As the dust settles on golf world No. 1 Dustin Johnson’s sensational triumph at the third Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia can rest assured that the nation is now well and truly on the sporting global map.
The kingdom set out a plan — Saudi Vision 2030 — to diversify and become a world leader in health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. And as we have seen in the past in the pioneering UAE, sport is helping lead the way.
- Saudi International: Dustin Johnson isn’t scared of being the world's No 1 golfer
- France's Stephane Peterhansel wins Dakar Rally for 14th time
- Johnson holds on to clinch second Saudi International title
- Golf — Saudi International: I can hold my own, says Abu Dhabi Champion Tyrrell Hatton
- Saudi International: Phil Mickelson fired up for tilt at title
Not only have we seen golf come to the nation in the past few years — including the inaugural and ground-breaking Saudi Ladies Team International last year — we are set to witness the first ever Saudi Formula One Grand Prix later this year.
Among many other global sporting events that have taken place in the recent past, Saudi has hosted international heavyweight boxing title fights as Britain’s Anthony Joshua reclaimed his world title belts from Mexico’s Andy Ruiz Jr. Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus have contested the Italian Super Cup in Riyadh. The world’s richest horse race, the Saudi Cup, was won by Maximum Security last year. The 2020 and 2021 editions of the Dakar Rally were held in Saudi Arabia, and even snooker and WWE wrestling have made their way over to the kingdom.
With 2030 still 10 years away, things can only get bigger and better in the realm of sport as Saudi continues to make its global mark.
GOLF IS DRIVING FORCE
The cream of the golfing world line up every year to take part in the ‘Desert Swing’ — the traditional season opening tournaments that follow hot on the heels of the Race to Dubai finale at the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Resorts in Dubai. From Tiger Woods to Rory McIlroy, every top golfer has graced the courses in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Bahrain and — now — Saudi Arabia. Let’s break down the key events:
Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
Fleetwood defends in style (2018): Having won in Abu Dhabi for the first time a year earlier en route to topping the Race to Dubai, Tommy Fleetwood underlined his status as one of the European Tour’s star performers with a superb defence of his title in his first start of 2018. Two behind the leaders Thomas Pieters and Ross Fisher and one behind Rory McIlroy, Fleetwood stormed home with a closing 65 to win by two strokes from Fisher on 22-under-par.
Robert Rock holds off Woods and McIlroy (2012): Beginning the final round level alongside Tiger Woods, and with Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell also in contention, not many would have fancied Robert Rock’s chances of emerging victorious. At that point in his career, Woods had held or shared 62 third round leads and converted 55 of them, but he was out of sorts on that Sunday, finding just five greens in regulation in a level par 72 as Rock fired a 2-under 70 for his second career title. McIlroy finished runner-up, one stroke clear of Woods who was third alongside McDowell and Thomas Bjorn.
Kaymer takes home the first of three (2008): As 2007’s rookie of the year, Martin Kaymer underlined his potential with a remarkable four-stroke win over veterans Henrik Stenson and Lee Westwood in 2008. Having missed the cut in his first career start at the venue a year earlier, Kaymer opened with rounds of 66-65-68 to create a six-shot lead and he afforded himself a final round 74 and still won by a comfortable margin. His love affair with the tournament continued with back-to-back victories in 2010 and 2011.
Omega Dubai Desert Classic
Monty’s driver off the deck (1996): Standing in the middle of the fairway with a one-shot lead over playing partner Miguel Angel Jiménez in the final group, Monty closed the door in emphatic fashion by finding the green with a crisp strike that was later crowned ‘European Tour Shot of the Year.’ “Under that kind of pressure, that was the best shot I’ve ever hit on the European Tour,” said the Scot.
McIlroy’s maiden win (2009): Fresh-face 19-year-old Rory McIlroy recovered from three back-nine bogeys to win his first professional title in Dubai by one stroke ahead of Justin Rose, with Henrik Stenson third. “I still have a lot of years to progress and I just want to keep improving and, hopefully, one day I’ll be able to compete with Tiger,” said McIlroy after taking ownership of the Dallah Trophy for the first time. He would win the title again in 2015.
Els at the treble (2005): Ernie Els rolled in a 20-foot eagle putt on the 18th green to win by one shot ahead of Stephen Dodd and Miguel Angel Jimenez and become the event’s first three-time winner in 2005. Els was the only player to eagle the final hole all day. In addition to his three wins, Els also finished runner-up on three occasions.
Maybe they should already be renaming it the Dustin Johnson Trophy as the world No. 1 has claimed the title twice in the embryonic competition’s three-year history. The Saudi International has already established itself as one of the must-play events as the big names from both Europe and America line up to compete.
After a brief break for the WGC At The Concession in the United States, the big guns head back to the Middle East for the Qatar Masters. The competition has been going since 1998 and has past winners such as Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie and now holds and attractive $1.5 million purse.
HIGH PRAISE FOR SAUDI AND THE SWING
“I really enjoy coming out here to the Middle East and I also like the fact that we get to play a part in introducing golf to a whole new audience in a new region in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” — Ian Poulter
“This is my third time playing in the Saudi International and I am genuinely excited to return to see all the kids at The World Academy and find out how they are getting on with their golf. They have been so generous in their welcome and support in previous years and I look forward to seeing how everything is progressing, as Golf Saudi works so hard to grow the game and provide the children with so many inspiring golf opportunities.” — Patrick Reed
“From the high of winning the 2020 Saudi International in February against such an amazing field we very quickly had to contend with all that COVID-19 has thrown at us since, so I think I was lucky to be able to hold onto that awesome winning feeling through the darker parts of lockdown. I don’t think I have ever seen a tournament establish itself so quickly on the player’s schedules as the Saudi International has.” — Graeme McDowell
AN AUDITION IN ADDITION
Here is a look at the other sporting contenders for Vision 2030
EXTREME E SETS OFF ON A NEW PATH
Jenson Button joins the game
Former Formula One world champion Jenson Button will race for his own team — JBXE — when the new Extreme E off-road all-electric series begins later this year.
Every team in the series, which aims to raise awareness about climate change by racing in some of the world’s most remote and harsh environments, must have a male and a female driver. Button’s teammate will be announced in due course. “I’m delighted to announce I will be joining Extreme E for the inaugural season with my team jbxeracing. Can’t wait to get my hands on the Extreme E beast,” Button, who won his Formula One title with Brawn GP in 2009, wrote on Twitter.
Rivals will include teams owned by Formula One champions Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. The series, which is run by Formula E founder Alejandro Agag, is scheduled to begin in April.
BASHING THE DUNES
Peterhansel claimed Dakar Rally for 14th time
France’s Stephane Peterhansel won the Dakar Rally for the 14th time in Saudi in January, 30 years after his initial success in the most gruelling event on motorsport’s calendar. Peterhansel, nicknamed ‘Mr Dakar’, has now won the car category eight times, having also won the motorbike category six times.
Peterhansel’s victory came shortly after news that French motorcyclist Pierre Cherpin had died from his injuries after a fall, becoming the race’s first fatality this year.
LADIES TEE IT UP
Groundbreaking game in Saudi
Saudi Arabia’s inaugural leg of the Ladies European Tour took place in 2020 with a prize of $1 million up for grabs in a groundbreaking move to promote female sport in the region. The tournament is sponsored by Saudi Arabia’s oil company, Aramco, and is held at a country club in King Abdullah Economic City, at the same venue as the Saudi International.
A DIFFERENT FORMULA
Hamilton bids for history
Saudi Arabia will get on track as Formula One comes to town for the first Saudi Grand Prix in Jeddah, featuring on a record 23-round calendar in 2021. After the UAE led the way back in 2009, Saudi will join Bahrain on the calendar as races in the Middle East. Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team will go for a record-breaking eight world drivers’ title this winter.
Maximum Security won inaugural Saudi Cup
The $20 million Saudi Cup, world’s richest horse race, will host its second edition in Riyadh on February 20. Prince Bandar Bin Khalid Al Faisal, chairman of JCSA, said they were keen to build on the success of the inaugural Saudi Cup. “It is hard to overstate the success of Saudi Cup 2020 when you consider that in year one of a brand-new international racing event, we attracted some of the very best horses, trainers and jockeys in the world,” he said. Providing added interest and additional international flavour, the $500,000 Saudi International Handicap will be held over 2,100m of the turf track.
IN THE RING
Joshua re-established his authority
Regarded as the event that started the Saudi ball rolling, world heavyweight Anthony Joshua sent out a seismic shock to world heavyweight boxing as he bounced back to take the unified WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO belts. The event took place on December 7, 2019 at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Al-Turaif in Riyadh. Joshua won the bout via unanimous decision. More fights in Saudi are on the cards.
IN THE FRAME
Saudi Arabia to host major snooker event for first time
Saudi Arabia agreed a deal with World Snooker to host a ranking snooker event for the first time after signing a 10-year deal with the sport’s governing body. The Saudi Arabia Snooker Masters will be held in Riyadh from October 4-10 with total prize money of £2.5 million as part of the 2020-21 World Snooker Tour calendar. “This is a giant leap forward for our sport. We have enjoyed tremendous global expansion over the past decade, particularly in Asia and Europe and we are thrilled to stage a new and momentous tournament in the Middle East,” World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn said.