A programme that fits to a tee
Mohamed Juma Buamaim said he cringed every time a UAE amateur golfer faltered when given the chance to compete on a bigger stage. He grew frustrated watching young players come through the Dubai coaching programme, be given an entry into a professional tournament, then struggle to break 90. He was disappointed few Emirati golfers expressed an interest in turning professional.
As the chief executive of Golf in Dubai, Buamaim is arguably the most influential man for the game in the country, and he took such failures personally. He said that is why his team came up with the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) Tour, which begins on Monday at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi.
The tour is designed to help golfers from the UAE and other Arab countries progress to the next level by giving them the opportunity to test themselves against opponents from around the world.
"We got to the stage where we brought kids through who wanted to play, and were good," Baumaim said.
"I wanted to see them move up a level but there wasn't a next step. The only thing, really, was to give them a slot in the Desert Classic or the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
"And, unfortunately, they never made the cut. And in those two days they do play, the scores are embarrassing. The reason is because we did not provide them with the right base."
Baumaim, an Emirati, has been on the case at Golf in Dubai, a development programme for young golfers, for 10 years. He knew when he took the job that turning UAE amateurs into professionals would be a challenge.
"The junior development programme has been there for 10 years and, when it started, I was asked when we would have our first Arab, or specifically UAE, professional player," he said. "I said back then that I couldn't see it.
"Why? Well, simply because we had no next level. The players came through, became scratch [golfers, who shoot even par], and then plus-two, plus-four, but that was because they were playing on the same courses and against the same people all the time.
"When you took them out of the UAE to play in big tournaments, they were nowhere to be found."
He said one reason why golfers from other parts of the world are successful is because they have more competitive opportunities.
"Look at how the serious, big stars of golf started out," he said.
"They played at [a] national level, then regional and then someone, such as Rory McIlroy, took part in the Walker Cup, where you have to be a [very] good player to get into.
"We had nothing like this. How could we expect our guys to get better?" Buamaim cited Khalid Yousuf, a long-time member of the UAE national team, as the perfect example of someone who might benefit from the competition offered by the new tour.
Yousuf scores well when playing against the same people and on the same courses, but struggles in European Tour events, such as the Desert Classic in 2008 or the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship last January.
"To be fair to Khalid, at least he plays as an amateur," Buamaim said. "But he needs to challenge himself against players from all over the world, not just against his friends in what is effectively a boys' day out.
"I wanted to take him further, to different countries to train, which he didn't want to do.
"In some ways I can understand this because he would play in the Desert Classic, shoot 18-over-par and his confidence was ruined. It's hardly an incentive for anyone to think about turning pro."
He said the Mena Tour will act as a stepping stone from local to international events.
"The guys will experience different players with different styles and then, if they get an opportunity to play a European Tour event, the jump won't be so big."
The Mena Tour, which Buamaim first started talking about 18 months ago, will consist of four tournaments, all hosted by UAE courses. The first event, at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, will have a field of 72 players from 28 countries.
The organisers hope these first four tournaments will be the start of something special in the region and, as the years go on, more recognisable names will sign up.
Buamaim said he was confident golfers would be interested in the tour but said that the numbers have exceeded his expectations, with 280 applicants.
"And those numbers will go up," he said. "I'm sure of that.
"We did the first tour only in the UAE purely because we did not know what the response was going to be, and we wanted to get the logistics right. We have organised the Dubai Desert Classic for over 22 years now, and you may think you know it all, but the Classic is in one place, and there are so many elements to consider when you look at the people involved in this tour.
"So we get this right and next time, maybe next year, when we will take the tour outside the UAE, all we need to organise are the flights and accommodation."
He said the interest from outside the region was surprising. It helps that the first three professionals and the top amateur will qualify for the Dubai Desert Classic next February.
Organisers hope other big events, such as the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, will provide spaces for the leading Mena players, as well.
"When we announced this tour in June, I don't think it reached many corners of the world," he said. "Now that we can offer the different slots, especially in the Desert Classic, we will begin get to get interest from, I don't want to call them has-beens, but players who were good but due to whatever reason have lost their card and will want to take part in this."
Adrian Flaherty, the commissioner of the Mena Tour and the general manager of Golf in Dubai, knows what he wants to see at the end of this experiment: an Arab player on the European Tour.
"It's nice to launch an event which introduces a new standard, a new level," he said. "This is what the region has been missing. The game of golf here is ready for this, and we need someone from this region to make the big breakthrough and be an example to the rest.
"I'm sure we will need a qualifier for this next year based on the first year's numbers. It is bound to snowball. The winner will take home US$9,000 [Dh33,057] on Wednesday, which for a 54-hole event is pretty good, better than a UK mini-tour.
"The Arab world needs to be recognised in the world of golf. They are not, at the moment, despite the big tournaments we have here."
What does Buamaim hope for over the next four weeks?
"I would like people to come along and watch, as that will also help with the players' development," he said. "The competition takes place over three weekdays because the courses are helping us out, and we didn't want to eat into their prime time.
"I'm sure we will see a lot of good golf. This is the beginning of something special for golf in the UAE."
Published: September 24, 2011 04:00 AM