Sport Golf

Friday 15 December 2017

Turkey shoot-out opens door on enticing vista

There are Irish links to Turkey's bid to become a player in world golf, writes Dermot Gilleece

The sense of comfort from knowing we were 280 miles from the border with Syria was heightened by the sight of a familiar Irish face. Bangor's David Jones can claim a pioneer's role in the development of golf in Turkey, which is now receiving the formidable injection of an estimated $50m over four years.

First phase in a grand plan to make Turkey an international force in the game was the staging of the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final, a high-profile get-together involving eight of the world's leading players. The outlay was around $10m, of which Rory McIlroy would have walked away with the better part of a million despite losing all of his three round-robin matches.

Meanwhile, the inaugural $7m Turkish Open on the European Tour was launched with a three-year commitment starting next November when it will be the second-last counting event on the Road to Dubai. When staging costs are taken into consideration, it becomes a very significant undertaking.

All of this in a country where the national Golf Federation was founded as recently as 1996. And Jones made his mark five years previously.

"I'm a bit of a hidden gem," said the Ulsterman with a welcoming grin. He then explained how, in 1990, the Turkish government decided to turn state land over to the development of golf tourism in the coastal area of Antalya in the south-west of the country. Plots of land were leased to developers at a nominal figure with the requirement that a golf course and hotel be built within five years.

"I designed four of them," said Jones, who had embarked into golf-course architecture towards the end of a career on the European Tour and has done extensive upgrading at Mullingar GC and Balmoral.

"David Feherty and I collaborated on the first one, the National Golf Club. Then I went on to do three others on my own, including this one." 'This one', of course, is the 36-hole set-up at Antalya GC, where last week's event was staged on the Sultan Course.

"It's a lovely layout and I'm really proud of it," added Jones, who was especially pleased that the Eisenhower Trophy had been played there the previous weekend. But McIlroy would have had rather different views after carding triple-bogey, double-bogey, double-bogey on the 15th, 16th and 17th in his first experience of it when losing to Matt Kuchar last Tuesday.

When I suggested that a near-neighbour of his had been responsible for his torment, McIlroy replied with a wry smile: "Yeah, that's right. Davy Jones. I met him last night." Then he added: "All in all it's a good track. You've got to keep the ball in play."

The previous night had seen the grand launch, with McIlroy and Woods giving successive press conferences in the Maxx Royal Hotel, where the design and décor would rival the more notorious excesses of Las Vegas. Still, there was no denying the enthusiasm of the locals to make a real impact on the royal and ancient game.

As one element of a plan to use golf towards a national bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, the Federation hope to make sufficient strides in developing local talent as to have players capable of competing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. And there were enough useful-looking swings on display in a clinic given by the tournament professionals last week to suggest it's a realistic objective.

Meanwhile, the money flows. And given his success in attracting such leading names to last week's enterprise, Chubby Chandler of International Sports Management believes it could work in other countries as a promotional vehicle. Indeed as an early by-product, it is hoped that several of last week's octet will return to compete in the Turkish Open in 13 months. As Chandler put it: "I've already established that it's a free week for Tiger."

"Given the problems we had with rain on Wednesday, I think the format worked really well," he went on. "If you were in a position at the start of the season to announce a cut-off point after the FedEx Cup, you could take it from there. The guys could semi-schedule it in their heads. As it was, I had to do it in April this year. If I'd left it any later, everybody would have had plans to be all over the world."

Even with attractive figures being thrown around, it seems that good faith is crucial to the success of these ventures. Which explains why Chandler made sure that $150,000 -- half the minimum guaranteed prize money -- would be lodged to each player's bank account on September 1 of this year -- almost six weeks before the event. "As a gesture, I felt it appropriate to assure them that they were going to be paid," he said. "And with a prize-fund of $5.2m, I knew what the overall figure would be. The president of the Turkish Golf Federation then undertook to arrange sponsorship, starting with

Turkish Airlines. We never had an actual budget as such and as things have turned out, we had an additional 14 subsidiary sponsors."

Of course appearance fees remain the great unknown. Given that they already sponsor Manchester United, Barcelona, Lionel Messi, Kobe Bryant and McIlroy's girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, Turkish Airlines clearly have deep pockets. Their prime target for last week's event was Woods, whom they saw as a valuable asset in a sort of ambassadorial role. In his pomp, he would have demanded something in the region of $3m for a commitment of this nature, though I understand he now settles for about half that. His enduring value to sponsors, however, lies in the fact that he is still the only truly international figure in golf.

McIlroy, as world number one, probably commands in excess of $500,000 with lesser Major winners, Webb Simpson and Charl Schwartzel, getting more modest rewards. And one imagines that the winner, Justin Rose, who received $1.5m for his trouble, and runner-up Lee Westwood, who bagged a million, were prepared to take their chances on the prize money, as were Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan. "I know roughly what people will play for," said Chandler. "Because that's what I do."

It was a fascinating week, made all the more appealing from my perspective from having two Irishmen at the heart of things. One, the examiner and the other a somewhat off-colour examinee making rather hard work of the test he'd been set.

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