How and why Saudi Arabia is trying to spark a golf craze

a spectator at the Saudi Ladies International event in 2020

A spectator capturing the action at the Saudi Ladies International last year.

getty images

If you build it, they will come. 

A field of dreams? Well, yes, but in this case, we’re referring to a kingdom of golf courses.

That’s the idea behind an ambitious plan to elevate the game in a country where golf has never been a big part of the culture: the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The European Tour this week is staging the Saudi International, at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, with a field that includes the likes of world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed and Justin Rose. But Golf Saudi, which is the driving force behind the development of the game in a nation of just 5,000 golfers, is thinking well beyond just this tournament, or even just this year.

The target it has in mind is 2030. 

graeme mcdowell at saudi international
Graeme McDowell en route to victory at the 2020 Saudi International. getty images

By then, if plans stay on track, there will be 13 public-access courses in Saudi Arabia, up from just five today (the kingdom also has a handful of private courses, some of which are built from sand). The golf push is part of a larger “Vision 2030” strategy, championed by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman; that initiative is aimed, in part, at bolstering the kingdom’s entertainment and tourism offerings as the nation simultaneously implements social reform.

On the golf front, thinking big means bringing in established designers.

“Every single golf course we are going to build from now on is going to have to be a branded name,” Majed Al Sorour, the CEO of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, said in an interview. “All of the great designers are going to be part of the development in the kingdom.”

So far, the list includes two legendary major winners in Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman

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Construction is slated to begin in late spring or early summer on Qiddiya, a Nicklaus Design signature course about 40 kilometers from Riyadh, the capital. 

“Probably the best comparison would be to something like in Arizona, which has a desert floor and mountains in the background,” said Paul Stringer, Nicklaus Design president (Nicklaus Design and are affiliates of 8AM Golf). “It will wind through the desert and obviously a big part of that will be the native landscape and some of the desert landscape.”

The Norman course, which will have 27 holes, will be built in Diriyah, roughly a half hour from Riyadh.

Not all of Saudi Arabia’s designers are imports. Abdullah Kamakhi, who studied landscape architecture at Arizona State University, was recently accepted into the European Institute of Golf Course Architects. He’s now on a path to become Saudi’s first course architect.

“We want to have as many specialized people in golf from the Saudi citizen as we can,” Al Sorour said.

The fervor around golf began in 2017, when, according to Al Souror, a study revealed the need to find ways for Saudi citizens “to engage and feel happy to be in the country.”  

A year later, Golf Saudi was established.

royal greens in saudi arabia
Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, host site of the Saudi International. courtesy

Among the organization’s first wave of initiatives was a program called Ladies First Club that has a stated goal of teaching golf to 1,000 women in the kingdom. Golf Saudi figured it would take a couple of months to attract that many participants. It took four days. There was so much interest that membership had to be closed so the women who had signed up would have free lessons and equipment.

“Our trainers and our coaches are really having a difficult time keeping up with the number of people who want to practice and learn the game,” Al Souror said. 

As for the overall success of Golf Saudi, it’s too early to tell. 

“This is the chicken and the egg and we don’t know yet,” Al Sourour said. “We’re just exploring.”

Whatever happens, this week’s European Tour event — there are also two Ladies European Tour events in Saudi Arabia — will surely continue to help raise awareness of the sport in the kingdom. 

“It’s really important,” Al Sorour said of the Saudi International, which is now in its third year. “We’ve built a momentum. Every tournament we have to up it to the next level. What we want eventually is the Saudi International to be sought after by all major players.” 

In addition to Royal Greens G&CC, here’s a look at the kingdom’s four other grass public courses:

Riyadh Golf Club: Completed in 2005, the course measures about 7,000 yards from the back tees. It features a 689-yard par-5 and a 162-yard par-3 that has an elevated green and is surrounded by water. Located 20 miles north of the capital, the course (below) is referred to as The Pearl of the Desert.

riyadh golf course
Riyadh Golf Club courtesy

Nofa Golf Resort: At almost 7,000 yards, the par-73 design, set among red sand dunes, contains a small Safari Park between two of the holes. The animals include ostriches, gazelles, antelopes, and Arabian oyxs. 

Dirab Golf and Country Club: Situated in the Tawfiq valley, the tree-lined course is the first 18-hole par-72 championship grass layout in the kingdom. The facility also has a par-3 academy course.

Arizona Golf Resort: This 9-hole layout features an assortment of par-3s and 4s and a par-5 measuring … 376 yards!? Sounds easy? It’s not, according to the course’s website. The second shot calls for an approach of 200 yards over a lake.

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