National coach says Emirati players have much to do to compete on global stage though there has been progress, writes William Johnson.
Miles to go for tireless Vallender
DUBAI // The man primarily responsible for converting raw Emirati golfing talent into touring professionals reluctantly acknowledged yesterday that he is no further forward than when he accepted the task four years ago. "It's tremendously frustrating," said Chris Vallender, the South African coach of the UAE national team. He said he questions whether the young players under his jurisdiction are hungry enough to carve out a career on the international stage.
"We have youngsters in this country with the ability and potential to make it as a pro," said Vallender, himself a former professional player. "But I'm not sure that those youngsters have the desire to do so. "When it comes down to looking to turn pro, 10 per cent of what is required comes from your ability but the other 90 per cent comes from desire. It's very easy saying 'I want to turn pro' but it's a lot different saying that you need to turn pro because you don't have anything else out there and it's the only way you can make a living.
"I think that is very much the case with the Emirati nationals. A lot of guys want to turn pro because they see the glamour out there. But they don't necessarily need to turn pro and consequently don't push themselves over that career threshold." Vallender is pinning his hopes on Ahmed al Musharrekh, 19, the most talented of three brothers who figure prominently in his UAE national team, ending the country's long wait for a home-grown touring professional.
"In my opinion he is the only one who has a realistic chance at the moment," Vallender said, "but I don't think he realises how much work he's going to have to put in to get up there. He definitely has the potential to do it if though, he applies himself in the right way. "He already has experience of playing in professional events and the more he plays in that kind of company the better equipped he will be to deal with it if and when his time comes."
Vallender said that al Musharrekh's elder brother Abdulla, 22, has recently expressed more of an interest in turning pro. "I am surprised to hear that because he never had the interest before," the coach said. "Young Hassan  is starting to make professional noises, but I don't think he fully understands the concept yet. Besides there are a few adjustments to his swing that need to be made if he is going to be up to the pressure of competing at the highest level.
"He might get to the required standard one day, though, and I consider him to be an exciting young talent who in a couple more years may have what it takes. But Ahmed is the one who can make the initial breakthrough and if that happens others are bound to follow." Compatriots of the al Musharrekh siblings have, in the main, been content to develop their skills to the point where they can earn selection for the national team, but no further. "If a player doesn't want to turn pro, then that's OK," Vallender said. "I have no problem with that. If he wants to become a player good enough to play for the national team then that's fine. We have several promising juniors coming through who are probably thinking along those lines.
"You are not going to force anybody to turn pro but there is no better platform for them than here in the UAE. The facilities we have on the doorstep are stunning and second to none in the world. There are opportunities for players to turn pro but a golfer has to want it badly, otherwise it won't happen." Vallender said he has been encouraged by registrations for the Emirates Golf Federation's junior programme growing from six to 50 over the past 10 months. But he still finds it a struggle to attract schoolchildren to commit to golf ahead of sports such as football, tennis and swimming.
Nevertheless, he remains undaunted on his crusade to raise the UAE's profile on the international stage. He believes significant progress is being made by the national team who are looking forward optimistically to several key events in the next few months. The biennial Eisenhower Trophy is effectively the world amateur team championship, and in 2006 the UAE team finished 63rd out of 65 entrants for the Stellenbosch, South African staging of the 52-year-old event. Two years ago in Australia, however, a respectable 50th place was claimed by the team led by Khalid Yousuf and featuring Abdulla al Musharrekh and Faris Al Mazrui.
Vallender is now aiming for a top-30 spot when the competition resumes in Argentina in October. "People don't realise how good it is to finish in the top 50 of an event as big as that one," Vallender said. "The players in the top 15 teams are virtually professionals. They tend to go straight from the Eisenhower on to some form of tour. We are now looking for a further improvement into the top 30 which would be a great result for us."
Another significant barometer of the progress being made will be the annual GCC tournament which will be staged in Bahrain next March. "We've done well in that in the past, but not well enough," Vallender said. "We lost by only a point to Bahrain two years ago and this year in Qatar we came third. "But we should be winning that tournament comfortably and that's no disrespect to the Bahrainis and the other teams who take part because we have the players who are good enough to come out on top."
In between the Eisenhower and the GCC gathering are the Arab Championships in Tunisia in November. Vallender is expecting his men to give a good account of themselves there as well, although a fixture clash with the Asian Games in China may put a strain on the country's depth of talent. "The more international exposure we give to our players, the better," said Vallender, who welcomes the addition next year of a Bahrain tournament to the European calendar, making the popular Desert Swing which features stops in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai a four-week jamboree for the first time.
"We will be hoping for invitations for our players to compete in those events against some of the world's top professionals," he said. "I caddied for Ahmed [al Musharrekh] when he played in the Abu Dhabi tournament and he was far from overawed. "At one stage he was three under par with six holes to go. He did very well and his attitude then was very good. He doesn't see enough of golf of that standard, though.
"He needs to be experiencing much more of that type of competition on the way to turning pro. He can then see what the other guys are doing and what he has to do to compete at that level." email@example.com