By Kent Gray
The first counterpunch to the powerful PGA Tour-European Tour strategic alliance has been landed with Golf Saudi, once proudly pro-Europe, hitching its wagon to the awakened Asian Tour.
After three seasons as one of the European Tour’s highest-ranking events, the Saudi International presented by SoftBank Investment Advisers is set to become the Asian Tour’s new “marquee” event in a landmark 10-year agreement.
Scheduled for Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City from February 3-6, the tournament has had its purse bolstered to $5 million – a $1.5m increase – as a result. While no star signings were initially mentioned, Golf Saudi are also again promising to assemble “one of the strongest fields in world golf”.
Monday’s announcement won’t have come as a major surprise to the now cosy PGA and Euro Tour powerbrokers at Ponte Vedra Beach in Florida or at Wentworth in England but it is a seismic moment nonetheless as golf’s global battle lines are redrawn.
Insiders see the Asian Tour, dormant since the COVID-19 outbreak, as a sleeping giant reawakened thanks to the global disrupter role – not to mention the fiscal might – being played by Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation in both the men’s and women’s games. Monday’s announcement is seen as a forerunner to the Kingdom bankrolling a new-look Asian Tour which continues to be loosely linked to the controversial Super Golf League.
In a joint statement, Golf Saudi and the Asian Tour said the sanctioning of the Saudi International “represents a revitalised strategy, intended to elevate the well-established event in significant emerging markets around the world.”
But PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and Euro Tour CEO Keith Pelley will no doubt be reading between the lines of key statements made by both Golf Saudi CEO Majed Al-Sorour and Asian Tour Commissioner and CEO, Cho Minn Thant.
“This partnership will unlock many opportunities for players, sponsors and fans of the game,” said Majed Al-Sorour, who also doubles as the CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation.
“Most importantly, we are eager to help build a more inclusive game for all eligible professional golfers that spans borders and cultures by fostering collaboration with major tours and see this as an exciting first step on that journey.
“Today marks a significant development for our flagship golf event and our vision to strengthen the depth of world-class golf events, both in the GCC and also on the international stage. The importance and potential of Asia’s role in world golf is undeniable, not least due to its position as a global economic powerhouse.”
Cho described the deal as an “outstanding development for the Asian Tour that will create significant benefits for our membership, key stakeholders, and fans alike.” He said the Saudi International, which boasts Dustin Johnson as a two-time champion and is managed by golf and sports management group IMG, would create “new commercial prospects” and enable a “greater number of professional golfers to qualify and compete for life-changing opportunities”.
“The Saudi International presented by SoftBank Investment Advisers is a world-class tournament which has become truly global. We are thrilled that it will be the showcase event of the Asian Tour’s season, spearheading our expansion into new frontiers,” said Cho.
The Saudi International will mark the start of a revamped 2022 schedule for the Asian Tour which looks back to the Bandar Malaysia Open in early March, 2020, as its last event pre the coronavirus pandemic. Monday’s media release said a combined schedule to complete its stalled 2020/2021 season was being finalised and would be unveiled in “due course”.
There will be relief, especially regionally, that the 2022 Saudi International hasn’t been scheduled directly opposite the elevated Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic but the impending 2022 Asian Tour calendar is sure to make Monahan and Pelley take note when it is finally released.
As former Ryder Cup captain and European Tour board member Paul McGinley warned the Daily Mail last month, the global game should prepare itself for major disruption for the next three or four years.
McGinley told respected Daily Mail golf correspondent Derek Lawrenson that he expects the Saudi-financed takeover of the Asian Tour to succeed, meaning the European Tour is set to lose other big events such as the Hong Kong and Malaysian Opens.
The European Tour’s next move in relation to its 2022 schedule will indeed be fascinating.
With the Saudi International, which has spent large on appearance fees to attract the game’s biggest names, now part of a revitalised Asian Tour schedule, a seemingly inescapable tug-of-war for the game’s biggest names has begun.
“We’re resigned to that kind of thing happening and the lawyers being involved,” McGinley said.
“If the Saudi event becomes part of the Asian Tour, will Jay Monahan give the defending champion Dustin Johnson a release to get his $2million appearance fee, or Keith Pelley grant releases for the leading Europeans to play? That’s the path we’re on, sadly.
“We’ve spoken to the Saudis on a number of occasions. We would love them to continue to be part of our tour but they see it a different way. They think golf is stale and want to come in as disrupters and change the whole DNA of the game.”
The Kingdom is understood to have offered the European Tour unimaginable riches to partner in their new vision for the pro game which includes players reportedly owning F1-style teams, not to mention tens of millions in sign-on and appearance fees. But when the European Tour sided instead with the PGA Tour, the Saudi financiers looked closer to home; the Kingdom is geographically part of Asia after all. And the Asian Tour is only part of the complex and increasingly fractious puzzle.
The PGA Tour quickly informed players of immediate bans if they align with the Super Golf League. But what if the Saudi International is “only” part of the Asian Tour? Would the PGA or European Tour be so bolshie as to stop a player appearing on a circuit that is also a member of the International Federation of PGA Tours? Or will the disruption McGinley warns of mean the total disintegration of golf’s long-established halls of power?
The PGA-European Tour alliance has already begun building a more global tour by giving next year’s Scottish Open (another Rolex Series event like Dubai) and a couple of smaller PGA events – the Barbasol Championship and the Barracuda Championship – co-sanctioned status, as well as reducing the number of World Golf Championship events.
McGinley hinted Dubai, the flagship BWM PGA Championship at Wentworth and maybe even the Dubai Duty Free-sponsored Irish Open could soon follow suit. So perhaps last week’s Dubai Desert Classic announcement is just the first circling of wagons in the Middle East, such an important region for the European Tour.
McGinley expects new UK events to suck up some of the suddenly empty spaces in the European Tour calendar given the Asian Tour exodus, insists the ET won’t eventually be “eaten up by the PGA Tour” and also doubts Saudi money will be able to trump tradition. In the long run that is, but not before a massive legal scrap.
“Ultimately, we’ll get to where everyone wants to be. But we are going to have to suck up some disruption,” McGinley said.
“The Saudi lawyers reckon the PGA Tour can’t stop the players from joining and still being members but Jay [Monahan] is adamant that he can. Unfortunately, it’s looking like we’ll end up with a massive legal case.”