Saudi Arabia plans to host women’s golf event as part of kingdom’s ‘rise’

Saudia Arabia could host a women’s professional golf tournament as early as next year as part of ambitious plans to grow the sport in the kingdom. The possibility emerged as this week’s Saudi Invitational, a new event on the men’s European Tour, was described as the “start of many good things” set to happen in the country as it bids to show the world that the “old story of Saudi Arabia being segregated (by gender) is no longer applicable”.

World No 1 Justin Rose at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club ahead of the Saudi Invitational event. Picture: Ross Kinnaird/Getty

Taking place at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, which is located in King Abdullah Economic City to the north of Jeddah, this week’s high-profile event has attracted strong criticism, led by Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. In a view expressed at the weekend, he accused leading players – four of the world’s top five are in the line up here – of being “ventriloquists for an abhorrent regime”.

Paul Casey, a member of Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning team in France last year, decided against joining the likes of Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau because of “human rights violations”, including the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three months ago. “To turn a blind eye to the butchering of a media member in some way euphemises the egregious atrocity that not only took place with the Jamal Khashoggi murder but what goes on there all the time,” claimed Chamblee. “It is a PR stunt… Non-participation – and I applaud Paul Casey – in some marginal way makes a statement about human rights. By participating, (the players) are ventriloquists for this abhorrent, reprehensible regime.”

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While not responding directly to Chamblee’s comments, the criticism of Saudi Arabia in the build up to the $3.5 million event – in addition to that, the top players are all believed to have been whopping appearance fees – was addressed by His Excellency Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation, as he outlined a plan to build up to 20 new courses in the kingdom as part of “vision 2030” initiative that is set to involve a series of “giga-projects”.

He said: “The criticism was recently with the event that happened [Khashoggi’s killing], and it was wrong. It wasn’t something we’re proud of or sponsored by the government. Since 1979, the Islamic Revolution changed the whole region and, unfortunately, it took us all back. Now it’s time for us to rise and to start with some objectives and pursue these objectives. We want to have a better life for our people in Saudi. The quality of life has to improve. That’s not a choice. That’s a must.”

Referring to this week’s tournament, he added: “It’s the start of many good things that will happen in Saudi, not only in golf. Recreation is part of the vision 2030 that we have. The quality of living is another thing. And it all fits with our strategy in the Saudi Golf Federation. We’re building a lot of giga-projects, and the definition of giga-projects is bigger than mega, so it’s really huge. It’s like the sizes of cities, and most of the real estate that we have will have golf courses.”

In a bid to promote Saudi as a golf destination, the possibility of sponsoring tournaments outside the kingdom is being discussed. “We haven’t come to a final decision, but we are really considering it,” revealed Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan. Talks are also taking place about hosting a women’s professional event, with Carly Booth in attendance here this week as part of a team promoting the event.

“I think we are ready for it (a women’s event),” said Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation. “We are already in talks with the LET and LPGA for an event and just need to get something to fit into the schedule. If not this year, for sure next year.”

At the moment, there are only 220 registered players in the kingdom, though it is estimated that there around 6,000 regular golfers between Saudis and ex-pats. “We would like to attract more people, regardless of gender or nationality,” said Yasir Othman Al-Rumayyan, while Majed Al Sorour said there is noting to stop women being encouraged to take up the game. “The old story of Saudi Arabia that it’s segregated is no longer applicable,” he stressed.

Rose, the world No 1, defended his decision to be here, saying: “I know people obviously have their opinions. It’s never straightforward, is it? But we’re here to support The European Tour. I’m a European Tour player. For me, I can only commend their vision in terms of growing the game of golf. That’s the industry in which I live. I’m not qualified to speak on any other subjects, to be honest, on great detail or authority.”