually, is to have Saudi golfers competing first on the continent and then the world stage, but those Arabs playing in Jakarta this weekend have warned patience is required.
The Dubai Desert Classic will celebrate its 30th anniversary on the European Tour next year and the Qatar Masters celebrated two decades on Tour in February, yet both have been made to wait for a first breakthrough star.
“It’s awesome to have a European Tour event in your home country and Saudi Arabia will soon feel this,” said 17-year-old Emirati Mohammed Al-Hajjeri, who finished 10-over par 72 yesterday ahead of today’s final round. “For young players, it’s great to watch the pros play in front of our eyes. It works as a motivation for young golfers to follow their passion and play golf.
“But Saudi Arabia must be patient. Hosting a European Tour event will give the national team players great experience if they can play in the event and the country will see more younger players coming through. But golf is a long-learning sport, so it will take time — although hopefully not too long.”
Golf has featured at the Asian Games since 1982, but of the 96 medals handed out over the past 36 years, not a single one has gone to a country from the Middle East. Reema Al-Heloo, the sole Arab female competing this weekend, said that while she is not even dreaming of winning, she is delighted with her experience so far.
“Maybe the other countries have not brought female players because they do not have as many players as we do or because they don’t have the experience,” said the UAE’s Al-Heloo after shooting 13-over.
“Or maybe they are scared. I was scared to come here too, to play against players of a high level and not be able to match them. But then I changed my mind and came to learn. I think everyone should think that way: Instead of coming to win, come to develop your own game.”
At 16 years old, Al-Heloo is almost half the age of her city’s Desert Classic, but she believes Saudi golf can benefit from its newfound status as a European Tour host nation.
“For me, I think it will change everything,” she said. “People are just starting to play golf in the Arab countries, so it will help so much in terms of spreading the news and growing the game in the country.”
Ali Al-Shahrani, who shot seven-over yesterday, said that while he has benefitted from Qatar hosting a European Tour event, he is unconvinced it helps the sport grow. Not broadcast on free-to-air television and with limited marketing inside the country, the Qatar Masters is “absolutely” a bigger event to foreigners than to those living there, he added.
“The European Tour event has helped us, definitely” he said. “But what we need is more outreach to the younger generations because they see it as an old people’s sport. It’s getting better, but — in Qatar at least — having a European Tour event doesn’t make much difference because there’s not that much advertising around the tournament. And since not that many people play golf, people don’t really care.”
Mike Elliott, an American golf coach working with Al-Shahrani, said the Saudi Arabia Golf Federation must remain realistic. “You don’t host a European Tour event and suddenly have an explosion of young golfers coming through,” he said. “It takes time. I don’t think it’ll impact the growth of the game at all. I could be mistaken, but I doubt it’s going to explode into a gigantic series of golf courses and investment.”
At a continental level, however, growth is likely. Bahrain skipped this week’s Asian Games event to compete in the World Military Championship in Germany, while Oman hosted its inaugural European Tour event earlier this year and is keen to compete at the 2022 Asian Games.
“As far as talent goes, there is tons,” Elliott added. “There are some really good players in Saudi; Qatar players are really good; Dubai has some really good players.”
Al-Heloo agreed: “I really do believe that the sport is growing at home. We have some really great players and we will see a lot more Gulf golfers in four years time. I have no idea how many, but I hope a lot.”