Eight years ago I sat at a bar with Tony Martin, one-time European Tour pro and at that time the go-to man whenever questions of golf arose in the small Turkish town of Belek.
"In the early 1990s this stretch of the coast was just sand and wasteland," Tony told me. "I was asked to view it. They drove me across dunes on an off-road vehicle and said that in 20 years time there would be at least 10 golf courses and hotels here. At first I’m not sure I believed them."
"Then I saw them get to work."
Even in 2010 it was apparent that the Turkish developers had been as good as their word. Buoyed by rent-free land, enormous all-inclusive resorts supported a series of golf courses designed by big names including David Feherty, Martin Hawtree, Dave Thomas and Nick Faldo.
Since then Turkey has had its share of political tension, much of which has impacted on tourism. Tales are told by travelers of visiting favourite regions and being welcomed with open arms, and a touch of desperation, by locals whose income has been ravaged by the stay-away.
There was a time when this crisis affected Belek, too, as other Mediterranean countries reported a resumption of their primacy over the upstart. But in 2018, upon my return to the town for the European Tour’s Turkish Airlines Open, Belek was apparently thriving. Questions regarding the town’s ability to withstand any downturn in tourist popularity were waved away.
"Belek is currently doing great trade," a representative of the Turkish Golf Federation told me. "It’s because of the courses and the resorts. Golfers love them and, unlike other Turkish resorts, the footfall is all year round. Golf has been absolutely huge for Turkish tourism."
It would seem that the vision of those who took Tony Martin dune-bashing has been proved prophetic and that Belek, like Dubai, is a European Tour destination that has arisen swiftly and out of nothing.
What has not yet happened is any sign of Turkish golfers making any sort of impact in the professional game. As it stands the sport exists as something to keep the tourists occupied (albeit rather lucratively) rather than as a conduit between them and the native people.
Eight years ago locals were keen to highlight junior programs, and yet the three Turkish invitees at the wonderful Carya Golf Club filled the bottom three places on the leaderboard.
It should not be a surprise. There is a remarkable density of courses in Belek, and what is striking is how good they are. This is a consequence of the land they are built on: largely sand-based, naturally rolling, in places thick with trees. It’s perfect golf territory in contrast to new builds in the UK or US where such land was utilised over 100 years ago and now less-desirable property is being manipulated to serve the sport.
However the brilliance of the setting is distinct and small. Beyond Belek there are but a handful of courses in Turkey so the catchment area for the Federation is not really Turkey, but a very tiny corner of it.
This is not unusual in European Tour history. It has always visited countries with little to no golf heritage, partly out of necessity (the need for tournaments), partly to further the expansion of the sport; Challenge Tour Director Alain de Soultrait is particularly keen on such ventures.
Naturally it has been common for locals invitees to struggle in the initial years. It took time for Swedes, Finns and Danes to feel at home on the circuit; a while for Portuguese and Austrian stars to appear; and now Poles and Czechs are beginning to find their feet on the Challenge Tour.
In this year’s Turkish Airlines Open, Finland’s Tapio Pulkannen completed an unusual hat-trick, having competed in Belek in the Turkish Amateur Championship, on the Challenge Tour and then at the top level.
And a glance at the scoring from this year’s Turkish Amateur Championship might just be an indicator not only of Turkey’s future in the game but Europe’s because two home players were in the top 10 -- but so, too, more pertinently were golfers from Slovakia (the winner), Russia and Serbia, with a Croatian in 15th.
The event is far from being one of Europe’s premier amateur events, but this trend of east European golfers is maintained at the more high profile ones.
James Bond famously played golf in "Goldfinger," but he also came to Turkey in "From Russia With Love." Now promising golfers come to Belek – from Russia with glove.