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Dubai Desert Classic v Abu Dhabi Golf Championship

golf, Dubai, Abu Dhabi

It all started in 1989 when, in line with its brand new expansion policy towards Asia, the European PGA Tour first stepped in the Middle East with the annual Dubai Desert Classic championship. Played towards the beginning of the season (while Europe shivers) at the Emirates Golf Club Majlis course, the event has since gone from strength to strength.

So much so that it came as no surprise that when Abu Dhabi announced its own tourism ambitions, a golf tournament was part of the strategy. The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, owned by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) and also sanctioned by the European Tour, debuted in 2006. The pair now form part of the Gulf Swing (along with the Qatar Masters), a concentrated month of golf in the region before the players head back to Europe.

TEE AND TOURISM In both Dubai and in Abu Dhabi, golf championships are considered a major part of tourism development in their home markets. “The players will be our international ambassadors”, said Noel Massoud, general manager of Emirates Palace, the hotel that hosts the Abu Dhabi event’s participants.

Massoud spells it out very simply: “We want to ensure the pros spread the right message that Abu Dhabi is an ideal destination for hospitality, culture, heritage, sun, sea and sand”. Which doesn’t have much to do with golf itself. This ambition is best illustrated by the $5.5 million upgrade of the course in 2007 (a new gatehouse, improved signage, a revamped approach road and extensive landscaping, new championship tees on the 3rd, 6th, 16th and 17th holes, etc.). All these changes aim at improving the competition itself of course, but also at enhancing the looks of the course on TV.

“A lot of what we’re doing here isn’t just for the golfers, but for spectators and sponsors”, says Mike Clarke, from the Abu Dhabi Golf Club who claims that the Abu Dhabi course is better than many on the European and US Tours in terms of how it looks on TV. The inaugural Abu Dhabi Gold Championship attracted over 17,500 spectators while live TV coverage reached around 120 million homes in 28 countries in 2006; in 2007, 23,000 golf fans attended the four days competition that was broadcasted to more than 300 million households across 60 countries with up to 700 hours of live coverage and a fully dedicated radio station.

In 2007, records were broken at the Dubai Desert Classic championship, promoted and organized by Golf in Dubai, with CNN as its international media sponsor for the fourth year, with over 55,606 fans turning up during the week and beating the previous best of 49,633 in 2006.

The 2006 event had arguably its best finish (certainly for the organizers) with Tiger Woods and Ernie Els (the two biggest names in the field) having to go to a play-off (which Woods won). But perhaps the biggest PR coup came during Woods’ 2004 visit. The shots of Woods cracking golf balls off the helipad of the Burj al Arab continue to appear in the media. Even if Woods really was paid his reported $1m appearance fee, it still represents good value.

SPONSORSHIP DRIVE Golf would be nothing without its high end sponsors. Both the UAE events put home-grown sponsors front and center (they’re in the brand building business too), but have a healthy spread of international brands. In addition to Emirates Palace, the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship (January 17 to 20, 2008), boasts Etihad Airways and Aldar as Diamond Sponsors, Standard Chartered Bank as a Platinum Sponsor and Nissan, Airbus, Rolls-Royce, Omega and Xerox as Gold Sponsors. Dubai Desert Classic (January 31 to February 3 2008) is headlined by Dubal, with Omega, National Bank of Dubai, Jumeirah Golf Estates, CNN, Emaar, Emirates Airlines, BMW and Gulf News as regular co-sponsors.

There are other revenue streams: at the Abu Dhabi Gold Club Spectator Village, a wide range of Championship merchandise and apparel is available through over 15 exhibition units. The Falcon Terrace overlooks the 9th and 18th greens with tables available for over $2,700 per table per day.

MONEY TALKS Sponsors, check. Good course, check. Decent facilities, check. The only thing missing is the players. A big purse and guaranteed appearance money usually does the trick.

In Abu Dhabi, eight international top golfers were among the 120 players who competed for a share of the $2 million prize money in 2007; stars like Henrik Stenson, former winner of the Qatar Masters and the reigning Dubai Desert Classic champion, have already signed up for the third edition in 2008. In Dubai, where generous appearance fees have been rumored to help attract golf stars and where the total prize fund was $2.4 million in 2007, world class players like Tiger Woods (who first appeared in the Desert Classic in 2001), Retief Goosen and Ernie Els make sure that the competition will capture international attention.

But as the organizers count down to next year’s championships, there is an elephant in the room. No tournament in the world will be able to compete with the upcoming the Dubai World Championship in 2009, a tournament with prize money of $10 million. An amount already deemed “absurd” by some players. Whether the UAE can attract the world’s best golfers to come in late November and again in early January will be major test.


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