x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Drumming up local interest in golf

Emirati involvement in the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship is on the rise, and increasing the number of national players will increase the interest.

There was a significant increase in the number Emirati spectators at this year’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, according to Faisal Al Sheikh, an events manager with Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.
There was a significant increase in the number Emirati spectators at this year’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, according to Faisal Al Sheikh, an events manager with Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority.

When Robert Rock stood over the first tee on Sunday morning to start his final 18 holes on route to victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, he looked nervous.

The swollen gallery was the largest the unheralded Englishman had ever faced, with more than 400 spectators turning out to watch him play alongside Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner.

Several Englishmen wore white polo shirts with "Barmy Army" emblazoned across the chest, and a man walked around in a Kenya rugby shirt. Yet kanduras were conspicuous by their absence.

It would be a mistake, however, to deduce that Emiratis were not so interested in the tournament.

According to Faisal Al Sheikh, an events manager with Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), both Emirati interest and Emirati involvement in the annual European Tour event are growing and are partly responsible for the tournament attracting 82,000 fans - more than double that of last year's record attendance.

"Unfortunately, exact data detailing the specific demographic breakdown of spectators is unavailable, but it would be correct to say that an increase in Emirati fans has proven crucial in helping the 2012 championship attract record spectator numbers," Al Sheikh said.

Myriam Al Dhaheri, a sophomore student at Zayed University who volunteered to work in the tournament's communications department, said there were probably more nationals in attendance than immediately met the eye.

"I spoke to two Emiratis on the Friday. One of them was wearing national dress and one wasn't, but then when I saw them the next day, they were both wearing casual clothes," she said. "They are recognisable to us - from their features and their accents - but maybe not to you."

Al Dhaheri was joined by compatriot Sarah Al Hosani and Sudanese classmate Razan Elzubair, all of whom speak Arabic and were on call to help local media.

"Most of the people we dealt with were western; there was not a lot of Arabic-speaking people," Al Hosani said.

As well as student volunteers, Al Faisal said there were Emirati course marshals, walking scorers and guides for international visitors.

Khulood Atiq, the country's first female national chef, provided culinary delights to guests, while Mohamed Al Balooshi compered the closing ceremony.

"The Emirati presence at such an international event reflects our desire to showcase the lifestyle and genuine culture of the destination," said Ibrahim Jasem Makki, who, dressed in a white kandura and headscarf, was charged with promoting the capital's heritage at the ADTA tent. He said "many" Emiratis visited him throughout the weekend.

Arguably the Emirati most prominently involved in the event was Ahmed Al Musharrekh, the Dubai golfer who competed in the tournament's first two days. The hope is that the 21 year old will eventually become the first of many nationals to play on the European Tour.

George O'Grady, the chief executive of the Tour, said that while he has noticed work is being done to make this happen, UAE talent should not be expected to blossom overnight.

He added that England could be seen as an example of how things may develop in the Emirates in the future.

"There are some good amateur golfers playing, specifically out of Dubai," he said.

"But these things take time and the visit of Woods to both Dubai and here inspires people to take the game up.

"If you look at English golf, it was only 10 years ago when all the English newspapers were asking where is the next English player going to come from.

"Now you look at the number of English golfers: Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Ross Fisher, Simon Dyson ... Ten years ago, they weren't there, but the structure and coaching was in place and they are putting that structure in place over here now too."

Inevitably, Emirati golfers will bring with them Emirati spectators. Al Musharrekh was followed around on Thursday by his friends and family - all casually attired - and with more locals getting involved in the tournament behind the scenes, interest in golf will grow, too.

Al Dhaheri said that before the tournament her only exposure to the game was playing it for fun on her Wii games console.

Now, having volunteered at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, she can pick Rock out of a line-up and is even considering attending the Dubai Desert Classic, which runs from February 9-12, as a spectator.

Emirati involvement, it seems, develops Emirati interest.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae