By Kent Gray
Two-time major champion Greg Norman and Troon CEO Tim Schantz have led a chorus of support for Golf Saudi’s ambitious plans to transform the Kingdom into a nation of golf lovers.
The inaugural Golf Saudi Summit may have concluded on Tuesday but the gathering of global industry heavyweights and domestic business leaders looks set to trigger profound long-term benefits for the game in Saudi.
Norman, Schantz, nine-time major champion Gary Player, course architect Robert Trent Jones Jnr, and Asian Tour and Ladies European Tour (LET) CEOs Cho Minn Thant and Alexandra Armas were among the high profile attendees flown in to assist Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation fast-track the development of a new “eco-system” to grow the game.
Greg Norman Golf Course Design (GNGCD) is already well entrenched in the revolution, having inked a deal in September to build a 27-hole course in Wadi Safar valley in Diriyah, 30 minutes north-west of the centre of Riyadh.
Beyond his obvious commercial stake, the Australian is impressed by the foundations already taking root including a focus on access and infrastructure, events, national team and academies, mass participation and tourism. It hit home to the Great White Shark at a junior clinic he attended on the sidelines of the summit in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC).
“I think the most powerful thing for me yesterday was with the kids. To see the kids’ eyes and their passion for learning how to play the game and just chip the ball, truly got to me,” Norman said.
“No matter where you are in the world, you should invest in grassroots programmes and Golf Saudi, I think, is at the forefront of that, more than anyone else to tell you the truth and that’s how it is going to grow, right.”
Troon already manages Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in KAEC which hosted the just-completed second edition of the Saudi International, won on Sunday by Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell.
Schantz sees huge potential for the game and companies willing to partner with Golf Saudi’s vision and local residential developers.
“I think this is one of the greatest opportunities to come around. It’s been 15 years since I’ve been to a conference that’s got this level of energy, excitement or heat and that tells you that something special is going on here,” Schantz said.
“It’s my first time to the Kingdom. I haven’t seen a lot of the country but I’m talking to people and hearing just how beautiful it is and how quickly things are changing.”
— Golf Saudi جولف السعودية (@Golf_Saudi) February 4, 2020
Qiddiya, a new “entertainment megaproject” currently under construction 40km outside Riyadh as part of the Kingdom’s ‘Vision 2030’ socio-economic development programme, is one area experiencing rapid change. Golf will play a central role in the new city with Sir Nick Faldo (Faldo Design) linked to one of two championship courses as you can see from this YouTube video posted in September:
“Saudi Golf has been a very important partner for us,” said Qiddiya CEO Mike Reininger during the Golf Saudi Summit.
“We have a lot on our plate to make Qiddya come together. We’re going to have two championship-level courses that will be surrounded by a series of other somewhat non-traditional, sort of exciting golf opportunities as a way of introducing the youth of the Kingdom [to the game] and trying to capture their imagination.”
Majed Al Sorour, the dual CEO of Golf Saudi and Saudi Golf Federation, sees golf as the conduit to a healthier and happier nation. That vision spawned a #PoweroftheGame discussion at the summit.
“We are getting to a place where we need to add value. Delivering the value is beyond golf, it’s an ambitious plan that we will keep up to get that Vision 2030, to transform and [so golf can] become an integral part of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“The lifestyle is different than the sport itself. So people want to live around greenery and when we build golf courses we want to introduce to them the lifestyle change by openness, by inclusion, by having people walking around in beautiful green fields. We think it is going to transform the idea of people from seeing it to doing it [playing golf].”
The Saudi International has star billing in Golf Saudi’s events portfolio but inclusion is also a key pillar of the over arching remit. It will see the $3.5 million European Tour event joined by a trailblazing LET event at Royal Greens next month. LET CEO Alexandra Armas hailed the strategy employed by Golf Saudi over and above the $1 million event that is an obvious boon for the rebuilding LET.
“Golf Saudi have done a very clever approach to growing the game, making sure they brought the big names and drawn the right attention. They have suddenly, you know, opened this window into what Saudi has to offer.”
CEO Asian Tour Cho Minn Thant can also see opportunities.
“I think we share common goals. I think a lot of nations that support the Asian Tour, not just in Asia but also Australasia, Africa and in Europe, it’s very much the goal of the host nations to see their domestic players prosper. It’s no different here and I think working together with Golf Saudi and hopefully doing some tournaments over here would be a perfect fit.”
Player, as he often does, had the last word after also attending the junior clinic.
“Golf is a game forever. I tell young people, play it, it’s a passport to the world,” the 84-year-old South African said.
“It enables you to meet wonderful people and it’s a challenge. What I strongly advise is that they teach them golf in the schools. I did a clinic yesterday and all these mothers and children all get together as a family. I just loved it.”