x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Mena Golf Tour swings into Morocco for start of new season

The Tour's first forays into the North African country finally sees it in the home of golf in the Arab world, writes Steve Elling.

Some of the game's most stellar names will compete in the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam Open. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images
Some of the game's most stellar names will compete in the Royal Golf Dar Es Salam Open. Richard Heathcote / Getty Images

With the start of a new season at hand, the Mena Golf Tour has gone back to the oasis, the true geographical wellspring, of golf in the Arab world.

This week, for the first time, the tour will play in Morocco, a country that has stood at the fore of the professional game in the desert region, thanks largely to the contributions of its golf-happy former ruler, King Hassan, who could not get enough of the game, not to mention its best players.

Going back nearly five decades, King Hassan ordered courses to be built and created an event with prominent tour players that has since become the European Tour's Hassan II Trophy. The late king liked to spend time with some of the game's greats, such as the Hall of Famer Billy Casper, a frequent playing companion.

Given Morocco's decades of grass-roots development, what better place to start the Mena's third season?

"This is where it all began for golf in the Arab world," said the Tour chairman Mohamed Juma Buamaim. "They definitely have been at it longer than any Middle Eastern country."

It is the headwaters of season No 3 for the largely self-funded Mena Tour, which continues an aggressive trajectory in an era when other tours are struggling to maintain a spot at the table.

With the 2013 schedule set to begin tomorrow, the opener at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam Open outside the capital of Rabat is the first of two events in as many weeks in the North African nation.

The Red Course at Royal Golf Dar Es Salam was designed by the famed golf architect Robert Trent Jones at the behest of King Hassan, and is part of a 45-hole facility that ranks among the best on the African continent. Until 2011, when it became a full-sized European Tour event and moved to a different locale, the Hassan II Trophy tournament was played for four decades on the Red Course.

Past winners include Lee Trevino, Vijay Singh, Payne Stewart, Nick Price, Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Colin Montgomerie and Casper. Mena is actually an acronym that stands for Middle East/North Africa, and the next two weeks represents the tour's first foray into the latter. Next week, the tour moves down the Atlantic coast to Casablanca for the Royal D'Anfa Open.

It is a fitting way to kick off Mena's 11-tournament season, which will take a break for the summer months after the Casablanca event before resuming in Saudi Arabia in September. The Mena Tour, which began in 2011 with four UAE events, has nearly tripled in size and spans five countries.

Qatar and Oman also have joined the tour this season. Saudi Arabia, which staged a tournament for the first time last year, will offer two this year. Moreover, Mena winners in Dubai, Qatar and Morocco will receive spots in the European Tour fields in those nations, a potentially lucrative incentive for those in contention.

Buamaim, who ran the Tour the first two seasons, has established a Mena board of directors with members from six Arab nations, which should help find regional sponsorship opportunities and financial underpinnings.

The two Morocco events will be financed by the Sheikh Maktoum Golf Foundation, which funds the Mena Tour and was established with the intent of growing the game in the region. One of the Saudi events has a title sponsor and several others are working towards becoming self-sufficient.

"These ones, we are paying for, because we want to be there," Buamaim said. "I am sure, by next year, Moroccans will find sponsorships for those two tournaments.

"We've just got to keep going. We can't stop because we are not getting the support from sponsorship. This is something we committed to do."

Moroccans dominate the tee sheet for their home event, with 22 players in the field of 50 at Rabat this week. Turnout from abroad has been meagre, largely because of travel costs, a Mena official said yesterday.

The fundamental format remains unchanged. The events are 54 holes in length, a cut is made after the first two rounds and the purse for the first 10 events remains US$50,000 (Dh183,700).

Morocco has had a developmental programme in place for years, although the export harvest has been spotty. There are currently no Moroccans ranked among the world's top 1,500 players, but having entry-level professional events can only help players seeking a foothold in the increasingly global game.

Included in the field is Younes El Hassani, 39, one of the country's most seasoned international players. He has played in six European Tour events since 2010.


twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE