KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – Ernie Els still remembers his first trip to Dubai, in 1993, when two buildings no more than 30-40-stories tall were considered its version of the World Trade Center.
"It's changed so much," Els said. "If you go there today, it now kind of looks like the Manhattan skyline."
The next year, he won his first European Tour title, in Dubai. Fast forward to 1998 and Els tells the story of the time when he played with Mohammed Rashid Alabbar, an Emirati billionaire and the real estate tycoon behind Emaar Properties.
"There was a big, tall building that they just put up,” Els said, “and I said, 'Geez, what's that?' He said, 'Buddy, this is just the start. You're not going to recognize this place in 10 years,' and he was right."
The economic growth in Dubai since 1989, when the first Dubai Desert Classic was staged at the Emirates Golf Club, has been staggering and matched in a golfing sense by the growth of the European Tour. The Dubai stop marked the tour's first significant venture outside of mainland Europe, heralded the birth of the Desert Swing with Abu Dhabi (since 2006 and a Rolex Series event for the first time) in January and Qatar (debuting in 1998) and Oman (a relative newbie since 2018) in February hosting events and has become a stronghold of the European Tour, which also holds its season-ending championship, the DP World Championship in Dubai.
Beginning Jan. 31, a new event will take hold in Saudi Arabia, underlining the importance of the Middle East to the European Tour. This year, six tournaments will be played on the Arabian Peninsula, and a seventh could be added in the future, according to tour executive director Keith Pelley.
The Saudi Arabia event will be played amid international criticism of the kingdom for its role in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist. The Oct. 2 slaying, in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, has been linked to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, calling into question how committed the country’s leadership is to truly instituting “a cultural renaissance.” Just last year, for example, women were given the right to drive cars.
Golf’s elite players largely have remained silent about the Khashoggi killing. Appearance fees – a practice banned by the PGA Tour – that typically run about $1 million or so will guarantee a world-class field opposite the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Four of the top five-ranked players in the world – Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau – plus major champions Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Henrik Stenson are among the stars committed to the inaugural Saudi International.
Els, a four-time major champion, visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in late April for the grand opening of Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, Saudi Arabia's first championship course. It was designed by European Golf Designs and is managed by Troon Golf. At the time, Els marveled at the similarities between Dubai then and now and the potential for golf in the kingdom.
Golf is a key component in “Vision 2030,” a plan to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop public-service sectors such as recreation and tourism. The golf course was part of the master plan for King Abdullah Economic City that was developed when the city was conceived in 2005.
"Vision 2030 is a blueprint for the future of Saudi Arabia, not only economically but also culturally and socially," said Fahd Al Rasheed, group CEO and managing director of Emaar the Economic City, the master developer of King Abdullah Economic City. "An important component of Vision 2030 is encouraging a more active lifestyle within the Saudi population."
Royal Greens is at the heart of the Al Murooj residential district, the largest privately funded new city development in the world and the first dedicated golf community in Saudi Arabia. It is one of 34 facilities under construction, at an estimated investment of 3 billion riyal, or about $800 million.
But the 2008 global economic crisis delayed the Al Murooj project and shifted the developmental efforts to the city’s mission-critical elements. Work on the golf course recommenced in 2014.
"The first thing you need to build is the hard infrastructure – the roads, power supply, water and waste networks and ICT [information and communication technologies] connectivity that the city needs," Al Rasheed said.
"The Saudis have put the roads in first," Els said. "In Dubai, they put the buildings first, and then they came with the roads. So, I think that they've figured out a better way."
Royal Greens is a desert oasis. The par-4 15th hole swings left to a green overlooking the Red Sea, and the par-3 16th hugs the coastline to the left and is sure to become the most talked-about and photographed hole on the course. Royal Greens also benefits from a fully-floodlit back nine, for cooler evening play. The 18-hole, par-72 course designed by Dave Sampson of European Golf Design plays just over 6,900 yards and is the only grass course on the west coast of Saudi Arabia, but it won’t be the last. On April 28, Pelley struck a ceremonial first tee shot and declared, "If I've learned nothing else in the last three years on the job, it's about the golf course, and this is going to be a great course. It's a natural fit for our strategy for the Middle East."
As Saudi Arabia attempts to undergo a cultural renaissance, it sees hosting its first professional golf tournament as an opportunity to showcase itself as a business, tourist and leisure destination that is open to the world. And Royal Greens is just the start. As many as 13 more golf courses are in the pipeline, with the timeline and plans for the construction of new courses to be determined by the Saudi Golf Federation.
“It is no accident that golf finds itself as the center of our sports development,” Al Rasheed said. “The game is as highly regarded as any sport and is one that we believe will be perfectly placed in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
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: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak