Golf Monthly's Michael Weston travels to Saudi Arabia for the Grand Opening of new European Tour venue, Royal Greens Golf & Country Club
Golf Benefits From Vision 2030 In Saudi Arabia
In March, the European Tour confirmed it would be taking its first steps into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with a new tournament scheduled for 2019. It was a relatively low-key announcement with most players and fans too preoccupied with Augusta to take much notice of what would be happening in ten months’ time. Besides, this year the European Tour will visit 30 countries – so what’s the significance of Saudi Arabia joining the ‘Desert Swing’?
Three years ago, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, launched Vision 2030, an economic programme that envisages a modernised country, one not dependent on oil revenue. Key to this is the $100bn invested into King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, pronounced “cake”), a new desert megacity. Royal Greens Golf & Country Club is one of its initial developments designed to increase national participation in sport and promote a healthy lifestyle.
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The golf bug has bitten Fahd Al Rasheed, Group CEO and MD, KAEC. “This is an opportunity to start a new sport in a country that has very little experience in golf,” he says. “I’m taking it up myself and I’m pretty bad at it. When you do what I do you have to be an optimist and I am an optimist about my game. I’ll get really good.” Conquering golf should be a walk in the park for the person charged with leading this extraordinary project. You’d back him to succeed. No question.
Keith Pelley, European Tour CEO, is impressed with what he’s seen at Royal Greens, but is also fully appreciative of the bigger picture. “Firstly, the course is absolutely spectacular,” Pelley says. “It’s in immaculate shape and the players will enjoy it. We really pride ourselves at the European Tour of leading the world in transformation of the game and to play a small role in the brilliant vision which is 2030, which is transforming this country, that is why we’re most honoured.”
Pelley stripes his drive down the 1st as Saturday’s Grand Opening gets underway. It’s a peach of a drive, quite fitting for the occasion. The European Tour supremo is right, too. The course is spectacular.
A stroll through the grandest of clubhouses whets the appetite. If it’s possible for global stars of the game to still be wowed by luxury, they will be here. Ernie Els, who’s also here to celebrate the opening, says: “The course is great, it really is. It reminds me a little of the Els Club in Dubai, with its bunkering. It’s conditioning is fantastic. You’ve got two holes near the ocean, too, it’s beautiful.”
One of those is the signature 16th, an intimidating, yet beautiful par-3 with the clear blue waters of the Red Sea to the left. Put one on the beach here and you’ll be fishing your ball away from the crabs. A short par-4 follows, before closing with a dramatic par-5 that features a large lake to the left of a narrow green. It will set up a wonderful finale to the tournament.
Perhaps the best feedback for Fahd Al Rasheed comes from another invitee, Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston. “I’m definitely going to book an extra day when I’m here next to do some fishing,” he says, after enjoying a trip up the coast. “There are over 60 different species of shark here. With the weather and the boating experience, it’s amazing.”
It’s about more than the golf here and Beef’s words will be music to the ears of the KAEC hierarchy. Bouchaib El Jadiani, PGA Golf Professional at Dirab Golf & Country Club, tells me he’s seen more progression and change in Saudi Arabia in the last 12 months than he has in the previous 20 years. There was further evidence of this at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah where some of the biggest names in WWE were arriving for the ‘Greatest Royal Rumble’. Not long ago it would have been inconceivable to hold an event of this nature in Saudi Arabia. That it didn’t pass without controversy proves there are still sensitive boundaries to be respected and that modernisation has its limits, for now at least.
Saudi Arabia’s golf venture is one to celebrate and it will be a joy to watch the event unfold next January. Let’s hope it has a lasting impact and plays its part, however small, in promoting a healthy and active lifestyle.