The Saudi International was the centre of a far bigger debate last week, but there were positives to take from the European Tour's first visit to The Kingdom
Was The Saudi International A Success?
Well, that went well. No, really, it did. It went well for Dustin Johnson, whose week’s work bagged the American well over a million dollars; it went well for the star players who pocketed hefty appearance fees on top of their prize money; and you suspect it will get the thumbs up from the Saudi government, too, who helped fund the $3.5 million tournament and got the added bonus of a big name winner.
It’s tempting to leave it there. However, that would ignoring the positives that resulted from the European Tour’s decision – albeit a hugely controversial one – to add Saudi Arabia to its rota for the first time in its 47-year history – and there have been many.
First up, there was the Masters champion Patrick Reed, a player who’s had his fair share of criticism in the past – not all of it justified – showing his warmer side. Prior to getting his tournament underway, ‘Captain America’ took time out to inspire the next generation of Saudi Arabian sporting stars by visiting World Academy in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC). Genuine joy was felt amongst anyone there, including a grinning Reed.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” he said. “They had some awesome questions, and we just had a blast. To be able to go out and hang out with the kids, especially in a place I’ve never been before, being in Saudi for the first time, it was a lot of fun.
“A passion of mine has always been to try to grow the game. A lot of times, children, when they’re at events they can’t get close enough to the ropes. They don’t really see much. If I can bring golf to them, it’s a lot of fun.
“So being able to do clinics, hang out with them and show them the fun side of golf, it’s going to get them more interested and have a little more fun with it and get more people playing.”
Ian Poulter also spent time with local children, the Ryder Cup star treating an enthusiastic young audience to a golf clinic on the beach before showcasing his skills with a football. Former PGA Tour pro Brandel Chamblee would have us believe this is just part of Saudi’s big PR Stunt.
“I cannot imagine what economic incentive it would take to get me to go to a place that is so egregiously on the wrong side of human rights,” said the Golf Channel analyst on the eve of the tournament.
Even if there was truth in Chamblee’s claims, these school children would not have cared much for being hoodwinked. Golf, and sport in general, are rightly celebrated for helping install important life lessons in young people. In Saudi this week, I witnessed first hand the power of golf and the important role stars like Poulter and co have in promoting the game worldwide.
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Returning to Jeddah and the flight home to the UK, my taxi driver points towards the King Abdullah Sports City where Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus recently played AC Milan for the Italian Super Cup in front of capacity crowd of over 50,000 fans.
He describes the excitement he felt when securing his ticket to watch football’s “greatest ever player”, and there are tears in his eyes when he pleas with his country to continue its efforts to embrace social change. What about golf’s current greatest, Justin Rose? He admits he’s not sure who he is. A large group of children further down the Red Sea coast do. It’s fanciful to expect golf to take off here just yet, but that’s not really been the objective. You have to start somewhere…