x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Tournament feels like Dubai's blissful little secret

The small crowds on the first day of the Dubai World Championship suggest that UAE sport fans are either spoilt for choice or prefer watching on TV.

Lee Westwood and Anders Hansen shake hands with their caddies after yesterday’s round, in front of far-from-full-stands.
Lee Westwood and Anders Hansen shake hands with their caddies after yesterday’s round, in front of far-from-full-stands.

It is flaming July in the UK, but if you did not don thermal underwear and bring a ski jacket, you have made a schoolboy error.

This is the height of summer, at one of the jewels in the crown of British sport, and there is driving rain coming in from the side.

That is if you have managed to make it to the course at all.

At its height, the traffic on the lone dual-carriageway that leads to Royal St George's is being lapped by snails.

One spectator making the 100 or so mile trip from St Albans on the other side of London says it has taken him eight hours to get from his front door to the course in Sandwich, Kent.

Then there is the cost. The cheapest ground admission ticket is £60 (Dh350). Add to that the outlay for the park and ride (£5), the official Open Championship programme (£7), and the £7.80 for fish and chips in the Food Village.

Yet the galleries are massive.

Around 180,000 spectators took in this summer's British Open, bringing in, according to one independent analyst, £77 million of benefit to the county of Kent.

Now contrast the British Open experience with that of the opening day at "Golf's Ultimate Finale" yesterday.

The Dubai World Championship's sole reason for being is to bring together the top 60 players on the European Tour.

It is fair to say, then, given that all the best players in the world are still plying their trade in Europe, there is a little bit of stardust knocking about the Earth Course this weekend.

Admission is free to see them, yet the galleries remain light and airy. There is no need to bring a periscope with you to watch golf here. Just take a step to the left or right and you will have a perfectly unimpaired view.

When the world's best player, Luke Donald, and arguably its most talented, Rory McIlroy, played their approach shots to the 18th green yesterday, the grandstand was maybe two-thirds full.

OK, so it was the last day of the working week.

There is no straight route to get to the Earth course, and navigating the Greens Community roundabout is slightly inconvenient. But there is no way Jumeirah Golf Estates is as geographical remote as Sandwich.

Three years into its lifespan, it still feels like this tournament is a blissful little secret, reserved for a lucky few.

Given the quality of sport on show, why are the greens not lined with crowds of spectators five deep? Are UAE sports fans just spoilt?

A dearth of spectators is, of course, not unique to golf. Football is said to be the most popular sport in this country, yet top matches in the professional league are routinely played in front of half-empty stadiums.

The most progressive clubs, those who want to turn a profit one day, have worked out it is their job to make the live experience better than sitting at home watching on the television.

Al Jazira, the nation's leading football club, went some way to answering the problem last year, as their gates swelled at the promise of the chance to win Dh1 million or a Ferrari. Success was marked, but brief.

At the DWC, they offer complimentary golf lessons, temporary versions of Dubai's most popular restaurants on selected holes, and have a band playing live music after the play has finished. They even provide beanbags to loaf on next to some of the greens. UAE sport has been searching vainly for a solution to the TV-is-easier-and-better conundrum.

They may have found a kernel of an answer at the Earth Course this week.

The organisers of the tournament are trying out technology which allows spectators with iPods and iPhones to tune in to the live television broadcast of the event.

If all goes according to plan, an app should be available in 12 month's time which allows anyone inside the course to access the live feed.

Perhaps that is the answer. Next year they should ditch the Greatest Show on Earth slogan, and go for: Come to the golf - it's just like watching the television.

Maybe that will pack them in.

pradley@thenational.ae