European Tour chief concerned about unrest in Gulf
Political unrest in the Gulf is a concern for the European golf tour and organizers are monitoring the situation in Bahrain, which is due to host the first tournament of 2012, chief executive George O'Grady said Monday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, O'Grady said a decision won't be made ''for several months'' on whether the Volvo Golf Champions tournament will be held for a second year in Bahrain. This year's inaugural event, held in late January, was problem-free and deemed a success, he said.
Authorities in Bahrain have cracked down heavily on dissent since anti-government protests began Feb. 14. The unrest has left 30 people dead, including four opposition supporters who died in custody, and forced Formula One's season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix to be called off.
''Bahrain is being monitored all the time,'' O'Grady said. ''If we are advised not to go, we would do the same as F1. I don't think anyone fully knows. It's just too early to say. It will be up to the golf federation in Bahrain and the king as our hosts. We started in Bahrain and we hope we can continue.''
Colin Montgomerie, who designed the Bahrain course, said how the situation unfolds will determine if the event goes ahead.
''Of course, it's concerning ... especially for local Bahrainis,'' Montgomerie said. ''But at the same time, I think George is dead right in saying it's too early to say regarding the Bahrain tournament next year. We all hope that the unrest will come to an end and peace in the region will suffice once again.''
O'Grady played down the long-term implications of the unrest, noting that the European Tour has navigated political challenges before, including the Gulf and Iraq wars as well as terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. He also said the Nigerian Open in the 1970s was disrupted by an uprising in the African country that forced players to remain housebound.
''You have had terrorists attacks in Britain but you continue the tournaments don't you?'' he said. ''You don't run scared. When the Gulf War was on, we came to Qatar when a lot of other sports wouldn't come. We reckoned we were safe there. Some players were worried but we honor our agreements.''
O'Grady said he has no regrets with the move into the Gulf which now features five tournaments, including the year's first tournament in Abu Dhabi, one in Qatar and the season-ending, $7.5 million tournament in Dubai. The tour has also held preliminary talks with Saudi Arabia on hosting a Senior Tour event and with Oman over hosting a sixth European Tour event in the coming years.
''We have to be reasonably circumspect to make sure everyone is fully committed. It is a big undertaking to have extra tournaments,'' O'Grady said. ''We are talking to many different golf federations in the area. Oman would be the most developed in that sense.''
O'Grady said talks are also ongoing regarding keeping the season-ending Dubai World Championship in the city. It is no secret that Abu Dhabi would like to host the event that concludes the Race To Dubai. The three-year contract with government-owned developer Nakheel ends after this year's tournament.
Prize money for the tournament has also been reduced from $10 million to $7.5 million due to the economic crisis that hit Dubai.
''We are comfortable in Dubai as long as all our partners in Dubai wish to continue,'' O'Grady said. ''The Race to Dubai has been synonymous with Dubai and the European Tour through largely good times and in the last couple of years more challenging times ... I'll be surprised if we don't continue in Dubai.''
In 1989, Dubai hosted the the first European Tour tournament outside of Europe in what O'Grady describes as a ''catalyst for change.'' The tour now stages 50 events in 29 destinations but O'Grady said there are limits to its global ambitions.
O'Grady said there are no plans to host a World Golf Championship in Europe. Currently, three are held in the United States, one in Asia and a fifth is slated for South Africa in 2012.
''There is absolutely no reason why we shouldn't have one, but at the moment the desire of the sponsorship isn't there,'' he said.