One thing was abundantly clear at the Golf Saudi Summit, held in February in King Abdullah Economic City near Jeddah, Saudi Arabia: the kingdom is serious about developing golf.
We heard about the planning of what they term as ‘giga projects’, the successful completion of their second European Tour event – the Saudi International Golf Championship at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club – and the launch of The Saudi Ladies International.
While it may at first seem to be a bit of a pretentious term, ‘giga project’ is apt for these gigantic endeavours. They range in area from a few hundred square kilometres to thousands. It is not exactly clear where and when the golf elements within these projects will be ready for play, but there is a massive effort under way to not only develop places to play but to build what Jed Moore, managing director of Performance54, who is heading up the golf marketing for Saudi, says is a “modern golf ecosystem.”
Majed Al-Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation and Golf Saudi, says the kingdom plans to become the most innovative market in golf within the next ten years. Golf Saudi and partners are literally building a golf industry from the barest of deserts both figuratively and in some cases literally. He is a force of nature and deeply passionate about the prospect. Stressing that golf is good for business, Al Sorour believes that golf can provide a direct boost to the Kingdom’s GDP, as well as creating lucrative jobs. But he points out that first and foremost, golf is supposed to be fun and his goal is for the game to become part of the fabric of modern Saudi Arabia.
This is no small task, since there are currently 5,000 registered golfers in Saudi Arabia, of which around 100 are Saudi nationals. However, considering the rough estimate that there will be twenty new courses opening in the next ten years plus an impressive plan to integrate golf into schools and communities through the use of simulators in malls, high-tech practice ranges, formal teaching academies, golf camps, innovative par-three courses, short courses and other soon-to-be-announced fun golf products, it seems entirely plausible that the goal of 27,000 registered golfers and at least one million residents who have actively tried golf will be reached.
Unlike the development of golf in some other recently emerging markets around the world, Golf Saudi is partnering with private developers to first build a ‘golf ecosystem’, meaning that before they pursue international golf tourism in the kingdom, they will have built a golfing culture where golf is a common thing for a broad swathe of the population and not just some new expensive pastime for the elite. A key difference is that the staffing of the industry will be easily integrated since golf will be familiar to almost everyone.
In addition to the intention of building a home-grown thriving golf community before focusing on tourism, the kingdom is off to a roaring start. The second staging of the Saudi International Golf Championship produced an impressive field including 15 of the current world top 50 players including number one Brooks Koepka, defending champion Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Henrik Stenson, Lee Westwood, Shane Lowry, along with luminaries like Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. It was played on the impeccably conditioned Troon-managed and EGD-designed, Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, which held up to the unrelenting attacks of some of the game’s greatest. It is demonstrably a true championship venue.
These are exciting times for the golf design business as industry stalwarts have converged on the country vying for a shot at designing one of the premier projects (they are all premier actually). It was evident at the Golf Saudi Summit, which kicked off immediately following the tournament in early February.
Gary Player and Greg Norman drew a lot of attention as keynote speakers and graciously sat on panels and mingled with the guests during breaks. As of now, only one designer has been officially awarded a project. Greg Norman’s firm has captured a coveted site in the Wadi Safar, Diriyah Gate giga project. In his words about the site: “I have never designed anything on this scale before, the site is massive, and the cliffs are magnificent. There will not be a lot of blowing up or moving [things] around which fits into my mantra of the ‘least disturbance approach’. Once I walked the site and understood the corridors and the land plan, I was mesmerised by it.”
Gary Player had a lot of sensible things to say about introducing golf to new players and he would intend to design here. Building for speed of play was first on his list, citing reasonably sloped greens, fewer bunkers in front of greens, the elimination of difficult forced carries, and room to play. He went on to note that the kingdom has a huge variety of terrain that is ideal for varied and interesting courses. Sea, mountains and dunes offer plenty of opportunities for great routings. Using indigenous plants around the course is high on his list. And in regard to developing new participants, he feels it is key to bring in great teachers and, of course, from the incredibly fit 84-year-old, promote diet and exercise!
The ever-eloquent Robert Trent Jones Jr was another headliner who talked about how he uses the principle of harmony and Japanese scroll art, where an artist uses a silhouette of something in the background and places the subject in the foreground, mimicking the shapes. He has some intriguing examples of courses that I have always admired but never, before our conversation, understood the subtlety of the thought behind the design.
David Dale of Golfplan was struck by the sensitivity to protecting the environment and that all the projects have brought in experts to identify and plan for a sensitive development. While the desert seems void of life, there is quite a lot to preserve and enhance, and he feels that Golf Saudi is going above and beyond the norms.
O’Brien McGarey of Dye Designs thought that the Golf Saudi Summit ticked all the boxes: “The venue and variety of subjects kept our interest to the very last panel presentation.” Cynthia Dye weighed in too, from a few time zones away: “This is an exciting time for golf course design in the Middle East. We are glad to be a part of the discussion. Having a Dye golf course in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be a complement to the other courses I am designing in the region.”
There were also representatives from some of golf’s other marquee designers, including Faldo Design, Els Design, Mickelson Design, and Fry/Straka.
Thomas Rubi of Els Design said that in addition to being the first Tour professional to open a tournament course three years ago, this is the fifth trip he’s made to Saudi Arabia, which has clearly created a lot of good will in the process.
Mark Adams of Faldo Design is very appreciative, as is Sir Nick, with the sponsorship of his junior event, The Major Champions Invitational presented by Golf Saudi.
Considering that just a year ago there were no tourist visas in Saudi Arabia, nor even regular cinemas, it is astonishing how fast this juggernaut is accelerating in all sectors. It is certainly destined to be the hottest new venue for golf development in the very near future. Stay tuned.
As the official motto goes: “KSA is open for business.”
Sam Sakocius is a real estate and golf development expert and head of Qualitas Project Control
This article first appeared in the April 2020 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.