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  • Alistair Tait

All Set For A Saudi Showdown?

The first week in February should make for interesting times in the world of men’s professional golf. The European, PGA Tour and Asian Tours will all be in action that week, and it will be interesting to see which Tour garners the most star power.

Expect the Asian circuit, with Greg Norman newly named as CEO of sponsor LIV Investments, to give its two bigger opponents a run for their money. It could be a litmus test on where big names players stand on taking future Saudi money, which has now become filthy lucre as far as the European and PGA Tour are concerned, especially the latter circuit.

The Saudi International takes place that first week in February, from the 3–6 At Royal Greens G&CC (above). It’s up against the $8.7 million AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a perennial favourite tournament on the PGA Tour that stretches back to the days when Bing Crosby hosted the tournament.

The European Tour heralds in a new event on its schedule, the $2 million Ras al Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital in the United Arab Emirates. It’s the third of five straight tournaments in the Middle East.

Seems natural to assume Europe’s elite would tee it up in ABU Dhabi, Dubai and then maybe flit over to the neighbouring Emirate Ras al Khaimah to check out new European Tour venue Al Hamra Golf Club. Maybe not.

Despite strategic Alliance partners the PGA Tour and European Tour making lots of noises against Saudi money coming into golf, with the former circuit threatening bans for players who play in any Saudi sponsored new golf circuit, expect next year’s Saudi International to attract a strong field once again, arguably much stronger than it did this year.

This year’s Saudi International features the second strongest field of any regular tournament on the European Tour schedule outside the majors and world golf championships. It came in at an Official World Golf Ranking rating of 395. Only the 424-rated Scottish Open holds a higher strength of field among regular European Tour events so far.

This year’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am came in at a SoF rating of just 141.

No surprise the Saudi field was so strong considering winner Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Viktor Hovland, Tony Finau, Paul Casey, Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter, Kevin Na, Tommy Fleetwood, Shane Lowry, Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Danny Willett were the "names" all paid to turn up. Appearance fee estimates for this year’s event ran to approximately $20 million. That buys a lot of star power.

Many of the above will have signed contracts to play next year too, and beyond. They could face legal action if they break those contracts.

Now that the Saudi International is part of the Asian Tour, and considering the pressure the two existing circuits are putting on players not to play in any rival circuit sponsored by Saudi money, it will be interesting to see the strength of field rating of next year’s Saudi International.

I predict it will be higher than this year’s 395. In fact, expect many of the above names to tee it up next year too, along with perhaps others keen to cash in on Saudi sauce.

What will be interesting is the reaction from both tours, especially the all-powerful PGA Tour. Are they really going to ban players for doing what professional golfers have been doing the world over since Allan Robertson was in his pomp? If, say, popular Americans like a Rickie Fowler, a Collin Morikawa, a Jordan Spieth, perhaps Olympic golf medal winner Xander Schauffele or others want to cash in and take the money the Saudi Sheiks are throwing around as casually as golfers throw grass into the air to test the wind is the PGA Tour really going to sanction the whole lot of them?

Rest assured player managers will be keen to cash in: a 25% commission of a seven figure sum is not to be sneezed at.

That first week in February is going to be an interesting watch. Are we set for a Saudi showdown in the early part of next year?

#JustSaying: “To be selected as one of the first international designers to work in the Kingdom is a great honour.” Jack Nicklaus on receiving commission to design a new golf course in Saudi Arabia

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