Written by Emily Pedersen, CNN
“Every ball has different meaning,” says Emily Pedersen from inside her golf cart. “And you have to understand that.”
Facing the 14th green of a course in the desert city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, Pedersen, a 21-year-old Scot from Glasgow, feels a charge of adrenaline. She’s about to tee off at the Saudi Ladies International Pro-Am, a series of consecutive tournaments held for a chance to represent the country at the upcoming African Women’s Golf Championships.
Colin Beaton plays on the 11th hole of the Camel Course in Jeddah. Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
“You have to be ready to play the ball where it lies and you have to understand where it’s going to go. This is my opportunity to prove to the rest of the world that I’ve got what it takes.”
According to the ISGA (International Match Play Golf Association), a non-profit group that recognizes and promotes international golf tournaments, Saudi Arabia is home to two international pro tournaments this year — one for women, the other for men.
The players in the women’s competition are not allowed to carry their own clubs, nor wear team clothing during their matches.
Home to 20 million people, 1,000 clubs and an average of six golf courses a day, Saudi Arabia has played host to more than 80 international tournaments since 2010, according to tournament director Matthew Nelson. The ISGA estimates that, in 2014, more than half a million people traveled to the kingdom to play.
Women prepare to play during a match during the first round of the Fannie Brooks Women’s Amateur Championship in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Ronnie Pope/AAP
But men can play virtually without restrictions.
Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that adheres to Islamic Shariah law, and it has barred women from driving since June of 2011, when the Kingdom’s High Court issued an order to prohibit driving for females.
However, in recent years, the population of women has grown and there has been a growing awareness and openness towards gender equality. Sports, however, remains a taboo subject.
Women prepare to shoot on the tee box during the International Ladies Day earlier this year in the Muslim Kingdom. Credit: AP/Max Nash
“Women have to be very well prepared to play,” says Taylor Eccles, the captain of the women’s team competing in Jeddah, who is originally from Chicago. “I’ve been in the game as long as I can remember and I’ve seen what can happen.”
Eccles comes from a sporting family. Her mom played baseball and her dad was an NFL quarterback, who proudly served as assistant coach for his son in high school. “I can’t afford not to play golf,” says Eccles. “It doesn’t pay the bills.”
Taylor Eccles of the USA defends her bunk shot on the ninth hole during the second round of the ISSA Pro Women’s Golf Championship. Credit: AP/Drew Angerer/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Her tournament, the ISSA Pro Women’s Golf Championship, is in its eighth year, and gives the top players in the world the chance to play in the desert under tight security. It’s also the only tournament on the ISGA WorldTour Series that features only men’s golfers.
The men who compete in the Saudi Ladies Professional Golf Association Pro-Am don’t have the prestige of a Womens Pro-Am — but they have similar goals.
“Getting an invite is an honor,” says Amjad Mohammed, whose arrival in Jeddah earlier this month marked his first trip to the Arabian peninsula since his professional golf career began in 2008. He regularly competes in international tournaments across Europe and the Middle East, and now lives in Turkey, where he’s manager of top Turkish golfers.
“I’m here to help Saudi golf grow. I came here to show others that this country has so much to offer.”
Amjad Mohammed of Turkey hits a shot on the tenth hole during the first round of the Saudi Ladies Professional Golf Association Pro-Am. Credit: AP/Drew Angerer/Getty Images Europe/Getty Images
Mohammed knows he has an uphill battle ahead.
“First and foremost, golf is a sport that is not mainstream in Saudi Arabia. People don’t know much about it. It’s not part of their culture.”