As late as Oct. 27, the Turkish Airlines Open was still very much up in the air. Only days before last week’s opening event in the Race to Dubai playoff series, officials of the European Tour were prepared to cancel. Car bombings and terrorist activity from earlier in the year had players fearful. “The fact there’s a tournament going on is a miracle,” said the promoter of the event, Chubby Chandler.
But confidence in holding the tournament was restored when Keith Pelley, chief executive officer of the European Tour, made an 11th-hour visit to Turkey and had conversations with British Consulate Richard Moore and Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Meanwhile, player concerns were eased when Chandler, the founder of International Sports Management, and the European Tour arranged two charter flights that kept players out of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, site of a terrorist attack that killed 36 in June. A flight from London went directly into Antalya, and the plane carrying players from the WGC-HSBC Champions in China stayed on the runway in Istanbul with the passengers onboard before flying to a private terminal in Antalya.
But the logistics and assurances were not enough to prevent Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed from pulling out. Reed’s withdrawal was understandable considering U.S. State Department warnings directed at Americans traveling in Turkey that were issued on Oct. 24 and 29.
McIlroy is a citizen of Northern Ireland who reportedly negotiated a seven-figure appearance fee and travel in a private jet direct into Antalya. Though he is the defending champion in the European Tour’s Final Series, he admitted that recently winning $10 million in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup made his decision easier.
The head of the Turkish Golf Federation, Ahmet Agaoglu, criticized McIlroy for overreacting. “There are things happening everywhere in the world,” said Agaoglu, who seemed more upset that he learned of the withdrawal through the media and not by direct contact with McIlroy. “If they are afraid of such things, there is no safe place in the world. This is one of the major golfing events in Europe, and I think they have to respect the sponsors because they are investing huge money. Pulling out is not the correct approach. You can be a superstar, an excellent golfer and sit on top of the rankings, but to be an athlete you need something more.”
Chandler, who once represented McIlroy, was notified of the WD through a phone call and text from McIlroy’s manager, Sean O’Flaherty. With future relations in mind, Chandler chose diplomacy.
“I don’t think it’s fair to persuade anybody to play,” Chandler said. “We had one of our own not play. Matthew Fitzpatrick said he wasn’t comfortable and his parents weren’t comfortable.”
Chandler sold the tournament deal four years ago by pitching how it would promote tourism in Turkey. He spoke to me from the Regnum Resort in the Antalya Province, which last year hosted world leaders for the G20 Summit. President Obama didn’t play golf but pledged to return when his term is over. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, a 14-handicap, promised to give Obama two shots a side in a match.
“This is one of the most tranquil places you could go in the world,” Chandler said. “My guess will be when the players vote for best tournament of the year, this would be it.”
Chandler has two years remaining on his contract and retains hope of getting Tiger Woods to return after playing in 2012 but pulling out of this year’s event. “I think we’ll go on for as many years as world affairs allow it to,” Chandler said. “It’s the way of the world, unfortunately.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Nov. 7, 2016 issue of Golf World.