News & Opinion

Safest place in golf? It might be Turkey

BELEK, Turkey – Whatever you do, don't visit the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.

That advice was dispensed to me by more than a half-dozen acquaintances before I flew to the Turkish capital en route to the Turkish Airlines Open here late Sunday night. It was said in jest, but what was implied was, What the heck are you doing, going to Turkey after the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi?

The writer, a Saudi citizen who held a green card to work in the U.S., disappeared earlier this month and has been pronounced dead following what has been termed a fight inside the Saudi consulate. It has turned into a major international incident, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan doing his best to maintain a facade of diplomatic politesse with his Saudi counterparts.

My typical rejoinder consisted of, Where can one be safe these days? It seems there is a shooting at a school, an office building or even a house of worship every other day in the U.S. These are strange times. But there always seems to be some geopolitical cloud of controversy hanging over the Turkish Airlines Open.

The Turkish Airlines Open begins Thursday at the Regnum Carya Golf and Spa Resort and is the third-to-last tournament of the season as the Race to Dubai reaches its climax (tee times).

In 2016, car bombings and other terrorist activities in the country made several players fearful and nearly led to the tournament's cancellation. Rory McIlroy, Patrick Reed and Matthew Fitzpatrick were among the players to withdraw.

"I remember being on six conference calls in a 36-hour span, trying to make sure this event happened," said Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, whose sports marketing firm, ISM, helps run the event. "I said, 'If you want to completely destroy a nation's tourism industry, that's all you've got to do.' I said, 'There's no reason for it.' "

Chandler and Turkish Golf Federation president Ahmet Agaoglu reminded European Tour officials that the Regnum Carya resort in the Antalya region, the tourism capital of Turkey, is located in a secluded golfers’ haven renowned for its endless white-sand beaches and turquoise water of the Mediterranean coastline. While tourists come to the "Turkish Riviera" to enjoy the sunshine, they bring their golf clubs, too.

Chandler persuaded Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive officer, to make an eleventh-hour trip ahead of the tournament to check the security measures at the resort, which hosted the 2015 G20 Summit.

"It's one of the best hotels I've ever stayed at on the European Tour," Trevor Immelman, the 2008 Masters champion, said of the tournament host site, which is a posh version of a Cancun all-inclusive resort.

After meeting with Richard Moore, Britain’s ambassador, and Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, Pelley signed off on the tournament.

"I pleaded with Pelley to come and have a look. Within an hour, he said, 'I'm not sure what the fuss is,' " Chandler said. "If we didn't get it on then, there wouldn't have been any more Turkish Open."

Chandler noted that two years ago, some plainclothes security personnel were hired to tighten security, but he said nothing special is being done this year because the resort's security measures are at such a high level.

"Good luck getting in the gate, unless you're supposed to," he said.

The European Tour faces a unique set of challenges in terms of different languages, currencies and political unrest as it travels to dozens of countries on five continents, a concern that is more of an after-thought for the PGA Tour. Next year, the European Tour's Desert Swing will include visits to Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

"We take security very seriously," Pelley said, adding that his staff includes an internal security department to ensure player safety.

Since its debut in 2012 as an eight-man match-play event, the Turkish Airlines Open has made security a priority. Tiger Woods, McIlroy, Justin Rose and Matt Kuchar were among the competitors in the first year. Kuchar's boys – Cameron, who celebrated his fifth birthday that week with a Turkish bath-themed party, and Carson – still talk about the family's personal security detail for the week.

"They thought it was the coolest thing ever," Kuchar said. "We had not one but two security guards, and they both looked like they could play the Hulk."

Last year, Kuchar was scheduled to return to the event solo so as to avoid disrupting the boys' schooling, but he withdrew – and sacrificed a reported $300,000 appearance fee – when Turkey and the U.S. were locked in their own spat. On Oct. 8, the U.S. suspended all non-immigrant visa services with Turkey, which quickly retaliated with a similar move, effectively blocking travel between the two countries indefinitely. (The ban was lifted on Dec. 28.) That followed a warning from the State Department, which recommended U.S. citizens "carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time, and avoid travel to southeast Turkey."

"It looked like things were getting to a point where it was better not to go," Kuchar told The Associated Press. "I did some homework with a U.S. senator friend of mine who checked with the State Department. When the U.S. stops issuing visas, there's an issue."

When asked later whether he regretted his decision, Kuchar said, "I didn't have much of a choice."

But American Julian Suri, who competes regularly on the European Tour, was allowed into the country, and tournament officials arranged for several American media members to be granted visas, with little difficulty. Chandler remembers seeing Kuchar at this year's WGC Mexico Championship and shaking his head.

"I thought, What are you doing? You turned down big money because you didn't think it was safe in Turkey, but you came to Mexico City for nothing. Amazing! That is ignorance. This is as safe as it gets," Chandler said.

Turkey remains a high-risk destination for much of the world.

Tucked between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, the southern Turkish region of Antalya has become a hub for tourists all over the world. With the value of the Turkish lira plummeting, visitors from Italy and elsewhere in Europe are flocking here to take advantage of Turkey being on sale. And Istanbul is becoming better prepared to accommodate the influx of visitors. On Monday, the first phase of Istanbul New Airport, an $11.7 billion project on the shores of the Black Sea, opened for business and is expected to handle 90 million passengers a year.

That's one reason why it is tantamount to make sure everything goes off without a hitch at this week's European Tour stop. Turkish Airlines Open organizers are confident that the all-inclusive resort's safety measures and precautions will ensure another incident-free tournament.

"We treat the players like G-20 leaders," the Turkish Golf Federation’s Agaoglu said.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak