News & Opinion

For good of game, golf needs to be in Turkey

Just as pingpong between U.S. and China in 1970s helped thaw Cold War, golf can do a world of good

I’m off to Turkey next week, and my editor asked if I would consider boycotting the Turkish Airlines Open to show my disdain for the country's recent incursion into Syria.

It’s nice that my editor has that much confidence in my reputation that a boycott of an event that I have attended since it was called the Turkish Airlines World Golf Cup in 2012 somehow would gain attention on the world stage, but I suspect that it would not.

Round 4 of the Turkish Airlines Open by the Ministry of Youth and Sport
An aerial view of Montgomerie Maxx Royal and Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast, site of next week’s Turkish Airlines Open.

Back in 2012, the event in Turkey included Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, both of whom were paid handsomely and joined by six other players in a round-robin event that was won by Justin Rose. That same week, the European Tour announced the inaugural Turkish Airlines Open was to take place the next year.

At the time, Turkey was an unknown quantity to me, but getting an invite with all expenses paid was hard to turn down.
After a couple of days in Istanbul and then a week in Antalya on the Mediterranean coast, I realized that Turkey was so much more than I had expected.

In 2019, China, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are considered by much of the West to be bad actors on the world stage, and many observers ask why golf has any interest in playing tournaments in these countries.

Usually when golf goes to a politically questionable country, the response by those in golf is to “grow the game,” which is commendable. Though there is some truth behind that answer, the real reason is more self-serving and expected.

“Grow the game” has been the mantra used by every tour or governing body when pressed about a delicate decision to bring a tournament to a specific country.

Growing the game is a laudable goal, but does it need to occur in countries where government actions are in question?

For most professional athletes, the main motivator for playing in a tournament in one of these countries is that their appearance usually is tied to some sort of compensation. At the WGC HSBC Champions next week in Shanghai, the Turkish Airlines Open the following week and the Saudi International in January, the tournaments offer significant prize money and/or appearance fees that get the attention of the world’s best players.

Golf, as it turns out, can be a significant money maker for a nation looking not only to legitimize itself in the eyes of the world, but also bring key business decisionmakers to the country.

Golf’s demographics run off the charts compared with other sports’, and nurturing the game overseas can pay dividends far down the road.

Look no further than Dubai, the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates.

In 1989, the first Omega Dubai Desert Classic took place, with Englishman Mark James victorious.

In talking with former players of the event in its early days, Dubai was little more than a small town on the Persian Gulf. Over time, and with the help of golf, it is now a global hub for business in the Middle East.

Though it still has issues with human rights, Dubai is a beacon for the region and shows what can happen when world-class golf is introduced to a nation.

The area that hosts the Saudi International, King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea, is hoping that golf can do for the kingdom what the game has done for Dubai.

Sports and boycotts never have done well and actually have hurt the people involved, mainly the athletes. Just look at the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. athletes who spent years training and preparing for the games were left watching them on TV. The Russians stayed in Afghanistan until 1989, proving that the boycott was ineffective.

Rather, consider the so-called pingpong diplomacy of the early 1970s.

Table tennis proved to be the ice-breaker for the U.S. and China to start talking. The event was a blending of statesmanship and sports that eventually brought China into the mainstream and helped thaw the Cold War.

As a journalist, I find that going to these countries allows a glimpse into their people, who truly are not much different than Americans.

Instead of reading or watching what is happening in a country, we learn first-hand about the issues when we make the trek to these far-flung destinations.

The world is too small to ignore any country, and hopefully the emergence of golf in more nations will be part of catalyst that will change certain domestic and foreign policies for the better.

Golf can be a harbinger for change. That in itself should be enough to thwart any reproach and is the reason I will be on a plane next week bound for Turkey.