By Kent Gray
European Tour boss Keith Pelley has moved to allay strength of field and security fears at the new NBO Oman Golf Classic and politically-challenged Commercial Bank Qatar Masters respectively and hinted Ras Al Khaimah could become the new season-ending destination for the Challenge Tour.
Quizzed by Golf Digest Middles East as to whether the graduation of the Oman Golf Classic to main tour status in 2018 could see the Challenge Tour’s season long Race to Oman become the Race to RAK, Pelley said: “You might [see that] and you might see an announcement coming certainly in the next weeks or early months.”
The apparent elevation of the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge, which in October again fell as the penultimate event on the Challenge Tour schedule behind Muscat, appears a logical progression and serves to underline the corporate importance of the Middle East and particularly the UAE to the European Tour. It would certainly be a coup for Al Hamra Golf Club.
On the main tour, the traditional early season Desert Swing of Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman has been split into two Middle East swings, meaning three trips to the Arabian Peninsula with the race to Dubai defining DP World Tour Championship in November.
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and Omega Dubai Desert Classic are now back-to-back in mid-to -late January before the debut of the Oman Golf Classic (Feb. 15-18) proceeds the Qatar Masters (Feb. 22-25) after the tour detours to Malaysia and Australia.
Given Oman clashes with the PGA Tour’s Genesis Open at famed Riviera Country Club and Qatar the Honda Classic in Florida, strength of field concerns are legitimate, especially for Almouj Golf’s debut on the big stage.
Pelley played the question with typical positivity, promising world class players without naming names.
“We’ll have conversations with our top players for sure but again they have many, many different choices. But we have such depth in terms of our world class players that I think you’ll get some world class players in Oman,” he said after a state of the nation media conference on the final afternoon of the 2016-17 season at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
“There’s many different ways to look at field strength but Oman and Qatar are full field events for our members and that’s critical for us. We’re going to have to see how the field will pan out but the bottom line, this isn’t something we just did willy nilly.
“This is something we had a tremendous amount of dialogue with our players, the fact that they love coming to the Middle East and what is also critical is the ease of travel. One of the challenges playing in 30 different countries that we have is how long it is between events in terms of travel time and obviously now with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and Oman and Qatar as a cluster, that really is addressing one of the concerns of our players, so, we’ll see.”
On the political isolation of Qatar by its Gulf state neighbours, Pelley also played a predictably straight bat.
“We don’t get involved in the political situations that’s occurring between countries other than if it affects the safety of our players and our staff. That’s the way we addressed Turkey last year and we realise it was very, very safe.
“What we’ve done is we’ve hired a new head of security, in fact we have have a department of security, we work with external sources and if we believe that if Qatar is safe for our players and our staff we will go there.”
Pelley preferred to emphasise the positive of Muscat joining the full tour.
“In terms of Oman, I think it’s a great success story to be honest with you. If we could get more events on The Challenge Tour, similar to our players that mature to the main tour, it’s a great model.
“We’ve talked about it. I know Oman is thrilled. We’re thrilled to be going to Oman. It gives us a wonderful opportunity to come to the Middle East three times in our schedule where our players love to play, the golf courses are great and the weather is terrific.
“So I’m looking forward to Oman, and I haven’t been there yet and I will make my first trip this year.”
While hinting at significant scheduling changes in 2019 and 2020 that could see the DP World Tour Championship move dates, the Canadian painted a rosy picture for the future of the event at JGE. The season-ender is contracted to be played at JGE until 2020.
“This is a terrific golf tournament. This is, again, this is where our players want to play. How can you not? We are very fortunate for it could be called The Race to Dubai and to have somebody like DP World, who has been involved for many, many years as the title partner.
“With all the other partners that we have here and the strong support that we have from Dubai, not only here, but you look at Dubai Duty Free as the host of The Irish Open; Dubai is absolutely a critical part of our current success and our future plans. We believe that this tournament here at Jumeirah Golf Estates will be here for many years to come.”