By Kent Gray
The European Tour has led the scramble to spice up professional golf’s staple diet of 72-hole strokeplay events with innovative formats and a new event planned for the Middle East might just be the most interesting yet.
Golf Digest Middle East has learned Jordan’s new Ayla Golf Club is poised to host a mixed gender, full-field strokeplay tournament in 2019 pitting Ladies European Tour (LET) players against men at opposite ends of the pro spectrum – the Challenge Tour and Staysure Tour (formerly European Senior Tour).
Full details are to be confirmed “shortly” but it is understood 40 players from each of the LET, Staysure and Challenge Tour circuits will tee it up in pursuit of a single title and a share of the same purse. The kicker is that the women, seniors and Challenge Tour players will play from separate tees at the Greg Norman-designed layout in Aqaba – a tricky calculation for organisers attempting to equalise the anticipated distance advantages of the younger men.
The European Tour’s Dubai bureau chief Nick Tarratt confirmed the Jordan event during a media conference Monday to unveil the Challenge Tour’s new season-long ‘Road to Ras Al Khaimah”, culminating in the elevated Ras Al Khaimah Challenge Tour Grand Final.
Tarratt confirmed the Al Hamra G.C. event was the first of a number of Middle East “initiatives” in the pipeline before alluding to on-going talks for events in Jordan, Bahrain and Kuwait.
“We are in discussions with a number of countries, venues and tourism authorities in the Middle East region about future European Tour initiatives. Some discussions are quick, others will have a slower burn [time],” Tarratt said.
“In addition to the recently launched Saudi Arabia European Tour event at the end of January 2019 at King Abdullah Economic City, abutting onto the Desert Swing of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, we are in conversations with partners in Jordan about hosting a ‘first of its kind’ mixed professional tournament, involving representation from the LET, Challenge Tour and Staysure Tour that we hope to sign and make announcements shortly for a 2019 tournament.“
Events where men and women play separate events simultaneously are not new. The LET and the PGA Tour of Australasia co-hosted the Oates Vic Open in February while the Trophee Hassan II and Lalla Meryem Cup are European Tour and LET events respectively again set to be played side-by-side in Rabat, Morocco next week.
Women have also teed it up in PGA Tour events previously, led by the legendary Babe Zaharias who blazed a trail at the 1938 Los Angeles Open – six years after winning two track and field gold medals at the 1932 LA Olympic Games. Annika Sorenstam, Suzy Whaley and Michelle Wie have followed suit since while Dame Laura Davies is set to play in the Staysure Tour’s Shipco Masters in Denmark from June 1-3.
But the proposed Jordan event is believed to be the first time a full field of men and women have played for the same title and prize-money in an event that doesn’t fall into the exhibition, made-for-TV or silly-season space.
If confirmed, it will continue a period of innovation under the watch of European Tour supremo Keith Pelley. It started with the World Super 6 Perth two years ago, a strokeplay event which morphs into a final day of matchplay knockout matches. Then came the €1 million GolfSixes in England, an event played by two-man teams in a greensomes format; an additional four wildcard teams, including women will compete in the second edition at Centurion Club north of London next month.
Later in May, Ryder Cupper Thomas Pieters will host the new Belgian Knockout where the opening 36 holes will follow a familiar strokeplay format before the leading 64 players then go head-to-head in knockout strokeplay matches contested over nine holes on the weekend to determine the winner. Thereafter follows the Shot Clock Masters in Austria in June, the first tournament in professional golf to use a shot clock on every shot as part of the European Tour’s bid to combat slow play.
Each player in the 120-man field will have 50 seconds for the first player in a group to play any given shot, 40 seconds for subsequent players. Players will incur a one-shot penalty for each bad time incurred and these will be shown as a red card against their name on the leaderboard. Each player will have the right to call two ‘time-outs’ during a round which will permit them twice the usually allotted time to play the shot.
Where ever the new formats lead, Tarratt is confident the Middle East will remain a hotbed of the global game ahead of the 30th anniversary of the pioneering Desert Classic next January.
“The Middle East has always been a key part of the world for the European Tour and in the future it seems it will be even more important,” he said. “The region is very much getting stronger. The model of play…with tourism authorities, the golf facilities, the hospitality, it is a winning model that we hope to expand further in this region.”
So more events are potentially on the horizon?
“Yes certainly. We have the window of October to March-April – where else in the world would they like to play? I did a list of players who had come to Jumeirah Golf Estates [to practice at the European Tour Performance Institute] only since the end of November up until now…101 European Tour players have come to JGE and Dubai so they come by choice. It is the destination of choice.”