The tournament vacuum on the PGA Tour this week represents something of a rarity: a scheduled bye week during one of the busiest, most lucrative portions of the season.
The European Tour faced the prospect of a bye week during a crucial stretch of its upcoming season, too, in the winter Desert Swing.
In fact, by now, it should have been classified as a bye-bye week.
Incomprehensibly, more than three months after multiple Western and Middle Eastern nations condemned Qatar for its reputed support of global terrorism and began economic sanctions, the European Tour event in the Qatari capital Doha remains on the 2018 schedule.
Taking a page from its bad news-averse American cousins, the Euro Tour has engaged in a game of political duck and cover. Tour officials offered few updates and zero comment on the business situation in Qatar, which stands accused of funding terrorist organizations Hezbollah, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The sand shifts quickly in the Persian Gulf region, but for the European Tour, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters has become politically toxic. With much of the world already engaged in sanctions against Qatar, ditching the tournament would have been the right move.
Instead, here is the explanation from the tour’s Wentworth headquarters: “The European Tour constantly monitors what is happening in all of our host countries, taking any advice from the Home Office where appropriate, and we will continue to do so for all of our tournaments around the world.”
That statement gets top marks for its ambiguity, lack of substance and corporate doubletalk. (Note to the Yanks: The Home Office is the United Kingdom’s equivalent of the State Department.)
The European Tour hasn’t released its 2018 schedule, but the Qatar Golf Association, which hosts the event, said in an email on Wednesday that the Qatar Masters is set for Feb. 22-25, which means it no longer will be part of the contiguous Desert Swing. The likely rationale for the scheduling move underscores the idiocy of proceeding at all.
That is, the United Arab Emirates in June banned air travel to and from neighboring Qatar and closed its common borders to vehicular traffic. As it stands, players couldn’t trek from Abu Dhabi to Doha or back to Dubai to complete the three-event Desert Swing. The two UAE tournaments typically bracket the Qatar event.
Generally, dumping a 20-year-old event with one of the biggest purses of the early season isn’t easy. Major winners Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Paul Lawrie, Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson are among Qatar’s past winners. That said, the Ladies European Tour last month scrapped its event in Qatar, which was set for December.
Golf long has been tone deaf to political winds. Amid the racial division of South Africa’s 20th-century policy of apartheid, tournaments were staged in Sun City. Several top tour players ignored the cultural ramifications and cashed their paychecks, anyway. Race and gender issues arose at Augusta National and several courses in the British Open rotation. Organizations such as the PGA of America and U.S. Golf Association have endured criticism for conducting business at venues owned by Donald Trump after his divisive rhetoric en route to the White House.
But when American presidents and Western leaders specifically cite links to terrorism, that’s a different matter. Moreover, for the UAE and Saudi Arabia to publicly accuse their Arab neighbors in Doha of harboring radical Islamic groups is historic fare that makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like a spitwad spat.
So, again, Wentworthians, why avoid the moral high ground?
After all, it’s not without precedent that events in the Middle East have been shelved. A European Tour event in nearby Bahrain was shut down after its inaugural staging in 2011 – and Formula 1 pulled its 2011 race from the Gulf nation – following increasingly hostile political activity and riot-related deaths in the kingdom.
The European Tour has confirmed that contracts with title sponsor Commercial Bank and host organization Qatar Golf Association expire after the 2018 event, so buying their way out of the deal shouldn’t be hugely cost-prohibitive.
Given the alarming socio-political accusations, an immediate withdrawal from Qatar would have generated considerable acclaim in golf circles, but the European Tour instead has slinked along in silence. Meanwhile, others seemingly have leaked the 2018 game plan: The Emirates Golf Federation has posted its list of upcoming major events in the UAE, and the Abu Dhabi and Dubai events are listed consecutively in late January, without Qatar in between.
“The European Tour constantly monitors the situation in all our host countries around the world, including reviewing our options in the Middle East,” the tour said in a slightly updated statement last week. “And we will continue to do so.”
Churchillian, it ain’t.
At a certain point, even for a tour that is nowhere near as flush financially as the American circuit, common sense and decency has to overrule political sensitivities. While the Gulf region has drawn the top players and produced some of the best events on the European schedule for a quarter-century, and the tour maintains an office in Dubai, Qatar is politically radioactive, and tour chief executive Keith Pelley should know it.
Does it always have to be about the dirhams and dollars?
Clearly, after years of watching golf make so many wrong moves, that question is rhetorical.
Steve Elling lived in the UAE for two years and has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @EllingYelling