Golfing in Saudi Arabia has come a very long way since Aramco’s oil expats built the kingdom’s first nine-hole course back in the 1940s.
Indeed, it has come so far that Saudi Arabia hosted its first-ever PGA European Tour tournament earlier this year with four of the five top-rated world players among the professional golfers. Instead of oil-caked sand, they stood on the tee of the 18-hole Royal Greens Golf and Country Club and looked down on grass as lush as any set deep in the English countryside, but with the Red Sea lapping gently nearby.
Grass technology has improved dramatically, and the Royal Greens has been seeded with Paspalum Dynasty, a new strain of salt- and heat-tolerant grass that does not discolour under the sun. Better still, the fairways are specially irrigated with new UK-designed Rainbird equipment that adeptly applies water where it’s needed with very little waste.
Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose were among the scores of top professionals who looked on with anticipation at the 6th hole’s tee over an extremely challenging 470 yard par four with a heavy dogleg left.
At the 15th hole their swings ended with a broad view of waves tumbling off the clear waters of the Red Sea where the fairway veered towards the beach. There is no need for a bunker at the end of the 15th as an overhit stroke will find players rolling up their trousers to take a swing from the surf.
With the prevailing sea wind in mind, the course has been designed to make the holes play in multiple directions and the PGA players soon found this forced them to be both varied and creative in their shot-making with clear risk and reward choices. Dustin Johnson made the best decisions, setting a course record and taking the lions share of the $3.5m purse.
The attention to detail paid to Royal Greens, where work began in 2008, was such that it was able to reach the high standards to host the Euro Tour.
Golf Saudi is now undertaking one of the most comprehensive development programme the world of golf has ever seen. The successors of Rose and Johnson could well be challenged by young Saudis currently being trained to international standard by the Saudi Golf Federation in an elite player development programme.
This received a major boost earlier this year when Sir Nick Faldo, the six-time majors champion, announced a partnership with Golf Saudi and his brainchild, the Major Champions Invitational, the unique junior golf championship. “Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps to introduce the game at grass roots and this partnership will assist both sides in delivering a positive impact,” Sir Nick said.
Few sports can match the power and appeal of the of golf, which blends skill, stamina and pleasant social interaction. It is lucrative too and part of the Saudi 2030 Vision for the future plans to have 140,000 of its youthful population working in the sporting sector within the next decade. The kingdom is investing billions into sports facilities that will include several arenas and female gyms.
The drive to expand golf has given Saudi Arabia five grassed courses with a few more brown layouts, albeit much improved from the 1940s. Among the championship courses is Dhirdad, 60km south of the capital Riyadh, which has extensive driving facilities and nine holes that can be floodlit to allow post-sunset play.
But Royal Greens leads the way in luxury and facilities that includes a club house with private dining room, cigar room and library along with a spa, fine-dining options and a golf academy. This will mark Royal Greens as a major golfing destination for visitors, with Saudi Arabia set to become one of the region’s finest sports and leisure destinations. It lies in an area rich with historical treasures, outstanding scuba diving and island archipelagos comparable to the Maldives.
At Royal Greens’ opening in 2018 the South African champion Ernie Els called it a “landmark moment for golf in Saudi Arabia”, predicting the club would quickly become “one of the most recognisable and most popular destinations on any worldwide tour”.
Its success is a virtuous spiral. One day soon, a Saudi will be on a professional golf leader board, but before then many champions will have smiled at the thought of returning to the beguiling challenges of Royal Greens.