McIlroy one of the few big names missing Saudi International

Dustin Johnson defends his title at the controversial Asian Tour event

Rory McIlroy most likely chose a good week to take a break. Apart from getting some time for self-reflection on the fallout of his play of the final hole of the Dubai Desert Classic, before resuming competitive play at the Genesis Invitational on the PGA Tour in a fortnight's time, the Northern Irishman's absence from the Saudi International speaks very much for the player's integrity in not being bought in by any sportswashing exercise.

Not all of his playing peers took McIlroy's stance, however. And it is indicative of the sort of appearance fees on offer for the Saudi International at the Royal Greens resort that, although it has a smaller purse than the AT&T Pebble Beach pro-am, the contingent of big names in the kingdom means there are more world ranking points available at King Abdullah Economic City, where Dustin Johnson defends his title, than there are at the PGA Tour event.

The dynamics of the main professional tours have changed since DJ spun the tunes en route to victory a year ago: the threat of a Saudi Arabia-backed global tour has impacted with the result that the Saudi International is no longer recognised by the DP World Tour (European Tour as was) and has instead taken its place as the flagship event of the Asian Tour.

There are three Irish players in the 120 man field in Saudi Arabia, where past champion Graeme McDowell is joined by fellow-Major winner Shane Lowry while Cormac Sharvin has received a sponsor's invitation.


The purse for the Saudi International is €4.75 million but the amount spent on appearance fees – believed to be in the region of €14.5m – has ensured a field that includes Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Xander Schauffele, Tony Finay, Tyrrell Hatton, Bubba Watson, Henrick Stenson and Jason Dufner in adding star power to those from the Asian Tour.

Murphy debut

Over in Pebble Beach, where there are no such incentives as appearance fees, the prize fund amounts to €7.75 million with Patrick Cantlay, the world number four and last year's FedEx Cup champion, taking on the role of headline act and Daniel Berger defending his title.

There are two Irish players competing at Pebble Beach: Séamus Power, after a week off, returns to kickstart a three week road trip that also takes in next week's Phoenix Open and the following week's Genesis Invitational; John Murphy will be making his PGA Tour debut, after receiving a sponsor's invitation.

On the DP World Tour, for a third straight week in the UAE, the inaugural Ras al Khaimah Championship has a prize fund of €1.8 million – with Richard Bland the top ranked player in the field (58th in the world after his runner-up finish to Viktor Hovland in the Dubai Desert Classic) – and features three Irish players, Pádraig Harrington, Jonathan Caldwell and Tom McKibbin, who is playing on a sponsor's invitation.

Maguire’s rise

Leona Maguire has moved up to a career best 37th in the updated Rolex world rankings, following her tied-27th finish in the Gainbridge LPGA tournament, won by Lydia Ko.

The Co Cavan golfer remains in Florida for this week's tour stop, the Drive On Championship, before a three week break in the schedule takes the LPGA Tour to Singapore and Thailand. "Obviously I am building towards the Majors specifically but the schedule is as it is," Maguire remarked of her itinerary going forward, aware that she is into all five women's Majors this year for the first time as well as being exempt for those big money tournaments in Asia.

Maguire is in a position to be able to play every single tournament from now to the US Open in June after which she will set out her plans for the second part of the year, which will involve some travel back to Europe for the Evian Championship and the AIG Women's British Open as well as the revived Irish Open and the ISPS Handa World Invitational in Galgorm Castle.

Stephanie Meadow, who finished in tied-57th in the Gainbridge on her seasonal debut, is also in the field for the Drive On which takes place at Fort Myers, Florida.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times