Regional golf round-up: The real heroes - European Tour’s Graeme MacNiven on the role played by agronomists in tournaments

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Graeme MacNiven with Mark Tupling, Agronomy Manager, Jumeirah Golf Estates.

It ensures that same effect is felt by players, spectators and the millions watching on TV.

While a golf course designer may get all the accolades, it really is the agronomy and maintenance teams that are the lifeblood of any golf course. Even the most iconic holes will look desolate and uninspiring if not for the continuous intervention of these guys. They are the ultimate unsung heroes of golf.

One man who has made a name for himself despite trying his best to stay away from the spotlight is Graeme MacNiven, the ‘grass man of the European Tour’. For more than 20 years now, the Deputy Director of Agronomy has been ensuring that Tour events are played on golf courses that measure up to the exacting standards of professional golfers and look good on TV.

The 50-year-old Scotsman is currently on a three-week tour of the UAE, during which he will be inspecting and consulting the agronomy teams of Abu Dhabi Golf Club (which hosts the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship), Jumeirah Golf Estates (DP World Tour Championship), Emirates Golf Club (Omega Dubai Desert Classic), Sharjah Golf and Shooting Club (which will host
the Sharjah Senior Golf Masters in 2017) and Al Hamra Golf Club (Ras Al Khaimah 2016 Golf Challenge on the Challenge Tour).

“My job with the Tour is to support the venues that are holding the tournaments. I liaise with each greenkeeper to give him as much assistance in how to present and prepare his golf course for a Tour event as I can,” said MacNiven.

“I have got wide experience of events in different golf courses in the world. Guys like Mark (Tupling, Agronomy Manager at JGE), Craig (Haldane, EGC) and Andrew (Whittaker, ADGC) know exactly what needs to be done in their golf course.

What you see during tournaments is a sum total of our expertise and their team’s hard work. The whole result is greater than the sum of its part.

“So, for example, the DP World Tour Championship is played in November. But I came here during the Desert Classic in February, I have come now, and I will come for another visit in September.

“The nature of our job is such that we become, as I call it, ‘snowblind’.

You look at the same thing every day, the problems then appear to be normal. When someone comes in with a fresh pair of eyes, we tend to see things differently.

“Also, the players are always asking us how are things going at this golf course, has anything been changed. The worst thing for the Tour would be to say we don’t know.

We need to have a finger on the pulse all the time. For the professionals, the condition of the golf course is of paramount importance.”

The professionals can be difficult to please at times, but there are certain basic things about a golf course that most of them would like to have.

“I think if you ask different professionals, they will have a different priority list of what they want at a host venue. But it basically boils down to three things – quality of playing surface, uniformity and decent practice facilities,” MacNiven added.

“You need to give them good quality of playing surface. In order of priority, I’d say you start with the quality of greens, followed by the quality of fairways and then comes the teeing areas.

“Uniformity of playing surface is very important for them. They’d like the 18 greens to be the same speed as the practice green.

They’d like the texture and quality of sand to be similar in all the bunkers.

“And a good practice facility is obviously very important for them.

The length and width of the driving range and the state of the practice green is very important to them.”

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Order of Merit champ tees up for first MENA Tour start

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Bright future: The two-time South African Amateur champion Thriston Lawrence.

The three-day tournament, to be played at the Zwartkop Golf Club in Centurion, starts today and is

co-sanctioned with the Sunshine Big Easy Tour. Leading players from both the tours will compete for a share of the 500,000 rand (Dh124,000) prize fund in addition to earning world ranking points.

Lawrence, the 19-year-old South African prodigy, became the youngest to win the MENA Golf Tour’s Order of Merit title in 2015 and has already racked up two top-5 finishes in the three events he has played this season.

The teenager announced his arrival on the big stage by winning the Ras Al Khaimah Classic in November last year in a field that featured European Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke, who is also the MENA Golf Tour patron.

The two-time South African Amateur champion has been on a roll ever since and will be joined by five other MENA Golf Tour champions, including England’s Lee Corfield, a four-time winner, and an in-form Antonio Costa of Chile, who won the MahaSamutr Masters by six shots at Banyan Golf Club in Hua Hin, Thailand, in May.

Other MENA Golf Tour notables in the 120-player field include Scotland’s Paul Doherty and the English duo of Scott Campbell and Luke Joy. They will be up against a strong Big Easy Tour contingent that will be looking to make inroads into new territory.

Spearheading the home challenge will be Jason Viljoen, who currently leads the Big Easy Tour Order of Merit after his second-place finish in the recent Big Easy Tour Observatory event.

Thanda Mavundla, Hennie du Plessis, Jeff Inglis and Mark Murless, who featured among the top-five at the Observatory, are also in the field, which includes six amateurs, including five South Africans, and Benjamin David of England.

The Zwartkop Golf Club, founded in 1933, has hosted many significant professional events over the years, including the SA Open, the Sunshine Tour’s ICL International and a memorable exhibition game between Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player during the 1960s.

Some of the greatest names in golf have walked the fairways, including Sam Snead, Peter Thompson,
Bobby Locke, Player, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo, Ernie Els, Nick Price and Retief Goosen.

An initiative of the Shaikh Maktoum Golf Foundation, the MENA Golf Tour was created in 2011 with the aim of developing golf in the region. It is affiliated to the R&A, the worldwide golf governing body based in the home of golf, St Andrews, and the Arab Golf Federation, and enjoys the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) status.

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A day with: Al Musharrekh - The only Emirati pro golfer

Matt Jones 2/06/2016
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Ahmed Al Musharrekh.

Golfer Ahmed Al Musharrekh carries the weight of a nation on his shoulders as the only Emirati professional.

Not that the responsibility bothers the 25-year-old, who is happy shouldering the burden. He is a warm and engaging character, always laughing, but he believes he has a responsibility to help fellow Emiratis follow in his footsteps.

He is aware his performance in the future will be key to putting UAE golf on the map and inspiring others.

After winning team gold medals in the 2011 Arab Games, claiming the 2012 GCC Championship title confirmed his talent. He’s currently competing on the MENA Tour but is dreaming of one day making it big in Europe or America.

Earlier this year, he competed at the Gary Player Invitational at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi and spoke to Sport360.

Is it lonely being the only Emirati professional golfer?

There’s none at the moment, so I’m the only one. I turned pro three years ago and have been on the journey since. I had last year off because of national service in the navy, which was mandatory, but a great experience. I’m excited to be back now playing golf and moving on with the game.

What’s it been like since you turned pro?

It’s been a huge change. It’s more physically and mentally challenging, on and off the course. It’s not like having a hobby where you’re just a boy and having fun playing, carefree and happy, with nothing on your shoulders. All of a sudden, you turn pro and you’ve got all this expectation, from yourself, but also externally. That’s been a huge shift, having to play with that and dealing with stuff off the course, like social media, sponsorships, and having to grow up. It’s something I’ve had to deal with. But we see great examples of this on tour, you see all these young guys thriving and dealing with things in a fantastic way, so it just gives me a push to keep going and see where I get to.

Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship - Day One

You’re back on the MENA Tour this year. What is the aim?

I want to do well on the tour. It’s competitive but it’s also on my local ground. If I play my best I think I can win tournaments. So we’ll see what happens.

What were some of the biggest challenges about turning pro for you and how did you do it?

I had to make that move. I was in my second year at university, doing great and enjoying it, taking business management and learning a lot. I sat down with my coach Wayne Johnson at Jumeirah Golf Estates and we were talking about ambitions. He said if I wanted to do it, I had to do it then. There was no point waiting another two years, because I’d start drifting away from the game. The competition is always getting better. We see that on the tours. All these young guys, even the older guys, are shooting great numbers, so Wayne said the longer I leave it, the more I was losing out on these opportunities. Time is ticking and I was not getting younger, so we came up with the decision. I turned pro two weeks after that.

What was the toughest part about taking the plunge?

The shift in mentality from amateur to professional. The numbers are getting so low. I can shoot the numbers, it’s just that shooting them for four days is something you have to get used to. All these guys are playing week in, week out. I’m just excited to get in there and see what I can do.

What’s been the most enjoyable thing for you since making the decision?

Making the move and being the first Emirati professional. It’s a nice position to be in and it’s a further motivation to do well. Hopefully, others will follow. We’ve opened the first foundation for UAE nationals (Ahmed Al Musharrekh Foundation). They’re looking up to me so knowing that kids are looking at you and idolising you, it pushes you to do better.

The 2016 Abu Dhabi Invitational - Day 2

Above winning the MENA Tour, what are your ambitions for the future?

Moving into the US, playing in Europe, I think that’s the ultimate goal for any golfer. I’m not sure how far I am from doing that. I wish it could happen right now but I think I will have to take it one day at a time. That’s all I can do, play my game, eat good food, do my workouts in the gym and let it work itself out.

Do you think we could have a handful of Emirati professionals following in your footsteps in the future?

Absolutely. My success will dictate that. If I can get a tour card in the US or Europe, the kids here would be more pushed to follow me and there are so many talented golfers. At Sharjah Golf Club, they’re taking really good care of youngsters. In Dubai with the Emirates Golf Federation they have a lot of kids moving up the ladder, training and competing hard. In Abu Dhabi, we now have the HSBC programme. So there’s a lot of hope.

Why was it golf for you as a kid?

Easy answer. It was different. I played basketball, football, baseball, and was actually not a bad footballer, but there was something about golf. It’s just you out there, and I think every golfer can relate to that. Your emotions, feelings, body and mind all has to be one. It’s up to you, there’s no manager or team-mates, it’s just you out there and you need to execute. I fell in love with the fact that you have to rely on yourself and master yourself in order to play well.

Who was your idol?

Tiger Woods. Definitely. He’s a legend and in my eyes he’s still the greatest that’s ever lived, regardless of what everyone else says. I still think he’ll come back. I met him at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2006 and hit a few shots with him. That was the only opportunity I had but he was a great guy. I hit a few shots and we had a good vibe going.

What’s the one tournament above any else that you want to play in?

Any major. That’s any professional golfer’s dream. Hopefully if I can ace the Desert Classic next year or one of those big local tournaments I could get an invitation to play in one. That would be fantastic.

Who’s your favourite golfer to watch?

There are so many. I like Bryon DeChambeau the US amateur who turned pro after The Masters in April. I played the pro-am with him at Abu Dhabi nvitational in January. There are different names up there all the time because the level is so high. Rory McIlroy was dominating two years ago and now you’ve got amateurs up at that level.

Away from golf, what other sports and teams do you like?

I’m a big football fan and I like Real Madrid and watching Ronaldo play. I’m always impressed by him. He’s 30 but still has it going on and can still compete at that level. He’s a special athlete.

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