The European Tour probably wouldn’t have a Desert Swing if it wasn’t for the Dubai Desert Classic, where Europe’s best compete this week. Those players teeing up in the City of Gold should say a quiet thank you to Dubai for making them much richer, especially those who’ve banked extra cash in appearance fees.
Contrary to popular belief, Dubai wasn’t the first European Tour event played outside Continental Europe. Tunisia holds that distinction. The Tunisian Open ran from 1982-1985. Dubai didn’t come along until 1989.
Former European Tour chief executive Ken Schofield didn’t have to think too hard when approached about holding a tournament in the Middle East. He took all of about 30 seconds, thought ‘why not? what do we have to lose?’ and said yes. Thirty-two years later and that first punt on golf in the desert has paid huge dividends for the European Tour.
From that one event in 1989, the tour now has regular stops in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Dubai Duty Free now sponsors the Irish Open. The $8 million DP World Tour Championship, Dubai has put a full stop on every European Tour season since 2009, pumping millions into the back pockets of European golfers. The European Tour’s order of merit is called the Race to Dubai for a very lucrative reason.
Not even Schofield could have imagined back in 1989 when Mark James won that first Desert Classic, the Karl Litton Desert Classic to be precise, that Arab sheikhs would be tripping over themselves to throw money at European Tour players. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened.
Don’t think player managers have not used the lure of taking stars to the other Middle East tournaments to get those same sheikhs to dig deeper into their pockets to pay their star players more money. It would be fairly easy to tote up the millions in prize money Arab states have invested in the European Tour since that first Desert Classic. What would be more interesting is the total amount in appearance fees handed out. It might even dwarf the actual prize money. (P.S. I’m all yours if anyone knows the true figure.)
I didn’t cover the inaugural 1989 Desert Classic, but I was there for the second edition when Eamonn Darcy lifted the elaborate trophy. Total prize money was £276,355. It’s $3.25 million this week.
Dubai was a small city in 1990. I seem to remember you reached the desert when you arrived at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on the Sheikh Al Zayed Road, and it stayed desert until you arrived at the Emirates Golf Club and the Hard Rock Café. The image of the Hard Rock across the street still seems incongruous, like a mirage, but there it stood in the middle of the Arabian Desert.
You could walk across the two-lane road from the golf course to the Hard Rock. From that spot, it was further desert until you reached Jebel Ali, and then more desert all the way to Abu Dhabi.
Golf Monthly magazine’s offices had an aerial photograph of the Emirates course as it stood in 1989. It featured 18 strips of grass in the middle of a vast desert wasteland. Not now. As any current picture shows, the Emirates is now engulfed in a concrete jungle.
The Hard Rock is long gone, the site on which it stood separated by an eight-lane highway that in peak hours can be gridlock. About 10 years ago I stupidly decided to try to re-enact crossing the road from where the Hard Rock stood. How I didn’t get hit by a car, a truck, or a bus I don’t know. One of my dumber moves, and I was stone cold sober.
In the early days, golf writers, golfers, caddies, officials, would head to the old city of an evening to the gold souk, the spice souk, to take a dhow across the Dubai Creek. Latterly we haven’t bothered; it’s too much hassle.
It hasn’t been a hassle travelling back and forth to Dubai through the years for the European Tour, or for golf writers. How I’d love a bit of Dubai sun right now.
The City of Gold has been very good to the European Tour and its members. A wee thank you is in order.
#JustSaying: “Clearly, the decision of my predecessor, Ken Schofield, to embrace the Tunisian Open … was wise indeed. Here we are, just over a quarter of a century later, ready to touch down in Dubai as the Tour’s vision and inspiration become a reality with a truly global event in the Dubai World Championship.” George O’Grady in 2009.