x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Cricket bats make way for four irons for Pakistan golfers

For Aadil Jehangir and Mohammad Munir, playing on the Mena Tour offers them much-needed exposure, writes John McAuley.

Mohammad Munir's third-place finish at the Mena Tour's opening event, Dubai Creek Open, last week banked him US$4,000. Mike Young / The National
Mohammad Munir's third-place finish at the Mena Tour's opening event, Dubai Creek Open, last week banked him US$4,000. Mike Young / The National

Despite the small matter of their compatriots taking on the old rival last night in the nation's favourite sport, the Pakistan entrants of the Mena Tour still managed to maintain a surprising focus yesterday at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.

While Mohammad Hafeez and teammates were getting ready to slug it out with their India counterparts for World Twenty20 bragging rights, a collection of Pakistan's most proficient golfers lined the driving range in preparation of the Abu Dhabi Golf Citizen Open, the tour's second event, which starts today at the Saadiyat Beach Club.

The contingent from the former British colony is so numbered that Dav Whatmore could have rested most of his line-up in Sri Lanka and drafted a few from around this capital clubhouse.

Pakistan fills eight of the 120 slots in the tournament this week, each dreaming of seizing a chunk of the US$50,000 (Dh183,000) prize fund and moving into contention for one of the three 2013 Dubai Desert Classic spots the tour makes available to professionals.

Forget last night's battle of the batsmen in Colombo. The only order that counts in these parts is the Order of Merit.

"We had only four or five players here last year. But we've doubled that," says Aadil Jehangir, the Lahore-born golfer who finished ninth in last season's tour. "The Mena Tour is a great opportunity to get their games together and gain vital international exposure. When new players play here and see what the tour provides, they'll then go home and tell their peers it's worth joining. They'll soon realise they need to come over to this."

The tour, now in its second year, appeals to players from Pakistan for a variety of reasons, but it is the chance to earn the money to fund their passion, and the quality of the fields during the six-event tournament, that drives interest.

However, the dedication required to succeed does not come cheap. Jehangir, 27, used his winnings from last season to gain entry last January into Qualifying School for the Asian Tour but, having made it to the final stage, he missed the cut by a stroke.

"Whatever I make during Mena will hopefully be enough to cover my expenses for another shot at making the Asian Tour," he says.

"People are really reluctant in promoting other sports in Pakistan because of the popularity of cricket, so you must fund yourself. But golf there has grown a lot recently and I hope it continues.

"Only then will we get more sponsorships and more players playing abroad. We have a lot of talent but we don't get that much international exposure. Mena puts us on the map in the golfing world."

Mohammad Munir, meanwhile, announced his arrival on tour last Wednesday when he finished third at the Dubai Creek Open to earn $4,000. He has pedigree, though, having moved to No 3 in the Pakistan rankings and, at golf's 2009 World Cup, boasted a victory over a Spanish slinger named Sergio Garcia.

Munir, 38, understandably ranks that as his greatest golfing experience, although he is now hoping Mena can provide a platform for more.

"I'm practising for the Asian Tour Q-School, although my sponsor isn't backing me this time," he says. "All the money from this is coming out of my own pocket.

"I hope this is worth it, but I'm sure it will help my game get in shape. That's why more Pakistanis are joining the Mena Tour. New players are coming through and they see this as giving them valuable experience of an international tour."

It is clear sacrifices have been made to forge a career away from the floodlit creases of Lahore, Peshawar or Karachi.

"I'd rather be playing golf," Munir says. "I've played for 20 years and it's still my passion."

Jehangir agrees. Last night's distraction in Sri Lanka may have captivated a nation, but a growing number of their compatriots are putting down cricket bats and picking up four-irons.

"I'm not much of a cricket fan, but I've learnt so much playing golf," Jehangir says. "I've basically been trying to play anywhere I can; I'd play anywhere on this planet."


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