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Greg Norman: Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse via my Asian Tour revamp

LONDON: When “the Great White Shark” —  aka Greg Norman —  sinks his teeth into something, success is guaranteed on and off the golf course.

The 66-year-old Australian won 91 professional tournaments, including two Open championships, during a distinguished career that saw him top the world rankings for 331 consecutive weeks.

The pioneering Norman has also become one of the world’s most successful athlete-turned-entrepreneurs, with his global corporation Great White Shark Enterprises boasting more than a dozen companies.

As such, Norman’s bold proclamation to Arab News that Saudi Arabia can become a golfing powerhouse under his tenacious tutelage should not dismissed lightly.

Norman last month was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, a newly formed, Saudi-backed company that will bring a series of 10 new events to the Asian Tour in 2022. 

He is relishing the opportunity to channel “44 years of observation, knowledge and experience” into rousing golf’s “sleeping giant,” Asia, as part of a ground-breaking 10-year deal that will involve tournaments being staged across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.

“I first went (to Asia) in 1977 and I’ve been going back every year, except during the pandemic years, as a player, golf course designer or through my business acumen,” Norman said via a Zoom call.

“I’ve seen what golf has done there. I was the first guy to build an 18-hole grass course in Jordan. I was the first guy to do an exhibition match in mainland China. I was one of the first guys to play in the UAE as a professional, so I’ve seen the economic growth, as well as the growth of the game of golf, when it goes into new markets.”

Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds with a diverse international investment portfolio, is the majority shareholder in Norman’s new company.

Saudi PIF has committed more than $200 million, one of the single biggest investments in the history of professional golf, to support playing opportunities and prize funds.

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The series will add to the Asian Tour’s backbone of established events to comprise a 25-event season, expected to represent a record-breaking combined prize fund in 2022.

The announcement follows hard on the heels of the striking of a new 10-year partnership between the Asian Tour and Golf Saudi, the organizers of the Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers, which will see the event become the flagship tournament on the Asian Tour, featuring an increased prize fund of $5 million.

Norman is hugely impressed with Golf Saudi’s aggressive drive to promote golf as part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 masterplan, which includes multiple golf courses being built in the country.

“Golf Saudi are passionate about the game of golf. If you have that much passion, vision and desire like Vision 2030, then you’re going to accelerate it. I love to see that,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ve seen an investment in the future of a country like what I’ve seen in Saudi Arabia.”

He added: “I’ve seen it in pockets around the world — Vietnam has done a great job in investing in its coastline and building high-end resorts and golf course developments there — but nothing to the magnitude of what Saudi Arabia has done. It’s a knock-on effect, a domino effect, and golf is paving the way for (prosperity). It’s an eye-opener to see how the country is investing into their people and opportunities from a health and wellness perspective, from a sporting perspective, from an education perspective,” he said.

“I would say the citizens of Saudi Arabia should be extremely excited about their future.”

Norman said: “Do I think Saudi Arabia could become a golfing powerhouse? Yes, I do.”

“If you’re going to invest dollars into building new facilities, it will allow people access to the game of golf,” he said. “Then you bolt on a lot of other things like academies and education and the hospitality side of things, so it’s actually a beautiful process to watch.” 

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He added: “It’s not just one individual who benefits from it, it’s everybody.”

Norman said the schedule for the new series will be announced shortly, with all full-field events contributing toward the Order of Merit ranking.

He is confident of assembling a stellar line-up of world-renowned golfers, too, which is crucial to his overriding aim of inspiring the next generation.

World No.2 Dustin Johnson, who won the Saudi International in 2019 and 2020, is among those rumored to be interested, although Norman would not discuss potential participants.

“All I can tell you is every day I get a message, whether it’s through my WhatsApp, or through Signal or my IG account, from a player asking: ‘How can I get involved? We love it. Thank you, thank you, thank you’.”

He said: “Obviously creating the ability to bring professional golfers stimulates the interest among the younger generation, who would say: ‘Oh, wow, I want to win that golf tournament that John Smith just won.’ The interest level gets accelerated, the fan level gets accelerated, and the fanbase gets bigger, broader and stronger. The game of golf gets better because of that.

“When the fanbase gets elevated, then (people with) more corporate dollars want to come in because the fans are there. There’s this domino effect that happens from an economic standpoint and also a growth standpoint.”

He added: “Could Saudi Arabia produce the next Tiger Woods? The answer is ‘yes.’ But it’s a long-term ‘yes’ and a generational ‘yes.’,” he said.

“In the mid-1980s, there was a gentleman called Sven Tumba from Sweden, who was an ice hockey player who loved golf. He went on this mission to create an opportunity to grow grassroots golf in Sweden. Look where Sweden is today,. They’ve got a major championship winner (2016 Open champion Henrik Stenson).”

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Norman is eager to seize every opportunity to expand the game of golf as part of his landmark initiative.

This includes potentially inviting women to participate, as they did at this month’s Aramco Saudi Ladies International for the second year. Building new golf courses across Asia would also be “a logical next step,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Asian Tour CEO and commissioner, Cho Minn Thant, recently suggested that television broadcasting innovations would be explored, including “putting a 3D camera on some of the players if they allow it, or new graphics.”

Norman agreed, adding: “I’m getting flooded with the best of the best from the technology side of life, from technology corporations, from 5G corporations. Golf is under a linear broadcaster, so there are so many ways to show the sport in so many different aspects with the technology that’s out there today and not being used.”

While Norman is fiercely determined to make the Asian Tour global golf’s premier series, he insists he does not want to antagonize the long-established PGA and European Tours.

“I’m a big believer that we can play in the same sandbox. Why can’t there be others who are creating a separate but similar opportunity for players as independent contractors to go and increase their market value?” he said.

“Competition is the best thing for everyone and everything on this planet,” Norman added. “You can go through everything we do in life and we need a competitor to push us to the next level.”

With a hungry Great White Shark on the prowl, Asian sports fans can expect to feast themselves on some spectacular golf in years to come.



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