Ever since the world’s best players descended upon Jeddah for the inaugural European Tour event to be hosted in Saudi Arabia, the industry has clamoured for further information on what seems to be the most significant development move in golf’s recent history. Rather than scale alone, it is the meaning of the move that is being grasped at; what impact could this newfound ambition from a fledgling golfing nation have for this Royal and Ancient game that could, in any sense, bear impact on golf as we know it?
The answer to that very question was being formulated long before Dustin, Justin, Brooks and Bryson set foot in the Kingdom, by a group whose mandate had been set to shift the stable, if not sluggish, course golf has been treading.
Upon golf’s newest frontier, the current dynamics of the game have been examined, explored and unpicked, reaching novel conclusions on next steps required for a strategy seeking to promote golf to a domestic population with whom it is alien, and to promote itself to an external audience possessing only a one dimensional perspective of the country. In short, Saudi’s mission is to become the fastest growing golf destination in the world. And the planning phase has already concluded.
The central driving force behind the game’s national development is Golf Saudi, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Saudi Golf Federation, which is backing vision with capital investment. Almost to the tune of $1bn. Among wide-ranging infrastructural developments, the building of a reported 13 golf courses is likely to gain most public traction. But this is only scratching the surface.
Such are the aspirations of this emerging market it may well be the unlikely source which injects new energy into the game; the blueprint for its progressive approach combined by its willingness to watch and learn from established markets.
“After an extensive period of evaluation and dialogue with the industry, we now have a robust strategy for golf’s evolution in Saudi Arabia,” said His Excellency Yasir Bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, Chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation.
“Our development programme will see an initial investment of up $1bn USD in building a number of new golf courses with varied characteristics nationwide. Within this we have committed to urban-based entertainment focussed golf developments, with a healthy portion to nurturing participation via modern consumer engagement techniques.”
The fundamental pillars of the strategy are founded on consumer access and understanding modern consumption habits, allowing golf to find a voice among a youthful audience (58.5% of Saudi Arabia’s population is under 30). The urban component has been specifically designed to target this group, taking the game to high footfall areas and providing first opportunities to try the sport in the context of entertainment, rather than sport. This mirrors the nation’s shifting dynamic, which is encouraging burgeoning leisure options, as well as taking the lead from other markets, such as the US, which has experienced a spike in off-course, non-traditional modes of the game.
“We are in the fortunate position of being able to evaluate modern trends and, as such, we are creating an offer which marries the internal social changes happening in Saudi Arabia with those of the wider golfing world,” continued His Excellency Yasir Bin Othman Al-Rumayyan. “The product we are creating aligns with Vision2030 and we are confident will captivate audiences as to the appeal of this great game. Our focus is to create a first impression that lasts and set new players on a journey to get to know and hopefully fall in love with the sport.”
There are, however, no illusions that introducing a fresh sporting pursuit with success can be as simple as ‘build it and they will come’. Collectively, some 3,500 jobs are expected, supported by the introduction of a fully-fledged education program. Discussions are ongoing with ministries and global golf education bodies to fast track the upskilling of golf industry professionals who can be integrated into developments worldwide, gaining the vocational experience and expertise to lead Saudi’s golf future. The sense appears that instilling a business-minded approach around the intrinsic appeal of the game will result in an entrepreneurial spirited sector that will create a distinct national identity.
“We want to foster a strong population of Saudi golf industry professionals and target installing our first Saudi golf club general manager by 2026,” said Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation. “We are working with our supplier network and partners to allow our people to gain as broad an operational skill set as possible and champion an entrepreneurial value chain.”
Saudi’s golfing development is progressing in tandem with a number of aptly termed ‘Giga’ projects. These are becoming ever more defined on the horizon, with golf very much at the front and centre of the master plan.
The four Giga projects – Qiddiya, Amaala, Red Sea Project and Neom – make provisions for recognised economic pull from golf, whilst making provisions to explore modern tactics to take advantage of the growing appeal of entertainment golf. Simultaneously the groups are aligning with stakeholders to provide the conditions to generate interest from the lucrative global golf tourism sector, as well as the forecasted domestic growth.
A project of such scale in a traditionally non-golfing nation, had it been initiating almost anywhere else, would perhaps be viewed as folly. However, wholly backed by Golf Saudi and with the collective impact and backing of all associated stakeholders, success is presumed rather than expected.
Acknowledging the existing authority of golf’s stakeholder groups, Golf Saudi is keen to ensure that development is pursued in keeping with modern best practice. The Golf Environment Organization (GEO) was among the first groups consulted with a view to creating the world’s first national adherence programme; ensuring domestic stakeholder alignment with a national benchmark that safeguards the process of all future development. A first initiative of its kind, but very unlikely to be the last the world will see.
“We are extremely impressed by what we have seen so far in relation to Saudi Golf’s vision for the future of golf development, combined with an approach that is both proactive and collaborative,” commented Jonathan Smith, Founder and Executive Director, GEO Foundation.
“This provides the time and space for world leading experts to come together, to really drive innovation, creative designs and technical solutions. We commended this, as it is the only way to ensure that long-term environmental sustainability can be achieved – where carefully selected sites retain and enhance ecosystem value; and where those recreational landscapes are supplied by a cycle of clean and renewable energy, water and materials. If this can be achieved, then Golf Saudi will quickly establish a position as pioneers in the sustainable development of the sport of golf.”
STRI, the leading sports turf consultancy, has also been charged with exploring a programme to define regionally specific construction materials and methods that address Saudi Arabia’s particular geographical circumstance, whilst quite literally laying the foundations that will allow for the implementation of the grandest golf course development programme ever seen.
“The learnings our team take from its initial studies have to be comprehensive,” said Lee Penrose, STRI Group Director. “We have the opportunity to start from scratch and implement world leading measures that we have been championing as an organisation for quite some time. We are proud to work alongside Golf Saudi who will embrace such future proof thinking and ensure that operational procedure in Saudi is thorough and robust. It does not do short cuts.”
As ambitious as its infrastructural ambitions are, if there is any metaphor which best describes Saudi’s objective to become a serious and respected player in the global golf picture, it is perhaps the Golf Saudi Summit. This specialist trade event will bring together captains of industry to explore new solutions to set and reach higher benchmarks for golf’s future. Rather than traditional board room settings, golf’s modern era, and its future relevance to an ever-more-discerning market, could be conceptualised by powerbrokers in its youngest market.
And not before time; the challenges they will seek to address are significant, although not insurmountable. Whilst golf has proven its value for developers globally, its shine is starting to wane. In times of plenty, the yield from golf real estate remains intact, but membership and tourism numbers, save intermittent flourishes, have long been a shade of their former selves. Top Golf-like products, it is easy to argue, are far more in keeping with modern societal demands, while time and other pressures of the modern day have been to the detriment of the game.
“We have seen a stagnation in traditional uptake regionally, while international growth in socially competitive, entertainment-driven golf has flourished,” said Majed Al Sorour, CEO of the Saudi Golf Federation. “There is no doubt this segment has taken time to find its feet, but it is a form of the game that cannot be discounted as a serious component for the modern era.”
Neither has the surge of E-Sports been lost on Saudi’s decision makers. The desire for tech investments and the country’s heavily skewed demographic means golf’s domestic health will be heavily dependent on its capability to connect and engage with younger audiences across all platforms. Whilst the industry scrabbles to qualify outcomes from primary evidence sources to demonstrate how these new forms convert new and regular players, the opportunity is obvious: get clubs in people’s hands by any means and the chance they will fall for the game, as so many have before them, surely increases.
“Our analysis leads us to conclude there is a clear necessity to include broader access points to the game within our model to create a healthy ecosystem that can sustain high participation rates,” continued Al-Sorour. “We have set out aggressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) and realise to have a long-lasting impact and convert our targeted percentage of the population, we must embrace all forms in a serious way.”
A comprehensive school program will set out to embed golf into the sporting curriculum, giving youngsters their first experiences of golf and impart the fundamentals behind what makes the game so great. The introduction of tried and tested methods and a ‘teach-the-teacher’ philosophy will give the sport the chance to cement the solid foundation for which it is being built.
As in any project of its scale, timing is everything. While geo-political forces may play their part for the Saudis, from the perspective of the golf industry, developments of this nature are surely long overdue and will be observed with fervent interest. Stretching the disposition of the industry at large into the realms of innovation, demonstrating that participation can be impacted by addressing the problem from a new standpoint and taking a true partnership approach could constitute a new vision for best practice in a seemingly improbably short passing of time.
Continued alignment with experts is a theme expected to continue. The team at Troon are the latest deployment, who will provide advisory services to help maintain the concentration on setting a positive new regime for the game’s growth.
“With buy-in from the government and local development stakeholders, Golf Saudi is well placed to deliver a truly innovative approach to bringing golf and sport to the Saudi people,” said Bruce Glasco, COO, Troon. “This is a great opportunity to reset the dial and introduce modern techniques that help create one of the fastest growing new golf markets in the world.”
The vision and mission for golf in Saudi will polarise opinion. It is accepted as an occupational hazard on all sides. But still, there is potential, few could argue, for such a cohesive, fully formed and incredibly ambitious programme to irreversibly change the fortunes of the game for the future. New era developments, modes of communication and participation programmes have long been identified as potentially revolutionary and indisputably required. Right now, Saudi Arabia is the most likely candidate to provide the template for them.
Golf Saudi https://www.golfsaudi.com/
Pictured top: Saudi nationals playing golf for the first time at a Golf Saudi activation in Oud Square, Riyadh