Belek sets the bar high in golf, aims to host 2019 Solheim Cup

Belek sets the bar high in golf, aims to host 2019 Solheim Cup

From the balcony of a luxury hotel room in the Mediterranean resort town of Belek, overlooking swimming pools and a golf course, the fierce political debates with 17 days to go for the general elections seem so distant. Under the scorching sun, even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s high-toned rebuke to the media is music to the ears.

I was in Belek for two days upon an invitation by the Carya Golf Club, which hosted the seventh edition of the Turkish Airlines Ladies Open, the Turkey leg of the Ladies European Tour (LET). It is the seventh time the tour has visited Turkey’s top golfing destination, which has proven itself in recent years as a venue for international tournaments.

With its 18 golf courses, Belek has also hosted the Turkish Airlines Open, a part of the European Tour that has attracted superstar players such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. The town also hosted a leg of the European Challenge Tour last week, with Turkish Airlines investing in the sport as a major sponsor.

Buoyed by the success of the events held so far, the organizers of the Turkish Airlines Ladies Open have now set a higher target: To bring the 2019 Solheim Cup to Turkey.

“The Solheim Cup is a very popular event with a broad audience,” Bülent Göktuna, chairman of Mineks International and the president of National Golf Club, told a group of journalists in Belek on May 19. “We have submitted a bid to host the event at the National when it comes back to Europe in 2019.”

Göktuna said the race will be tough and coming up with the estimated cost of 10 to 15 million euros for the biennial tournament, which pits teams from the United States and Europe against each other, will be a challenge, but they are up for it.

“Maybe we have set the bar too high, but if we can manage to bring the Solheim Cup to Turkey, we hope to give golf in the country a boost ahead of the 2020 Olympics and it will be a great chance to promote Turkey before we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the republic in 2023.”

LET CEO Ivan Khodabakhsh was happy with the bid.

“I don’t want to talk much about it, because we have 10 countries running to host the event, which is a testament to the rise of women’s golf,” he said. “But I can say that everyone who has come to Belek and played golf here knows that there is the ability and experience to host such an event.”

Despite the rise of golf tourism in Turkey and the establishment of Belek as a destination for international events, the country is far behind in raising players and golf is still considered a sport for high society.

The clubs run some programs to widen the player pool, for example the National Golf Club has a golf academy program for 65 kids who are from the local orphanage and underprivileged families in the Belek region. But the local administrations should take the lead in making golf accessible, according to Fikret Öztürk, the chairman of Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort.

“The municipalities should build public golf courses in the cities, and cooperate with schools to give the youth a chance to get involved in golf,” he said. “It is all about giving the opportunity. For example, we have seven golf instructors at our club, and they are all from Tunceli, who started as caddies in Istanbul.”

With the municipalities spending millions of Turkish Liras on dinosaur and Transformer statues or tulips, a lack of funds for golf should not be a major issue, but why build a public golf course on land where you can build hundreds of apartments that will make your contractor friend very happy, right?

Just as I was finishing this piece, I saw a video of Yiğit Bulut, a nationalist-turned-Erdoğan-supporter and economist who holds a position as an advisor to the president.

“I have two licensed guns, and hundreds of bullets,” the advisor, who once claimed opponents were using telekinesis to assassinate Erdoğan, was shouting in the video. 

“No one can touch the elected president without killing me, and millions of people like me, first,” Bulut said, talking about an editorial by daily Hürriyet addressing the president.

It is good to be back in Istanbul, Turkish politics is great.