The National Azerbaijan Golf Club (pic by Phil Inglis) ()
With both European Tour and US PGA Tour venues amongst an illustrious portfolio, Troon Golf could have been forgiven for resting on its laurels; but the company has underlined its adventurous streak by adding The National Azerbaijan Golf Club to its roster of championship courses.
Azerbaijan’s first 18-hole course only opened on June 7 but, less than two months on from its official unveiling, it has proved a very worthy host venue for the country’s inaugural professional event, the Azerbaijan Golf Challenge Open.
Needless to say, the journey from rugged terrain to championship course has not been without its challenges – notably when some irrigation issues coincided with a heatwave in Quba – but the final product is a layout which is challenging and picturesque in equal measure.
And whilst it would be premature to say it is mission accomplished – the owners, in conjunction with the recently-formed Azerbaijan Golf Federation, have some suitably grand visions for the venue – Troon Golf Europe’s Director of Operations, Stephen Follett, is understandably proud of the progress which has already been made in such a short period of time.
He said: “We’ve got a flag in 28 different countries across the world, so whilst we’re lagging slightly behind the Challenge Tour in that respect, we’re catching up. The opportunity to be involved in the first golfing venture in Azerbaijan really appealed to us, and so far it’s gone extremely well.
“We’ve been involved with this project for nearly two years now, and from the start the ownership have shown themselves to be very progressive. Before the course had even been built, they were already asking what tournaments they could host here.
“They also wanted to have Tiger Woods come and officially open the course, which shows how ambitious they are. Whilst it didn’t quite work out in the end, it certainly wasn’t for want of trying on their part.
“So when we saw how committed and ambitious the ownership were, it was a very easy decision for us to come on board. The idea of hosting a Challenge Tour event was first floated when construction of the course was in its very early stages, and things moved very quickly from the initial discussions.
“Here we are two years later, and that dream has become a reality. The course is still new and very green, but it’s stood up to the test very well this week and this time next year I’m sure we will see real improvements in all areas.”
If the project can continue on its steep upward curve and the Federation succeeds in its aim to grow the game in Azerbaijan, hosting a European Tour event in the ‘Land of Fire’ is by no means an unrealistic aim.
Despite the great strides which have already been made, Follett is understandably careful to manage expectations; but he believes this week’s tournament could well act as a springboard to hosting a tournament on the top tier of European golf.
He said: “We’ll sit down next week and have an open and frank discussion on what we did right, what we did wrong and where we can improve; not just on the golf course, but the logistics, the transport, the food and beverage – everything really. There will always be a few issues the first time you host any tournament, but so far the week has been a great success and has gone as well as we could’ve wished for.
“Baku is hosting the first ever European Games next year and the Formula One Grand Prix in 2016, so if you think of a timeline then 2017 could be a realistic target for the first European Tour event in Azerbaijan. The track for the Grand Prix will be though the streets, so if the country can successfully host a Formula One road race and all the logistical problems that involves, then having a European Tour event here should be fairly easy!”