Saudi elephant in room overshadows Dubai Desert Classic buildup

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Cannon/Getty Images

Gone are the days where the only backdrop to the Dubai Desert Classic is the city’s famous skyline. As a number of the world’s top golfers prepared for the 34th staging of this event, all discussion surrounded the Saudi International.

Next week’s event will offer $15m in appearance fees and has become the sport’s bete noire as Saudi Arabia continues with its pursuit of a super league. Under that plan, hotly contested by the European and PGA Tours, 14 events – mainly US-based – would see players paid in telephone numbers simply for involvement. Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau have been routinely linked with the breakaway.

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Rory McIlroy made his lack of interest in all things Saudi perfectly plain long ago. He speaks from afar in this context. The Northern Irishman defends the right of high-profile colleagues to go to Riyadh next week but believes lofty appearance payments can distort sport. “It’s the competitive integrity, to me,” McIlroy said. “That’s one of the biggest issues here. How hard are guys going to compete when they know that they are guaranteed whatever the money is?”

McIlroy is uneasy with the notion of Saudi money automatically equalling bad money. He cites Uber as an example of a widely used company backed by Saudi’s public investment fund. Yet in professional terms, McIlroy views the potential to be a poster boy for a nation castigated for human rights abuses as not worth any cheque.

“I like being my own boss,” said the four-times major winner. “I don’t want to be told what to do. I don’t want to be told where to show up, when to show up, you have so many events, you have to travel here. It’s nice to feel like taking a couple weeks off and doing that. That’s the nice thing.”

One key complication with the Saudi International is that it was once the domain of the European Tour. At that point, golfers were encouraged to attend. Many signed multi-year deals to do so. There is player annoyance attached to that.

“I understand the position of the Tours,” said Sergio García, who will play both this week and next. “At the same time, they have to understand all of us, too. We’re trying to achieve things, not only for myself but for my family. I’ve been a member of the European Tour for 23 years and I’ve done a lot of things to make that happen. I’ve put a lot of mileage in my body.”

Asked whether existing tours should let golfers choose where they play, García said: “Probably that would be the best thing for golf. When you get banned from playing, or whatever, it hurts the game. People want to see us play all around the world and enjoy us wherever we go so I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Paul Casey will join García in Saudi. The Englishman – the defending champion at the Desert Classic – remains an interesting case as an ambassador for Unicef. Casey is adamant his appearances in Saudi can be a force for good. “It’s a very difficult thing to try to communicate what happens in our golf space with revenues and how much is played for and players’ feelings towards what their share should be,” Casey said.

“It’s a very difficult thing to communicate to the general public, because you look at the numbers [and they are] incredible. It’s a delicate topic and I tend to not talk about money.” Which will not stop others from doing precisely that.

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