Saudi golf coach Faraj Mezhar hit his first shots on a sandy course in neighboring Qatar three decades ago, an outing that changed his life forever.
After a long stint with the Saudi national team, these days he helps amateurs with their swing and short game, part of a national project to transform the Gulf state into an unlikely golf powerhouse.
Professional golf has this year been roiled by the emergence of LIV Golf, a Saudi-funded breakaway circuit that has lured stars from the US PGA Tour with eye-watering prize money of $25 million per tournament.
The limited-field, no-cut circuit will hold its first tournament on Saudi soil starting on Friday, drawing top-flight talent like Australia’s Cameron Smith and Dustin Johnson of the United States to a course outside the Red Sea coastal city of Jeddah.
LIV’s CEO Greg Norman stands accused of tearing golf apart with help from the deep-pocketed Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF), in what activists describe as “sportswashing” — using sport to distract from human rights abuses.
But in interviews with AFP, professional and amateur Saudi golfers said they were either bemused by the controversy or ignoring it as they focused instead on growing the sport at home or perfecting their swing.
“There must be competition in the world of golf,” and so far the rivalry between PGA and LIV has been “honest and classy”, Mezhar said at the Riyadh Golf Club, an oasis of palm trees and manicured fairways north of the city center .
He encouraged a reporter to watch his five-year-old son blast drives off a tee with a 3-wood, boasting that he would be “the next star player in the kingdom”.
– Golf in the Gulf –
Well before the LIV tour held its first 54-hole, shotgun-start tournament in England in June, the Saudi government was taking steps to promote golf in the Gulf.
It is part of a broader push to invest in sport as the kingdom, long closed off to outsiders, tries to project a friendlier image abroad while diversifying its economy away from oil.
The Saudi Golf Federation, headed by PIF governor Yasir al-Rumayyan, is pursuing what it describes as “the most comprehensive development program the world of golf has ever seen”.
Central to this initiative are programs like “Ladies First”, which offers free lessons and course access to female golfers, and “Let It Fly”, which gives free lessons to Saudi youth.
Officials also plan to add at least 10 new courses in the next decade, bringing the total in the desert kingdom to 24.
Abdulaziz, a Riyadh-based banker who asked to be identified only by his first name, pointed to an uptick in public enthusiasm.
When he started playing in 2009, golf was “mainly an expat game”, dominated by foreign employees from oil giant Saudi Aramco and other firms. But that is no longer the case.
Now the double-decker driving range at Riyadh Golf Club is “full all the time with Saudis”, he said.
– ‘Sportswashing and all that’ –
A growing appetite for the sport is also spreading by word of mouth.
“I want others to experience what I’m experiencing,” Abdulaziz said.
“I mean, it’s very rare that here in Riyadh, in the middle of the desert, you come to a place where it’s all green and you have lakes and you have ducks swimming around.”
Abdulaziz played down tensions between LIV Golf and the PGA, which has barred players from its rival tour from competing in its events.
“Unfortunately, people try to bring politics into it all the time, sportswashing and all that,” he said.
“We’re changing, we’re trying to uplift the quality of life here in Saudi Arabia.”
New converts to the sport said they are more preoccupied with improving their shots.
“Before I started playing golf, I thought it was a very easy game,” said Moath Alsubaie, 18, who has practiced every day since he first picked up a club eight months ago.
“But I discovered that it’s one of the most difficult sports because it requires not just physical skill but mental skill as well.”
Abdullah al-Rayes, 28, agreed, saying that while anyone can play golf, “few can master it”.
“The game of golf,” he added, “really makes you humble.”