Saudi International Preview
THERE will be no Rory McIlroy and no Jon Rahm playing for the mega riches on offer at the Saudi International in Jeddah this week but the rest of the field reads like a golfing who’s who as many of the world’s finest compete at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.
Those taking part had to seek special exemptions from the DP World Tour and PGA Tour proving, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that money talks in this part of the world. The Saudi International is one of 10 events being sponsored by the Saudi Public Investment Fund and is offering vast riches to those who take part. And the Saudis have mounted a serious charm offensive in an attempt to convince the world that the tournament is being staged for the greater good of sport in general and, more specifically, to grow the game in this part of the world.
And many heads have been turned, including Dustin Johnson (winner last year when it came under the umbrella of the European Tour), Bryson DeChambeau, Louis Oosthuizen, Sergio Garcia, Xander Schauffele, Tommy Fleetwood, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Kevin Na, Jason Kokrak, Abraham Ancer, Phil Mickelson, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton, Shane Lowry, Henrik Stenson, Ian Poulter, Joaquin Niemann, Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Lucas Herbert, Victor Perez, Harold Varner III, Jason Dufner, Jhonattan Vegas and Lee Westwood. Alongside some of the star names confirmed will be the leading 30 players from the final 2020-21 Asian Tour Order of Merit, including Wade Ormsby, Phachara Khongwatmai and Joohyung Kim.
McIlroy has spoken about players having a right to decide where they play their trade but it is interesting to note that he decided to give the tournament a miss, especially when you consider that he has been playing in this part of the world at both the Abu Dhabi Championship and Dubai Desert Classic. Open champion Collin Morikawa is also giving it a miss.
Players from Europe and America who take part this week have had to sign commitments to playing in specific events on their “home” tours in order to secure their release and it will be interesting to see whether Stenson’s participation affects his desire to become a Ryder Cup captain. Whether or not top golfers are independent traders or bound by membership criteria of tours has been the subject of much debate and is a subject that McIlroy has addressed at some length.
The tournament is being played under the auspices of the Asian Tour but make no mistake - this is a Saudi-run golf tournament and is part of the Saudis’ attempts to convince the world that it is now a major sporting player.
Former Open champion Shane Lowry is one of the star names to sign up and he was duly wheeled out to face the media, saying he had no qualms about playing in Saudi Arabia
.”Obviously there's no hiding from the people writing about this tournament or what they're saying about us going to play, but at the end of the day for me, I'm not a politician, I'm a professional golfer,” he said. "I earn a living for myself and my family and try and take care of those, and this is just a part of that, and I need to go there.”
Ian Poulter also defended his decision to play in the Saudi International event which is now the flagship tournament on the Asian Tour. The Saudis have injected $200m into the circuit and remain at the centre of rumours surrounding an upstart super league to challenge the established tours. "It's a tournament I've played the last three years," Poulter said.
"I don't see a problem in going over there to play again even though it's not a co-sanctioned event. I've played it, it's a good course, they have a lot of world ranking points on offer. So for me playing there is a continuation from how I've played the past few years. I'm committed at the minute to making sure I play on the PGA Tour and DP World Tour.
"At the minute the other tour isn't a fully functioning tour so I can't say any more than that because I don't know if it's going to happen. If it does, who knows? It's different. It’s a new format, a huge investment into the game of golf, so until it becomes real we're all playing the guessing game.”
Let’s not dress this up. The players taking part do not need to go there. They are playing because they are receiving appearance money and because there is a massive prize fund up for grabs.
You may wonder what all the fuss is about? Put bluntly, Saudi Arabia has what could best be described as a shoddy reputation when it comes to human rights and the way it treats its women.
Many players say that they genuinely believe that staging events in the Middle East are an opportunity to grow the game of golf. And this is also the view of Greg Norman, who will oversee the development of a Saudi-backed golf league that aims to rival the PGA Tour.
Majed Al-Sorour, CEO and Deputy Chairman of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, said: “We have a world class international field. The mix of the world’s best players from across the US, Europe and Asia Pacific will make this year our most anticipated yet. Bringing together strong fields for our international men’s and women’s events has shown to play a vital role in driving participation and engagement in the sport in Saudi Arabia. The commitment from our long-term partners at the PIF to take the title position on the event has provided further recognition that the event has reached a level of strategic importance for Saudi Arabia, impacting our schools and grassroots programmes as well as our rapidly improving national teams as part of the long journey we’re on in Saudi Arabia.”
PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers recently announced a 10-year partnership with the Asian Tour, which will play a key role in helping the Asian Tour to establish itself in the global game.
Cho Minn Thant, Commissioner and CEO of the Asian Tour, added: “We are all set for a hugely significant week. The tournament will give our members an incredible opportunity to play with many of the game’s global stars and allow us to further increase our fan base.”
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this event, one thing is guaranteed - we are going to witness a thrilling competition played on a stunning golf course.
It was won in 2019 and 2021 by Dustin Johnson and in 2020 by Graeme McDowell.
Royal Greens Golf and Country Club is a par 72 measuring 7,010 yards. Carved out of desert, it is a masterpiece that features plenty of water and many huge bunkers and waste areas. The fairways and greens are immaculate - look out for some very low scoring.
Where to start with such a world-class field? Dustin Johnson is a two-time winner and clearly enjoys playing in this part of the world but his recent form has been pretty patchy. Bryson DeChambeau has already made it clear that he plans to bring the course to its knees by overpowering it. The former US Open champion has been working hard on his game over the winter and if he can find enough fairways he could well win this event by a bucketload of shots. Watch out for Tyrrell Hatton. The angriest golfer on the planet somehow managed to finish three shots off the lead at the Abu Dhabi Championship despite a horror show at the 18th, a hole that cost him a nine in the third round.
Tyrrell Hatton. Needs to find a way to keep that temper in check
Bryson DeChambeau. Light the blue touch paper...
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Back to his best
Five to Follow:
Tyrrell Hatton. Impossible to ignore
Bryson DeChambeau. Ditto
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Underrated iron player
Shane Lowry. Wondrous short game
Dustin Johnson. Enjoys this part of the world
Five Outsiders to Watch:
Wade Ormsby. Has enjoyed some good form in this part of the world
Henrik Stenson. Simply desperate for a good week
Joaquin Nieman. Proven winner on the PGA Tour
Phil Mickelson. The old boy still gets it out there.
Phachara Khongwatmai. Could surprise a few people
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