Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp
Norman says $200m series could unearth new Tiger Woods in the Kingdom. (File/AFP)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp

Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp
  • Australian golf legend is spearheading Saudi-backed 10-year plan for 10 annual events from 2022
  • Norman says $200m series could unearth new Tiger Woods in the Kingdom

LONDON: When “the Great White Shark” —  aka Greg Norman —  sinks his teeth into something, success is guaranteed on and off the golf course.

The 66-year-old Australian won 91 professional tournaments, including two Open championships, during a distinguished career that saw him top the world rankings for 331 consecutive weeks.

The pioneering Norman has also become one of the world’s most successful athlete-turned-entrepreneurs, with his global corporation Great White Shark Enterprises boasting more than a dozen companies.

As such, Norman’s bold proclamation to Arab News that Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse under his tenacious tutelage should not dismissed lightly.

Norman last month was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a newly formed, Saudi-backed company that will bring a series of 10 new events to the Asian Tour in 2022. 

He is relishing the opportunity to channel “44 years of observation, knowledge and experience” into rousing golf’s “sleeping giant,” Asia, as part of a ground-breaking 10-year deal that will involve tournaments being staged across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“I first went (to Asia) in 1977 and I’ve been going back every year, except during the pandemic years, as a player, golf course designer or through my business acumen,” Norman said via a Zoom call.

“I’ve seen what golf has done there. I was the first guy to build an 18-hole grass course in Jordan. I was the first guy to do an exhibition match in mainland China. I was one of the first guys to play in the UAE as a professional, so I’ve seen the economic growth, as well as the growth of the game of golf, when it goes into new markets.”

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with a diverse international investment portfolio, is the majority shareholder in Norman’s new company.

Saudi PIF has committed more than $200 million, one of the single biggest investments in the history of professional golf, to support playing opportunities and prize funds.

The series will add to the Asian Tour’s backbone of established events to comprise a 25-event season, expected to represent a record-breaking combined prize fund in 2022.

The announcement follows hard on the heels of the striking of a new 10-year partnership between the Asian Tour and Golf Saudi, the organizers of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, which will see the event become the flagship tournament on the Asian Tour, featuring an increased prize fund of $5 million.

Norman is hugely impressed with Golf Saudi’s aggressive drive to promote golf as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 masterplan, which includes multiple golf courses being built in the country.

“Golf Saudi are passionate about the game of golf. If you have that much passion, vision and desire like Vision 2030, then you’re going to accelerate it. I love to see that,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve seen an investment in the future of a country like what I’ve seen in Saudi Arabia.”

He added: “I’ve seen it in pockets around the world — Vietnam has done a great job in investing in its coastline and building high-end resorts and golf course developments there — but nothing to the magnitude of what Saudi Arabia has done. It’s a knock-on effect, a domino effect, and golf is paving the way for (prosperity). It’s an eye-opener to see how the country is investing into their people and opportunities from a health and wellness perspective, from a sporting perspective, from an education perspective,” he said.

“I would say the citizens of Saudi Arabia should be extremely excited about their future.”

Norman said: “Do I think Saudi Arabia could become a golfing powerhouse? Yes, I do.”

“If you’re going to invest dollars into building new facilities, it will allow people access to the game of golf,” he said. “Then you bolt on a lot of other things like academies and education and the hospitality side of things, so it’s actually a beautiful process to watch.” 

He added: “It’s not just one individual who benefits from it, it’s everybody.”

Norman said the schedule for the new series will be announced shortly, with all full-field events contributing toward the Order of Merit ranking.

He is confident of assembling a stellar line-up of world-renowned golfers, too, which is crucial to his overriding aim of inspiring the next generation.

World No.2 Dustin Johnson, who won the Saudi International in 2019 and 2020, is among those rumored to be interested, although Norman would not discuss potential participants.

“All I can tell you is every day I get a message, whether it’s through my WhatsApp, or through Signal or my IG account, from a player asking: ‘How can I get involved? We love it. Thank you, thank you, thank you’.”

He said: “Obviously creating the ability to bring professional golfers stimulates the interest among the younger generation, who would say: ‘Oh, wow, I want to win that golf tournament that John Smith just won.’ The interest level gets accelerated, the fan level gets accelerated, and the fanbase gets bigger, broader and stronger. The game of golf gets better because of that.

“When the fanbase gets elevated, then (people with) more corporate dollars want to come in because the fans are there. There’s this domino effect that happens from an economic standpoint and also a growth standpoint.”

He added: “Could Saudi Arabia produce the next Tiger Woods? The answer is ‘yes.’ But it’s a long-term ‘yes’ and a generational ‘yes.’,” he said.

“In the mid-1980s, there was a gentleman called Sven Tumba from Sweden, who was an ice hockey player who loved golf. He went on this mission to create an opportunity to grow grassroots golf in Sweden. Look where Sweden is today,. They’ve got a major championship winners.”

Norman is eager to seize every opportunity to expand the game of golf as part of his landmark initiative.

This includes potentially inviting women to participate, as they did at this month’s Aramco Saudi Ladies International for the second year. Building new golf courses across Asia would also be “a logical next step,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Asian Tour CEO and commissioner, Cho Minn Thant, recently suggested that television broadcasting innovations would be explored, including “putting a 3D camera on some of the players if they allow it, or new graphics.”

Norman agreed, adding: “I’m getting flooded with the best of the best from the technology side of life, from technology corporations, from 5G corporations. Golf is under a linear broadcaster, so there are so many ways to show the sport in so many different aspects with the technology that’s out there today and not being used.”

While Norman is fiercely determined to make the Asian Tour global golf’s premier series, he insists he does not want to antagonize the long-established PGA and European Tours.

“I’m a big believer that we can play in the same sandbox. Why can’t there be others who are creating a separate but similar opportunity for players as independent contractors to go and increase their market value?” he said.

“Competition is the best thing for everyone and everything on this planet,” Norman added. “You can go through everything we do in life and we need a competitor to push us to the next level.”

With a hungry Great White Shark on the prowl, Asian sports fans can expect to feast themselves on some spectacular golf in years to come.

Endurance stars ready to tackle AlUla challenge in Fursan Cup

Endurance stars ready to tackle AlUla challenge in Fursan Cup
Updated 10 sec ago

Endurance stars ready to tackle AlUla challenge in Fursan Cup

Endurance stars ready to tackle AlUla challenge in Fursan Cup

ALULA: Stars from the sport of endurance have landed in Saudi Arabia in preparation for the Fursan Cup 2022 on Jan. 29.

More than 200 riders from more than 30 countries will contest the 120 km ride, which will be staged in the historic AlUla region on Saturday, Jan. 29.

Among those competing in the across-the-desert landscape is Carmine Villani, the World No.1 in the FEI rankings in 2020.

Villani, who represents Great Britain, said: “AlUla for me is really like riding in the Grand Canyon — one of the most beautiful places in the world with sand and cliffs. It’s magical.”

The event is a thorough test of skill and stamina for riders and horses alike. With four loops, the ride takes eight hours on average to complete.

Villani added: “It’s a technical course — because of the very deep sand. That’s the challenge of course and you have to manage that. It’s really an important thing.”

Costanza Laliscia, the 2016 and 2019 winner of the FEI Young Riders World Endurance Ranking, is another top rider looking forward to lining up in the Fursan Endurance Cup, the third staging of which carries a huge prize of $4.2m (SR15 million).

“I can’t wait to go to Saudi Arabia,” the Italian said. “I’ve never been yet but imagine wonderful landscapes and a very high-level race. From the photos, I see it as a unique landscape that will surely leave me great memories and very intense emotions. It is a desert different from all the others I have known.”

Laliscia, whose father Gianluca is a former endurance champion, believes that the ride in AlUla will provide further impetus for the sport in the region and beyond.

“I know the history of horses in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “I am sure that with this race, and the excellent organization, you can make an important contribution to the growth of sport and especially of endurance in this country with great potential. This is a moment of growth.”

The growing stature and global nature of the Fursan Endurance Cup is underlined by the involvement of competitors such as Pedro Pablo Gomez Martinez. The rider, trainer and breeder has undertaken an extensive journey of approaching 24 hours from his stables in Chile to be in AlUla for the event.

Pedro Pablo Gomez said: “AlUla will be a perfect place for endurance and Saudi will hopefully grow in the sport eventually as it has all the needed potential and real Arabian horses come from there. I am very excited for this trip as I will learn even more. I’m truly honored for this to part of this event, and I want to thank all the authorities of Saudi Arabia making this happen in AlUla — and its spectacular and breathtaking landscapes — with the support of endurance experts to organize it.”

The Fursan Cup is organized in cooperation with the Royal Commission for AlUla and Saudi Arabian Equestrian Federation. The event will be one of the main attractions of the Winter at Tantora Festival, which runs from Dec. 21 to Feb. 12.

Tantora is one of four main festivals being introduced in 2022 under the AlUla Moments banner. The festival includes another flagship equestrian event, AlUla Desert Polo, Feb. 11-12, as well as a series of music events at Maraya.

Speaking on behalf of the Royal Commission for AlUla, Phillip Jones, chief destination management and marketing officer, said: “AlUla’s equestrian events are key pillars of what is a longer-term strategy to share with the world the monumental beauty of AlUla as a place that is unique in the Arabian Peninsula and perfect for exploring on horseback. The RCU vision includes significant infrastructure and facilities for the elite end of the sport as well as more riding trails and itineraries for visitors to immerse themselves in the majesty of the cultural landscape.”

“The experience of horseback riding among the desert splendour and rock formations creates unforgettable memories. Our third staging of The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup will be no different for our all riders.”

Saudi nearly there, UAE playoff hopes alive: 5 things we learned from latest Asian World Cup qualifiers

Saudi nearly there, UAE playoff hopes alive: 5 things we learned from latest Asian World Cup qualifiers
Updated 28 January 2022

Saudi nearly there, UAE playoff hopes alive: 5 things we learned from latest Asian World Cup qualifiers

Saudi nearly there, UAE playoff hopes alive: 5 things we learned from latest Asian World Cup qualifiers
  • Iraq continue to underachieve despite plenty of talent while Lebanon’s lack of firepower proved costly again

Seven down and just three to go. Qatar 2022 and the end of Asia’s World Cup qualification journey is in sight for those at the top of the two groups. Below are five things Arab News learned from Thursday’s games.

1. Saudi Arabia missed Al-Faraj but got the crucial win


While Saudi fans will be celebrating the 1-0 win over Oman that keeps them four points clear at the top of Group B, there will be a slight worry there too. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Salman Al-Faraj is a classy customer and it wasn’t a surprise that Saudi Arabia’s worst performance so far in the final round of qualification came without the Al-Hilal star sitting in the middle. The Green Falcons had 55 percent of the possession but continuously gave the ball away. 

It was his presence that was conspicuous by its absence. Al-Faraj is a calm influence for Al-Hilal and Saudi Arabia and it all felt a little rushed without him in the face of speedy Omani midfielders. His replacement, Sami Al-Najei, did not last long and was withdrawn after half an hour as coach Renard made a tactical switch that improved the team’s control of the middle, but even then Al-Faraj was still missed.

The most important part was the three points, however. Sometimes in qualification you just have to grind out a win and that is what happened in Jeddah. 

2. Energetic UAE get crucial cushion


Suddenly it is all smiles in the UAE after a second successive win, this time a 2-0 victory over Syria in Dubai. It was a much-improved performance against an opponent that is never easy, despite their bottom ranking, and surely the UAE’s best display in this stage so far.

Finishing in the top two spots in a group containing South Korea and Iran was always going to be difficult, even if the fact that those two powerhouses were never put under any pressure was disappointing.

Now however, the UAE can focus on securing third place and a place in the play-offs. It was especially pleasing given that there were some major absentees such as Ali Mabkhout and Fabio De Lima. Caio Canedo scored the opener and was lively throughout.

Coach Bert van Marwijk had said before the game that there was a new energy in the team, and that is what proved to be the difference. There was movement and an intensity that had been missing. If the Whites can build on this win against the already-qualified Iran on Tuesday then third spot will be virtually secured.

3. Oman deserved more than Jeddah defeat


If an alien, or just a non-Asian football fan, had sat in the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium and watched Saudi Arabia and Oman then they would not have been able to tell which team was leading Group B and which was in fourth. They would not have been able to tell which team was missing several players due to COVID-19 and injury. 

Apart from the goalkeeping mistake that allowed Firas Al-Buraikan to bundle the ball home from close range, Saudi Arabia never really looked like scoring in Jeddah. Instead, it was Oman who looked the more dangerous. Perhaps it was because they were free from pressure; the underdogs with little chance of reaching the play-off spot, but Oman deserved a point from the game. Rabia Al-Alawi never stopped running up front and was a constant thorn in the side and the center of the Saudi backline.

Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will barely remember this game and will take the points and move on but Oman should take heart from a big performance and further proof, after September’s win in Japan, that they can live with the big boys of Asian football. 

4. Iraq do their best but questions to answer


The 1-0 loss to Iran in Tehran leaves Iraq with just four points from seven games, a full five points off the UAE in third place. It’s just not good enough for a team that has genuine talent and slim hopes of a play-off spot are hanging by a thread.

The latest defeat was hardly a surprise given that they were missing eight players — seven through COVID-19 and one through injury — and were unable to fill the bench at the Azadi Stadium with just 18 players available. It could have been worse, with the best performer on the day Fahad Talib in goal.

The big question now is: What direction do Iraq go in now? There was the big-name foreign coach experiment with Dick Advocaat that didn’t work as the Dutchman resigned in November after just six games to leave his assistant Zeljko Petrovic in charge, but there are still issues in terms of who really calls the shots and regardless of all that, preparation remains overly chaotic and ad hoc.

The Iraq national team needs a reset. The World Cup has virtually gone and while the talent remains, there is a lack of direction. 

5. Lebanon need a striker


Losing 1-0 to South Korea is no disgrace for Lebanon but while the Taeguk Warriors were the better team, the Cedars will know they could have got something from a hard-fought game.

It has been the story of the stage for Lebanon. They have given everything and pushed the bigger teams all the way only to fail to get the necessary points on the board. 

Korea may have dominated first-half possession but nobody in Lebanon, or watching back in East Asia, will ever know how the hosts did not take the lead not long before the break. 

Alexander Melki hit the bar from close range but, no problem, as his brother was there to shoot the rebound into an empty net. Somehow, however, Felix Melki shot wide when it was easier to score. 

Heads had not long been removed from hands when the visitors took the lead in a razor-sharp move. A beautiful inswinging cross from the left was met first-time by a sliding Cho Gue-song. It was more of the same after the break and again Lebanon hit the woodwork with a fierce low shot from Felix Melki. And then substitute Fadel Antra headed a cross over the bar when unmarked as the game entered injury time. Lebanon had the chances but just lack that little quality in the final third.

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format
Updated 28 January 2022

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format

Jake Dennis keen to face fellow Brit in new Formula E head-to-head qualifying format
  • The eighth season of the all-electric championship begins this weekend with a double-header of night races in Diriyah on Friday and Saturday

DIRIYAH: Avalanche Andretti’s Jake Dennis said he looks forward to the possibility of facing his long-time friend, Mahindra driver Oliver Rowland, in a head-to-head battle under Formula E’s new “dueling qualifier” format.

Dennis said he and Rowland have been friends for 15 years and recalled his fond memories of the pair coming up in the sport together, as he told Arab News he would love to take him on in the championship’s new knockout qualifying format.

“I’d like to go against Oliver Rowland,” he said. “He’s a fellow Brit and a good friend of mine and we never went head-to-head in qualifying. I’d pick Ollie — it would be quite cool to see that.”

The championship’s eighth season gets underway this weekend with a double-header of night races in Diriyah on Friday and Saturday. This year the all-electric series has introduced a new qualifying format that uses a knockout system to determine who takes pole position.

In the first round of qualification the drivers are split into two groups of 11, and each driver can make multiple attempts at a fast lap within a 10-minute session. The four fastest in each group progress to head-to-head duels in a knockout format featuring quarter-finals, semi-finals and a final, the winner of which secures pole-position. The other grid positions will be based on the results of the head-to-head duels or lap times depending on what stage of qualifying the drivers managed to reach.

“The competition was tough last year; I think Formula E is just becoming more challenging in terms of difficulty and I think it’s just going to be even tighter this year,” Dennis said.

Last year, he proved himself to be a title-contender during a stunning rookie season in which he took third place in the ABB FIA Formula E 2020-21 Driver’s Championship, after a DNF (did not finish) in the season finale Berlin left Mercedes-EQ driver Nyck de Vries to claim victory in the overall championship.

“I think people’s expectations of me are definitely different this year,” said Dennis. “People see me as a proper title contender going into the new season. There’s always that added pressure but I’m looking forward to it.”

Considered the most successful rookie the championship has yet seen, Dennis now has his sights set on becoming the first British driver to win it. His confidence is evident, after his successes last season when he clinched his first win in Valencia then another in London. No rookie, other than drivers in Formula E’s first season, has won more races than the 26-year-old managed, and nobody led more laps than he did last season. This season he aims to achieve even more.

“I’m coming in this year with a lot more experience,” he said. “I think I’m a faster driver than what I was last year and that’s what it ultimately comes down to. It’s been a really busy winter for us and we ended up pretty competitive in Valencia (during pre-season testing).

Avalanche, known for being an eco-friendly blockchain company, took over from BMW last October to sponsor Andretti in what both parties hope will be a long partnership committed to sustainability.

Dennis said minor difficulties presented themselves in the beginning, as dealing with new team members can be challenging, but he feels the team are now prepared for the season ahead.

“Working with Andretti feels like a big family environment and I’ve got a new teammate this year as well, Oliver (Askew), and we’re going to do the best job we can for the team.”

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne
Updated 28 January 2022

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne

‘A fairer chance to fight at the front:’ Stoffel Vandoorne
  • The Diriyah E-Prix gets underway on Friday with fans returning to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the first time since the pandemic

DIRIYAH: Belgian driver Stoffel Vandoorne seeks to redeem himself in Diriyah this weekend after the title eluded him last season, and the opportunity may take for the Mercedes-EQ driver in what he called a “fairer chance to fight at the front” under the championship’s new qualifying format.

The Diriyah E-Prix gets underway on Friday with fans returning to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the first time since the pandemic. The double-header race weekend kicks off the eighth season of the all-electric racing championship, with reigning team world champions Mercedes-EQ stepping into their final season in Formula E.

Vandoorne, who is embarking on his fourth campaign with Mercedes-EQ, is heading into this weekend having finished ninth in last season’s championship with a victory in the Berlin finale, three poles and three podiums to his name. 

“Last year was a very close season between a lot of the competitors, I remember getting into the final race with 17 drivers still able to win the championship,” Vandoorne told Arab News. “Maybe I didn’t have luck on my side, but with the changes to qualifying we’ll have fairer chance to fight at the front.” 

For this season, the championship introduced a new qualifying method that uses a knockout format to determine who will take pole position for the race.

The format changes feature a first round of two 11-driver groups, each driver able to make multiple attempts at fastest laps within their allocated time in a 10-minute session. The top four fastest-lap drivers in each group will progress into head-to-head duels on a knockout basis in quarter-finals and semifinals. Pole-position will be decided in a final head-to-head duel.

“I think this will equalize the field a little bit more and qualifying now won’t be decided purely on track evolution,” he said. “It’s still going to be hard but I think the way the system is right now should be a lot fairer and I think we’ll generally see more of the same faces at the front, rather than having some sort of mixed-up grid — or when if you found yourself in group one last year, you basically had no chance to be in the top 15.

“I think it will change in a good way, but it’s so competitive that we’ll still see some some crazy weekends or some unexpected things that will happen,” Vandoorne said.

Vandoorne’s teammate, De Vries, qualified on pole for the first race of last season’s opening Diriyah E-Prix, leading every lap thereafter en route to his first victory in the series, ending the campaign with two wins, four podiums and 99 points, becoming the first official FIA Formula E World Champion, following the series’ long-awaited FIA sanctioning.

“Obviously you know me and Nick have some good competition and we always want to be better than the other every time we get to get out on track,” the Belgian driver said. “So far it’s been a very healthy relationship, we get on really well and we do it in a constructive way. It’s been a good collaboration. And, you know, for sure, once we get out on track, we always want to want outdo one another and that’s no different this year.”

The Diriyah E-Prix Season 7 opener hosted the first all-electric night race as part of the 2020-21 calendar. The spectacular double-header in the dark used renewable lights with the latest low-consumption LED technology, which reduced energy consumption by up to 50 percent compared to non-LED technologies, which all fits into the racing ethos of sustainability the championship embodies.

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge
Updated 27 January 2022

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge

Aston Villa add Arsenal’s Chambers to January splurge
  • The 27-year-old joins Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Robin Olsen and Kerr Smith at Villa Park
  • Chambers made 122 appearances for Arsenal after joining from Southampton in 2014

LONDON: Aston Villa signed versatile defender Calum Chambers from Arsenal on Thursday to take their tally of new recruits this month to five.
The 27-year-old, who can play in both central defense and at right-back, joins Philippe Coutinho, Lucas Digne, Robin Olsen and Kerr Smith at Villa Park as manager Steven Gerrard reshapes his squad.
Chambers has signed a three-and-a-half year contract after an undisclosed fee was agreed between the clubs.
He made 122 appearances for Arsenal after joining from Southampton in 2014, also spending time on loan at Middlesbrough and Fulham.
However, he has struggled for game time this season following the arrivals of Ben White and Takehiro Tomiyasu, making just five appearances, only two of which came in the Premier League.
“It’s a very exciting place to be and everyone can see that from the outside. Things are happening here and it’s definitely moving in the right direction,” said Chambers.
“For me, it was a no-brainer to join a great club. It was the right thing for me to do.”
Villa have moved up to 11th in the Premier League table since the arrival of Gerrard, who has won five of his 11 games in charge.