Golf WorldFebruary 22, 2012

Building Blocks

The Middle East swing underscores the European Tour's growing reach--and power--in the game

Fort Bahrain is the backdrop for a golfer at Bahrain GC, one of the region's sand courses.

Fort Bahrain is the backdrop for a golfer at Bahrain GC, one of the region's sand courses.

Shortly after 5 a.m., a muezzin climbs the minaret of a mosque in Manama and calls the faithful to prayer. The dawn is greeted as it has been for 1,400 years in Bahrain, by the haunting beauty of morning devotion, a guttural sound less heard than it is felt, one of five times daily Muslims pray. Only now the ancient ritual is electronically amplified through empty streets awaiting the morning sun and rush-hour traffic. That's just part of what has changed--yet remained the same--in the vast desert of the Arabian Peninsula once roamed by Bedouin nomads but transformed now by oil into oases of mind-boggling wealth. The past and the future don't so much collide as travel parallel paths, maintaining a footing firmly in tradition while pursuing progress with an aggressive reach.

Nothing better demonstrates the way the 12th and 21st centuries coexist in the affluent Gulf States than the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, a structure of breathtaking beauty and humbling scale in which more than 40,000 can pray. The mosque, opened in 2007, is the size of five football fields and has a main prayer hall carpeted by a 60,570-square-foot Persian rug made with 35 tons of wool, 12 tons of cotton and held together by 2.3 million hand-tied knots. Seven gold-plated chandeliers fitted with millions of Swarovski crystals hang from the ceiling. The Grand Mosque is a half-billion dollar tribute to Islam.

Oil has transformed this corner of the world. Now, the heads of the ruling families who parlayed petro dollars into financial centers have shifted their economic focus from fossil fuels, which will eventually run out, to the more enduring enterprises of banking, real estate and tourism. Golf, by its very nature, speaks to all three, and in gaining a foothold in the Middle East more than two decades ago, the European Tour has proven to be as visionary as the sheiks in planning for the future. The PGA Tour may have the United States, but the European Tour has the rest of the world, and the foundation of what has truly become golf's global tour began in Arab lands.

"There is phenomenal growth in this region. Phenomenal growth," George O'Grady, chief executive of the European Tour, says at an outdoor table at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. "When you see photos of how things looked 10 years ago in this region ... And the same is true for Shanghai, there is no recession in Shanghai [another place where HSBC sponsors golf]. Now, when you invite someone to play in the pro-am, no one says no. It's a sign of great stature to play in the pro-am and to come to the golf tournament.

"We use golf's power to reflect the country and its tourism," says O'Grady. "It's reflective of where Abu Dhabi is, where Dubai is. It puts you on the map."

muslim putting

A man wearing a kandura tests his putting skills at the tented village during the Abu Dhabi HSBC.

The Middle East tournaments have also put the European Tour on the map--in fact, all over the map. The tour has grown from 27 events in 1982, when it first expanded beyond the borders of Europe, to 50 this year. The Middle East swing has grown from one event in 1989 to four, and there is talk of adding stops in Saudi Arabia and, recent events notwithstanding, Egypt. And while the purses are smaller on the European Tour--the winner in Abu Dhabi, Martin Kaymer, earned $456,000, while the winner at the Bob Hope Classic the same week, Jhonattan Vegas, received $900,000--the Middle East stops have the added value of no income tax, making that winner's check go further. And then there is the appearance money paid to top stars.

For sponsors there is access to growing markets. For players there is pampered treatment in a safe but exotic environment, the chance to begin the season with four weeks of guaranteed good weather and the opportunity to enhance their personal business profile. For European players it is convenient. The flight from London to Dubai is 3,400 miles--only slightly longer than New York to Los Angeles--and once there the four-event swing is confined within 300 miles, less than the distance from Doral to TPC Sawgrass.

In many ways the world economy is reflected in the golf economy. The growth of the game is flat in the United States. New course construction is happening in Asia and the Middle East. One way top golfers make money is by designing courses, and the key to doing business in the Middle East and Asia is to develop local contacts. The initial step in that direction is to compete there.

Phil Mickelson made his debut in the Middle East at Abu Dhabi and gushed about the experience. He went sailing on an around-the-world racing yacht and, with his coach Butch Harmon, rode the world's fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World--twice. Mickelson's family--wife Amy, their three children and her parents--went indoor snow skiing in Dubai, dune-bashing at breakneck speeds through the desert and visited historic sights of the ancient culture. For Mickelson the trip was part business, part family vacation--plus he got a seven-figure appearance fee.

"I really enjoyed my time there," says Mickelson. "My family really got a kick out of it. For my kids to experience the Grand Mosque and be exposed to different religions, well, it was an educational as well as a fun week." As for the business side, Mickelson says: "There are only five courses in Abu Dhabi. I would like to see the game grow, and I'd like to be a part of that [by designing courses there]." It is not coincidental that Mickelson's ventures overseas--a recent trend by him--have been in China and the Middle East.

phil mickelson in dubai

Phil Mickelson, who traveled to Abu Dhabi with his wife and children, shared a light moment with instructor Butch Harmon on the practice range.

The roots of golf in the Middle East were planted by the British, who helped develop the oil industry. The most easily maintained golf facilities in an area that goes months without rain are sand courses, and the oldest sand course in the Gulf is Awali GC in Bahrain, founded in 1938, six years after oil was discovered. Bahrain GC, another sand course, hunches beneath Bahrain fort. Players there carry a small, circular piece of green plastic grass off which they play shots from balls that end up in the "fairway." And the Al-Ghazal sand course near the Abu Dhabi airport meanders through an archeological dig frequented by dhubs, lizards that can grow to more than two feet in length.

The greens on the sand courses are oiled and can be made to run at just about any speed. The courses are also a constant work in progress. "Give me five days, a small bulldozer and a bunch of hands and we can reshape the entire course. That's the beauty of it," says Angela Scurr, the Al-Ghazal manager, who came to the area 40 years ago from England when her father was posted in Dubai to run an engineering company. During the week of the Abu Dhabi HSBC, Scurr readied her course for the 37th Abu Dhabi Ladies Open. The 320 members at Al-Ghazal are mostly expatriots; locals who play are only served alcohol if they are not in traditional clothing, since it is a crime to provide alcohol to a Muslim.

The first tournament played outside Europe by the tour was the 1982 Tunisia Open, an Arabic nation in North Africa. The first European Tour venture into the Middle East was the Dubai Desert Classic in 1989, followed by a foray into Asia with the 1992 Johnnie Walker Classic in Bangkok. Today the tour travels to 12 countries outside Europe, including Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai. And next year the season will begin in Bahrain with the Volvo Golf Champions, which will become the tour's tournament of champions, providing early-season competition for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions on the PGA Tour.

"This part of the world has gone golf-crazy," says Harmon, who worked for several years in the early 1970s as the private golf pro for King Hassan II of Morocco. Three years ago he opened the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai, run by his son Claude. "There are four tournaments in a row in pretty neat places," says Harmon. "In all honesty, you look at the [Emirates Palace] hotel we are staying in, you look inside the clubhouse [of Abu Dhabi GC], you look at the way the guys are taken care of ... who wouldn't want to come over here and play?"

While appearance fees have always been key to getting Americans--and top international players--to play European Tour events, those traveling to the Middle East now find that the courses have gotten better, the accommodations are first-class and business opportunities abound. There is one other reason to play European Tour events: World Ranking points.

The pendulum has swung back east--as it did in the 1980s when Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam were top-10 players--and the European Tour now finds many of the best players are either members of the tour or started there and remain loyal to it, including three of the four reigning major champions. The Abu Dhabi field had all four reigning major champions and 11 of the top 20 in the World Ranking, including No. 1 Lee Westwood. When Martin Kaymer won, the European Tour in Westwood and Kaymer had the No. 1 and No. 2 in the world for the first time since Faldo and Langer in 1993. After Paul Casey won in Bahrain the next week, Europeans held six of the top 10 spots. At the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last week, where Woods played, the top three in the world were in the field.

"What lured me to come over here is a lot a great players are playing in this stretch," said Steve Stricker at the Commercialbank Qatar Masters, where he was also paid to play. Except for the British Open, Stricker had last traveled to a European Tour event in 1995. "I talked to Kenny Perry, who came over here last year, and so word gets out. I think the PGA Tour may be from top to bottom a little stronger than the European Tour, but right now, the European Tour has the top players. So that definitely gets the interests of players to come over here and try to compete for the World Ranking points."

Certainly, the atmosphere is different in the Middle East than it is in Middle America. Fewer fans and less media creates a more relaxed environment reminiscent of the PGA Tour 30 years ago. Alcohol is not consumed openly in Muslim states and, perhaps as a result, the galleries are better behaved than in many other parts of the world. Outside the 19th Hole hospitality tent at Royal GC during the Volvo Golf Champions in Bahrain, a sign warns those who might be offended that alcohol is served inside. In Bahrain, which is more traditional, the weekend is Thursday-Friday while Abu Dhabi's weekend is Friday-Saturday so as to share one off-day with the rest of the world. In both cases Sunday--the finish of the tournament--is a work day.

For tournament sponsors the quantity of the gallery--which has a smattering of traditionally dressed Arabs mixed in with the mostly Western crowd--is not as important as the quality of the corporate entertaining, and that is at an extremely high level. The pro-am party for Abu Dhabi was at the Emirates Palace Hotel, a facility so opulent you might think you had wandered into the royal palace by mistake.

The rivalry between the PGA and European tours has clearly escalated in recent years, no doubt fueled in part by the recession. HSBC sponsored the Abu Dhabi event for the first time this year, the same week the Bob Hope was being run without a title sponsor. The Volvo in Bahrain was up against the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines; the Commercialbank Qatar Masters conflicted with the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the Omega Dubai Desert Classic took on the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

The jockeying between the tours has been fascinating to watch. The PGA Tour moved the Players from March--conveniently two weeks before the Masters for those players traveling from Europe for the first major of the year--to May in 2007. The PGA Tour created the FedEx Cup the same year and the European Tour responded with the Race to Dubai in 2009; both offer bonus money and both require tour membership (15 minimum tournaments on the PGA Tour and 13 on the European Tour) to compete.

During the Middle East swing, Westwood and Rory McIlroy said they would skip this year's Players, implying they were annoyed by the fact they were penalized two appearances for giving up their PGA Tour membership to return to their home tour (from the 12 allowed for non-members to 10). Their snub of the flagship event prompted commissioner Tim Finchem to take a shot at the European Tour.

"I really never try to second-guess a player's decisions as it relates to his schedule," Finchem said at Torrey Pines. "I'm just disappointed that they're not playing. My only message to those guys is you're always welcome, and we'd love to have you back." Then he added: "[The European Tour has] struggled more than we have struggled with this downturn. They've had to morph their schedules into the Middle East and now Asia to find markets to support their tour."

That implies the European Tour's expansion was in response to the recession when, in fact, it is a game plan nearly 30 years old. "The FedEx Cup gave us quite a few challenges," admits O'Grady. "We thought we'd have to close down those four or five weeks. Now we have different kinds of events. I believe every tournament has to have its unique kind of selling proposition. You just can't be the same as last week."

"The Players Championship going to May was [also] a challenge for us because it's the world's fifth major," says O'Grady. "There will be a bit of a battle [concerning scheduling conflicts]." In fact, the week of Abu Dhabi, O'Grady had a phone chat with Finchem about the fact the South African Open and the Presidents Cup are the same week this year.

That the European Tour has been able to use the Middle East as the doorway to the world is not surprising when the culture is closely examined. The allegiance to tradition in the Gulf States should not be mistaken for a reluctance to change. This is an area on the move. Men in ankle-length white kandura shirts and women completely covered in black head-to-toe burqas sip coffee at a Starbucks in a vast air-conditioned mall where every designer label desired can be found, another example of how orthodoxy and progress coexist. The traditional outdoor souq marketplace has gone indoors and upscale.

The sheiks and kings in the region have used sports to become tourist destinations, particularly tennis, yacht racing and Formula 1 auto racing as well as golf. And now Qatar will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in soccer. Global corporations have been paying attention. "We do this first of all for business reasons," Per Ericsson, president of Volvo Event Management Golf, says at a restaurant in Old Town Manama, where a hookah shop and traditional coffee house are found instead of Starbucks. "To be frank, we had a couple of different options for this tournament. [But] this is an interesting area for us in terms of growth," Volvo manufactures construction equipment and construction is a booming industry in the Gulf States. "Percentage-wise," says Ericsson, "this is the fastest growing area for us."

Tournament growth in the Middle East became a catalyst for golf events in China, India, Malaysia and South Korea. Multinational giants such as HSBC, Volvo, BMW and Omega attached their names to tournaments as they looked to expand business. BMW, which sponsored a tournament in Shanghai, has gone from selling virtually no cars in China a decade ago to just recently opening its third assembly plant there, O'Grady says.

"We sponsor golf very purposefully," says Giles Morgan, head of Group Marketing for HSBC, which promotes itself as "The World's Local Bank." HSBC had tournaments in Shanghai, Singapore and Brazil before adding Abu Dhabi. "The people who play golf or are interested in golf are high net worth, and that's what banks do. We also like that [golf] is an international game, includes both genders, young and old, and has wonderful values."

Concerning the global strategy exposed by O'Grady, says: "I think the European Tour has been incredibly farsighted. Shanghai is the future. Abu Dhabi is a powerhouse. It has aspirations. This area has huge aspirations.

"One of the things we have tried to do, particularly in China, is get American players to travel," says Morgan, who notes that HSBC has increased its sponsorship of both golf and rugby, two Olympic sports beginning in 2016 that he feels will grow worldwide because of Olympic involvement. "If I were a professional golfer and I came from Britain or the United States, I would be plying my trade everywhere else. Those who get it--Phil, Tiger, [Ian] Poulter--I suspect they've found from their own business point of view that they've done very well in China later because they engaged."

Certainly, going global is not without its risks. The in-flight tracking map from London to Abu Dhabi shows the plane passes over Ba'qubah, Mosul, Kirkuk, Baghdad and Basra--names etched in the minds of Americans during the Iraq War. The 1991 Dubai Desert Classic was canceled by the first Gulf War. Unrest in Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Yemen during this year's Middle East swing is a reminder that politics is a rough-and-tumble game in this part of the world.

And the recent financial woes of Dubai prove even cities of gold can tarnish. The E-11 highway from Abu Dhabi to Dubai cuts through a barren expanse of desert and then, like a mirage, the city looms. Coming upon Dubai is like turning a corner and stumbling upon Los Angeles in your backyard, except this city was built within the last two decades. Every architect with a wacky, and expensive, design idea has worked in Dubai—one building is a circle, another is in the shape of a boat's sail and a third is tiered like a wedding cake.

And then there is the 2,717-foot Burj Khalifa, nearly twice the height of the Empire State Building and named for the leader of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who bailed out Dubai with a $10 billion loan in 2009 when the real-estate bubble burst. Dubai, which has much less oil than the other Gulf States, and only about 20 years worth left, gambled on real estate--and lost. The project undertaken by Tiger Woods Design and Dubai Properties Group was at first put on hold when the real estate market tanked and has now been abandoned completely. In the center of Dubai, construction cranes sit frozen alongside shuttered projects. Countless completed buildings are adorned with "OFFICES TO LET" signs.

In the second year of the Race to Dubai, the bonus pool was cut from $10 million to $7.5 million--a move the European Tour wisely initiated to enable the sheiks to save face--and Omega, an upscale watch company, was brought on this year to help Dubai by sharing Dubai Desert Classic costs. While the Race to Dubai will end in that country (at the Dubai World Championship) this year, sources say that in 2012 it could very well be the Race to Abu Dhabi, the wealthier neighbor to the south.

Still, the feeling is the woes of Dubai will not extend to the rest of the region. The other emirates have more oil income and, because of that, have expanded more slowly in other business areas--such as real estate--and thus have learned from the mistakes of Dubai. In Bahrain hundreds of newly constructed homes near Royal GC have been sold to wealthy Saudis who motor across the causeway for a vacation getaway. The Liwa Oasis in southern Abu Dhabi on the edge of The Empty Quarter, a desert the size of Texas, has a five-star resort packed with tourists. And even in Dubai there appears to be enough wealth to weather the storm. The Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club could just as easily be in Arizona or Florida. Wealthy Europeans and Asians, as well as a few locals, grab lunch in a glassed-in dining room that overlooks the well-manicured course.

The European Tour is positioned for growth. If the United States and Great Britain represent golf's past, the rest of the world is its future. The game is growing in the Middle East and Asia and, with golf coming to the Olympics in Brazil, South America looms as the next potential frontier. "We have been very fortunate to see the growth from one to now four first-class tournaments," says Colin Montgomerie, who played in the first Dubai Desert Classic and designed Royal GC in Bahrain. "Phil Mickelson and Tiger have traveled and done well. I hope [Mickelson] goes back to the PGA Tour and says, 'Wow, that was well done.' Let's hope American winners come over here and not just play [the Bahrain] event, the first one, but stay for a couple of weeks. The world is a much smaller place now. There is no reason why we can't encourage Americans to come over here and us to go over there."

If the quality of the Middle East swing is a measuring stick, right now that road is running toward the European Tour.