Saudi Arabia continues in its efforts to revolutionise the world of golf this week with a fortnight of women’s events; the same week, Greg Norman was announced as the figurehead of plans it’s hoped will lead to a Super League in the men’s game.
Golf is one of several sports that Saudi Arabia is promoting, against a background of worldwide concerns over its record on human rights and accusations of ‘sportswashing’ by many media outlets.
Still, these are fascinating times for golf, with the Saudi Arabian influence leaving no doubt that revenue streams and disruptive developments will give the tour bosses some real food for thought.
The seemingly endless riches of the country’s Public Investment Fund prove very persuasive in putting the human rights concerns many people have regarding Saudi Arabia to one side – just ask fans of English Premier League soccer team Newcastle United, which has been boosted by Saudi investment, or Vince McMahon and the rest of the WWE roster, which has been promoting events in Saudi Arabia since 2004.
Golf, like most other sports, always has, and probably always will follow, the money. It is no surprise that big-name players and leading schedules have already headed to Saudi Arabia, and that is undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg.
This week’s Aramco Saudi Ladies International, an event sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour, has attracted four major winners to the event, with Georgia Hall, Anna Nordqvist, Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee all making their way to Saudi.
The tournament returned to Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City after it made history last year as the first professional women’s sporting event to be staged in Saudi Arabia.
“I know the impact this event had with Saudi girls last year, with more than 1,000 signing up to learn to play. So it sounds like I’ll be playing somewhere that’s really starting to fall in love with golf.” Ko said, explaining why she accepted the invitation to go and play in the country.
The equivalent men’s tournament staged in Saudi Arabia by the European Tour over the last three years has witnessed a similar level of PR spin from the stars who have taken part.
“I’m excited to go play and see a place in the world I’ve never been,” Phil Mickelson said when he played last year, “I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You’ll be OK. I’m excited to experience this for the first time.”
The event switches to the Asian Tour next year, becoming the organisation’s flagship event. Such moves amid the Saudi influence are adding fuel to the feeling that the domination by the PGA Tour over the current structure of the men’s sport may be under threat.
Greg Norman said, “This is only the beginning,” this week following his unveiling as chief executive of Liv Golf Enterprises. They have committed $197 million to ten new Asian Tour events spread out over the next ten years.
Norman, the former world number one, was vague when it came to details of how the Saudi funded project is likely to develop, but he did confirm the new Asian Tour events will involve tournaments in both Europe and the Middle East.
The European Tour struck up a strategic alliance with the PGA Tour last year in an attempt to protect their golfing territory. The two partnered following a rejection from the continental circuit to an approach from the Premier Golf League (PGL), who like the Saudis, have plans to try and revolutionise the professional game.
The Saudis initially backed the PGL, but that is no longer the case with the country looking to form their version of a Formula One type season for the world’s leading golfers.
Despite their vast amounts of money, neither the PGL nor the Saudis have signed any players to date. All that they both currently have is a lot of ideas, plans and cash.
The PGL hopes to hold talks with the PGA Tour moving forward; they believe they have come up with a plan to take the golf game to new levels while hugely benefitting rank and file members of the American circuit. The PGA Tour has so far spurned their advances for talks, choosing instead to move forward in tandem with the European Tour.
The challenge right now for the European Tour and the PGA Tour is to judge how serious the threat is to their primacy in golf, outside the four majors.