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The Middle East - A Sporting Mecca

Imagine Golf's Rhodri Williams on the lure of the Middle East

Posted Jan 27, 2009 by Rhodri Williams

Rhodri and Golfing Buddies

The Middle East - A Sporting Mecca
It was my second visit to Doha, the capital of Qatar; a peninsula that sticks out into the Persian Gulf like a thumb.  The country possesses enormous deposits of natural gas and its offshore North Field is one of the largest gas fields in the world.  So, unsurprisingly, it is a wealthy nation.  Add to this wealth a love of sport.  In fact they are fanatical about it and deadly serious.  They have just announced their intent to put a bid in for the 2018 FIFA World Cup!  I was there during the Doha tennis masters and it was an incredible experience staying in the same hotel as Murray, Federer and Nadal.  Life is more relaxed out there and that rubs off on the players.  They're all happy to have a chat at breakfast or just sitting around the pool. If I'd been able to stay another week, I would have enjoyed the same interaction with some of the world's greatest golfers as they meet in Doha in the race to Dubai.
Two weeks before the tournament, the Doha course was closed to the public and, therefore, I am very grateful to Director of Golf, David Moreland, for allowing me and my playing partners, Arsenal legends David O'Leary and Ray Parlour and a friend of mine Ric O'Connor who works with the Al-jazeera network, to enjoy the pristine Championship Course.
The weather was beautiful, a temperature of 25 degrees and a stiff wind which was to test my wayward driving.  So it was Williams and Parlour versus O'Leary and O'Connor.  We played off the equivalent of the white tees which makes the course considerably shorter than off the tournament tees which are a whole different world.  I had played the course in August in a temperature of 46 degrees and 60% humidity; now that was extreme golf and I will be investigating that again as part of Imagine Golf's extreme world tour.
There was a big difference to when I last played the course; the course has been made more difficult though not for me and the boys. Adam Scott took the Qatar Masters Trophy last year with a final round course record 61!  The Championship course measures 7 355 yards from the tournament tees and it was designed by Peter Harradine, one of the world's leading golf course architects.
Each of the 18 holes varies dramatically in character, of which the 9th (639 yards) and the 18th (587 yards) are true giants.  Of the par 4 holes; the 5th, 6th, 11th, 14th and 15th are all outstanding tests ranging between 400 and 500 yards in length.  The course is a real pleasure for long-hitters and hazards such as natural rock formations, sand bunkers and water are plentiful. So on the face of it, a beast of course as far as length is concerned but to make it tougher for the defending Champion, Ernie Els, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Boo Weekly along with the other star names, they've grown the rough.  It's very thick and the fairways are now narrower.  From the rough, the only option seems to be a defensive safety shot rather than an aggressive attacking one.  Well, it was for us anyway!  We'll wait and see how the pros cope with it.
I didn't lose as many balls as I normally do.  Maybe it's because, as a desert course, it is more open, but the most incredible thing happened to me on the 15th hole (a tricky par 4 over water). I stuck my second in the drink and after conceding to losing the ball there was so much salt in the water my Titleist PRO VI was floating.  What a result!
My favourite hole is the 16th and it is their signature hole.  At 306 yards this is a par 4 you have to have a go at driving from the elevated tee.  But to go straight for the green, you have to hit the ball over a large rock formation.  If you don't quite give it enough sausage then you'll hit the rock and god only knows which way your ball will bounce and then it's double bogey time.  The percentage golfer will drive right of the rock formation and play for a birdie opportunity.
Since 1998, the Club has hosted the prestigious Qatar Masters tournament, now sponsored by Commercialbank and held in January as part of the European and Asian PGA tours schedule.
The event in 2008 attracted the best ever professional field including 8 of the top 20 players in the world.  With this in mind, Commercialbank, this year, took the tournament to greater heights in providing a world class field of professionals, record tournament prize money, permanent purpose-built hospitality units, a world-class exhibition village sponsored by De Boer and to top it all, invited a host of international celebrities from the fields of athletics, football, tennis, cricket, movies and music to enjoy the occasion.
Amongst these were track legend Michael Johnson, former Arsenal and England striker Ian Wright, five times Olympic rowing gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave, former Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, English cricketing hero Sir Ian Botham, Hollywood BOND girl, Jane Seymour, Hollywood actor and director James Keach, tennis queen Anna Kournikova, Australian singer, songwriter, model and actress Natalie Imbruglia, Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty, Olympic gold medallist Carl Lewis and Bollywood actress and supermodel Bipasha Basu.
So how is the Middle East attracting the top players and celebrities?  It's simple, with the world's greatest hospitality and a financial soother.  Now, I don't know how they go about offering this because appearance money per se is not allowed in golf but I can tell you for a fact, and my sources are strong and true, that the best golfers are being given anything between 200 thousand and 500 thousand dollars just to come and tee it up in Doha.  Add to that free luxury accommodation and if they go onto win it it's a very 'tidy' week.  But even if they have a complete stinker then they still have something to show for it.
Am I jealous?  Of course I am. 'Half a bar' just to tee it up!  Jealous and also a little sceptical at where we are going with professional sport?
Just this week AC Milan and Brazil's attacking midfielder Kaka turned down a mammoth offer from Manchester City, who are of course the world's richest football club, following their take over by The Abu Dhabi Group.  Despite rumours of a 100 million pound transfer and a reported half a million pound a week wages Kaka is content with life in Italy.  A deeply religious man, he feels there is more to life than money.  Wow!  How many other sports men or women could have turned that down?
And how many of the top golfers would venture to the Middle East for the exceptional hospitality and for the love of playing the game?
I'd like to think they would but the truth of the matter is the world does not work like that anymore.  One who will be teeing it up in Doha was refusing to show for 350 big ones.  He wanted 500 long. Now, there are agents and management companies involved in fuelling these price wars of course, but ultimately the decision lies with the player.  An agreement was finally reached and, to be honest, the tournament will be better for it with him there.
At a time of global economic meltdown maybe they're right to make hay now from the richest region in the world but there's a little greed there that sits uneasy in my stomach.
Let's look at the positive.  The Gulf region is attracting the top names in all sports and with that raising their sports profile not just in the Middle East but worldwide. The players are relaxed in this environment and therefore, for those fans lucky enough to be there at the same time, you literally get to rub shoulders with your heroes.
And how about this…  If you are in Doha there will be no entry charge for you to go and watch the masters in action.
For all I've said, I will be heading back to Doha as soon as I can for the welcome, the hospitality and most definitely for the money.
Parlour and Williams lost to O'Leary and O'Connor on the 18th.


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