We look ahead to the action this month as the European Tour stop in Saudi Arabia with many of the world’s leading stars competing in the region.
WHEN: Jan 30 – Feb 02
WHERE: Royal Greens G&CC, King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia became the 48th country to stage a European Tour tournament with the hugely successful first Saudi International last year and it returns to the schedule for 2020 with an even better line-up. The world’s best players will take on the stunning Royal Greens G&CC to play for the honour of being crowned Saudi International Champion and The Ryder Cup, Race to Dubai and World Ranking points that come with it.
2019 Recap: Endorsements for a pioneering new event don’t get much bigger than having the world’s best players coming to compete – and win. Yet that’s exactly what happened at last year’s inaugural Saudi International as the then World No.3 Dustin Johnson held off a spirited Haotong Li to win by two shots. While many of the game’s leading stars couldn’t quite replicate their best golf on the new and unfamiliar course at Royal Greens G&CC, scoring was no trouble for China’s Li as he set a new European Tour record of four eagles in 18 holes in his third round 62.
That performance rocketed him up the leaderboard, alongside Johnson, into a share of the lead heading into the final round, five shots clear of the chasing pack. After picking up two strokes on the opening nine Li took a one-shot advantage into the closing stretch but it quickly evaporated with back-to-back bogeys on holes 13 and 14. Johnson then birdied the 15th to move into a lead that he would not relinquish. He jumped two shots clear with a birdie on the 17th and sealed the victory with another birdie on 18, while Li made a birdie of his own on 18 to seal second place, ahead of Tom Lewis in third place.
This year’s field is even stronger than it was 12 months ago, and such is the tournament’s attraction, five-time Major champion Phil Mickelson has elected to play in Saudi Arabia instead of the Phoenix Open in Arizona – an event he had never previously missed as a professional dating back to 1992. “I am really looking forward to playing in Saudi Arabia,” said Mickelson. “I watched Dustin win the title last year and thought the course looked like an interesting challenge. “Having so many talented players on show also made it look like a much more established tournament than one in its inaugural year. “I have enjoyed my previous visits to the Middle East and am looking forward to playing in a new country and doing my bit to grow the game in the Kingdom.”
Mickelson joins several top-ranked Americans in the World Ranking: Brooks Koepka (1), Dustin Johnson (5) and fellow Major champion Patrick Reed. Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson and Shane Lowry are also set to play, with the latter making his debut in the event. “I’ve heard a lot of the guys saying they really enjoyed the Saudi International tournament last year, so I’m looking forward to experiencing it for myself,” said Lowry, who became the latest member of the Major club with his breakthrough at Royal Portrush last July.
“The golf course sounds like it’s in great condition and by all accounts the hospitality around the event is first class. I’m looking forward to playing there for the first time and continuing the European Tour’s goal of growing the game of golf in new countries.” Reed has fond memories of his week in Saudi Arabia last year. It was at the event that he was presented with Lifetime Membership of the European Tour by Chief Executive Keith Pelley. “I loved playing in Saudi Arabia,” said the 2018 Masters Champion. “The golf facilities at Royal Greens are world class and I was honoured to be part of golfing history at the Saudi Golf Federation’s first professional event. I was also lucky enough to be invited to one of the local schools. “It was really rewarding to meet the kids and talk to them about golf and what we were doing there that week.
“To see all those schoolkids come out to the course and watch us play at the weekend was an incredible experience. Golf Saudi is doing a fantastic job of growing the game and I hope I can help further their progress in the future.” Big-hitting Ryder Cup star Tony Finau will add his firepower to proceedings as he makes his first career appearance in the Middle East, hoping to capture a maiden European Tour title. “I’ve always believed that to be considered a world-class player, you must compete in premier tournaments around the world and playing in Saudi Arabia for the first time will be a great experience,” said the 30-year-old. “I’m looking forward to competing against what is already an exceptionally strong field, on what, I have learned, is a great golf course.”
Ryder Cup legend Ian Poulter will once again in the world-class field and will be hoping to go a few spots better than his tied sixth last year as targets a first European Tour win in eight years. “The Saudi International is a great addition to the Desert Swing, to able to be in the region for three weeks with three very strong fields is really special,” said the Englishman. “It was a good test for me last year in Saudi playing on a brand new course, I played well and I’m looking forward to going a few spots better. It’s always important to grow the game of golf in new territories and Saudi has invested heavily into the game. I don’t know how many courses they are going to have in a few years’ time, but if you look at what Dubai and Abu Dhabi have done then you are going to see something very similar happen there as well.”
Bernd Wiesberger appeared in last year’s tournament in only his sixth start since returning from an injury that kept him out of action for seventh months. The Austrian went on to enjoy the greatest year of his career as he claimed two Rolex Series titles along with the Made in Denmark trophy to finish third in the Race to Dubai and the 34 year old is eager to return to the Kingdom with his game now back at its best.
“Last year when I played at Royal Greens I was only just getting back into the swing of things after having months off through injury,” said Wiesberger. “I didn’t have my best week but I remember the golf course being really fun to play with a lot of opportunities for good scoring so I’m looking forward to going back. Golf Saudi are really trying to develop the destination for golf and tourism and I think if we can be part of that then great.”
Two-time European Tour winner Shubhankar Sharma, 2018 Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open champion Brandon Stone, and Dubai-based Adri Arnaus will all be returning to the Kingdom for the second edition of the tournament and the quartet only had praise for the latest addition to the European Tour’s Desert Swing.
“I really enjoyed my time in Saudi last year,” said Sharma. “The hospitality was great and we were all treated really well so it’s going to be nice to get back out there and play on the great course again. It’s great that Saudi are opening up their doors to tourists all over the world and golf is definitely helping get more people to visit as they want to play on these fantastic courses that the pros do.”
Arnaus added: “I’m really looking forward to getting back out to Saudi, the tournament is fast-becoming one of the best on the European Tour. The Tour are helping grow the game out there by having a tournament in the Kingdom with some of the world’s greatest players on show.”
Stone said: “Saudi is really a beautiful country and getting out there for the first time last season was fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’m really looking forward to going back. It’s a great golf course with great hotels. Hopefully I can have a better round this time as I’ve played on the course before so I should be able to use my knowledge to give me an advantage.”
BEST IN THE REGION
Meanwhile, World No.1 Brooks Koepka is set to tee it up having missed last month’s Presidents Cup after not fully healing from minor knee surgery in time. The four-time Major champion is looking forward to another taste of the Saudi Arabian hospitality. “I’m excited to be returning after an enjoyable visit last year,” he said. “The golf course is one of the best I’ve played in the region with incredible scenery, including some breathtaking views of the Red Sea. “The event is an opportunity to showcase the work being done to grow the game of golf in the Kingdom, which was evidenced by the enthusiastic fans who attended last year. It’s great to be involved with the initiative and I look forward to seeing the progress Golf Saudi has made in the past year.”
Golf Saudi CEO Majed Al-Sorour is excited at the prospect of welcoming the game’s top stars to the Saudi International again and can’t wait for the action to get underway later this month. “All of us who go to watch golf want to watch the best – and for us to actually have the best at the Saudi International is the most amazing achievement,” said Al-Sorour. “These guys are just regular guys like you and me. They love to go play golf, but the difference is that for them it’s their job! “We are privileged to have these world leading players to be a part of our event. They’ve been more than supportive of our movement and mission, and, mostly, they are supportive of growing the game of golf here in Saudi. In a world where they have so many options, it’s a really great honour for us. So, I thank each and every one of them.”