Four years after apologising profusely for allegedly headbutting a photographer, the Turkish Golf Federation president has given Rory McIlroy both barrels for skipping the $7m Turkish Airlines Open.
Ahmet Agaoglu was apologetic in 2012 when chaotic scenes at the start of the Turkish Airlines World Golf Final in Antalya led to scuffles with photographers and media unaccustomed to the protocol of covering golf. One man went down and claimed he was headbutted as the golf federation president lost his patience with those who don’t play ball
Four years on, the sumptuous Regnum Carya Golf & Spa Resort will host the first event of the European Tour’s three tournament final series with the winner taking home the huge sum of €1,065,388. And once again, the president, and tournament host, was unhappy
The event has been overshadowed by a number of high profile withdrawals, starting with Tiger Woods’ a few weeks ago and followed swiftly at the weekend by top draw McIlroy and a host of others, including Patrick Reed and Shane Lowry.
And even though Masters champion Danny Willett and stalemate Lee Westwood sat manfully through the speeches, the opening press conference held in the same building that hosted the G20 Anatalya summit of world leaders last year, should have come with a flak jacket warning.
“I’d like to thank Danny Willett and Lee Westwood and the guys who are here,” Agaoglu said. “Over the last few months we have seen there is a lot of difference between top golfers and top athletes with some golfers missing events because of a few mosquitoes. True sports people rise above this."
Ouch. But there was more. Much more and it doesn’t bode well for the future of Turkish-McIlroy relations when a player who was to be paid around €1.25m to appear didn't get in touch personally with the host to say he wasn't coming.
“There are things happening everywhere in the world,” Agaoglu added. “If they are afraid of such things there is no safe place in the world. This is one of the major golfing events in the continent of Europe and I think they have to respect the sponsors a little bit because they are investing huge money.
“There is $7m prize money this week and Turkish Airlines aren’t just supporting golf at this tournament. Pulling out is not the correct approach.
“You can be a superstar, an excellent golfer and sit on top of the rankings but to be an athlete you need something more. We’re all here to support golf.
“I’m a little bit surprised and disappointed because I learned that Rory had dropped out in the media.
“Tiger sent me an email an hour before he announced he was going to pull out and apologised.
"He said he knew we would be disappointed but he was more disappointed than anyone. I hope he will be back here next year.”
McIlroy cited “obvious reasons” for his decision to pull out of the event just last Saturday, shortly before the U.S. Department of State issued an updated Turkey Travel Warning that ordered “the departure of family members of employees posted to the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul.”
He was reacting to the recent negative security reports that a town 85km from this week’s venue was hit with three rocket attacks earlier this month, explaining after his fourth place finish in the HSBC Champions last Sunday that “it was weighing on my mind and I slept a lot better knowing that I’d made a decision.”
LIke Pádraig Harrington, who is in Antalya chasing a win that would catapult him back into the world’s top 50 and the Masters, Agaoglu is adamant that the Antalya region is perfectly safe — or as safe as anywhere else in the world in the 21st century.
And given the tranquility, it was hard to disagree with him.
“Antalya is one of the largest tourist destinations in the world and not a single person has been killed or injured by a terrorist attack here,” he said. “This is the safest city in Turkey. This is the safest hotel and golf course in the world.
“It is very well protected. We have taken lots of extra measures for the players including charter flights for the players but there were plenty of others who travelled here through Istanbul making the connection there like anyone else.
“We’re aware that there is an anti-Turkey campaign but we’re doing our best to minimise this. Golf and tourism is very important to Turkey and we have to use this tournament as an opportunity to show off how safe this area is.”
McIlroy's decision not to play leaves him more than €1m behind Race to Dubai leader Henrik Stenson, effectively handing over the money title as he's not playing next week's Nedbank Golf Challenge where Stenson and second ranked Danny Willett, the Masters champion, will be playing.
In others words, McIlroy has taken much of the excitement out of the Race to Dubai too and Westwood, like many Turkish golf fans, is disappointed he's not in Antalya this week.
"Yeah, a little bit," Westwood said. "Obviously the most high-profile pull-out was probably Rory's, and Rory brings an awful lot to a golf tournament. He's a former world No. 1 and defending the Money List and he's pretty much taken himself out of that by not playing this week.
"You know, on his day, I like watching Rory play golf more than anybody else, really, the way he plays the game. Just how naturally good he is, and he's been like that since he was 13, 14 years of age when I first played with him at the Forest of Arden. He's great to watch. It's a shame he's not here this week, but I guess he didn't feel the way I feel about the place and the security of it all."
Westwood added: Westwood added: “I played with (European Tour chief executive) Keith Pelley in the pro-am in China last week. He asked me my opinion also and I had no fears about coming to Turkey. The world we live in, anything can happen anywhere and Turkey is no different to anywhere else. I had no security worries. People are very welcoming and there are many international media members here so you haven’t got fears. I’m just here looking forward to playing golf in a big tournament and we’ll be focusing on that. Nothing else is fazing me. I’m really looking forward to the tournament. I always look forward to Turkey. It’s my fifth trip here and everyone fantastic. Istanbul is great and Antalya is fantastic. The weather is always beautiful and courses are great. TA is a great sponsor, it’s a great tournament down here and all players enjoy getting down here and playing.”