As a newcomer to the UAE in the early 1990s, and during my first visit to Emirates Golf Club, like so many others, I was simply blown away by what I saw. Like some kid who was experiencing the magic of Hamleys on his first visit to the famous toy shop, I found myself grappling with my emotions and uncontrollable excitement as looked up at the imposing clubhouse that stood in front of me.
To be honest, I had never seen anything like it in my life. There it was, the breathtaking clubhouse that stands triumphantly as if bidding you to take a bow to its architectural splendour.
Designed to represent traditional Bedouin tents, even today the structure remains one of the most iconic golf clubhouses in the world, together with two others in the UAE. More on that later.
The year was 1992, when the mercurial Spaniard Seve Ballesteros defeated Northern Ireland’s Ronan Rafferty in a pulsating play-off to become only the third man to lift the giant Coffee Pot trophy that is presented to the winner of the Dubai Desert Classic to this day.
I must confess, I was there purely as a spectator to watch some of the sport’s greats take on the daunting Karl Litten-designed golf course, a sea of pristine Bermuda grass where every blade was seemingly manicured with the professionalism of a hair stylist.
I fell in love with the golf course, the game, Dubai and my profession.
Mind you, it was not as if I had never experienced golf before, having covered the sport back in my native India where I reported on tournaments at Royal Calcutta Golf Club, one of the world’s oldest golf clubs, Delhi Golf Club, Madras Gymkhana Club, the picturesque Gulmarg Golf Club in Kashmir and of course, Bangalore Golf Club in my hometown.
But the EGC gave me a different buzz altogether. It was surreal and I loved it.
I got my first break as a golf writer in Dubai when I was given the opportunity to cover the 1994 Dubai Desert Classic, which was won by Ernie Els (one of the nicest sportsmen I have ever met) ahead of Greg Norman, another giant of the game.
Not only did ‘The Big Easy’ triumph over a star-studded field, he also set to a course record with a sizzling 11-under 61 in the first round en route to picking up his maiden European Tour victory. The course record remains unsurpassed and Ernie would triumph again in 2002 and 2005.
The Desert Classic holds so many unforgettable memories for me. Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie won in 1996 thanks to a 265-yard second shot off the fairway on the closing hole, and the previous year Fred Couples became the first American to put his name on the roll of honour.
In 1998 Jose Maria Olazabal battled pharyngitis to win, while David Howell relished the change of venue when the Classic was held at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club in 1999. In 2001 Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn returned to his home away from home in Dubai to defeat Tiger Woods, who was making his Classic debut, and win with a record 22-under-par total. Woods returned to the desert hoping to grab the Coffee Pot but it was his lifetime friend and mentor Mark O’Meara who won instead at the age of 47.
The list goes on and memories are endless. Who can ever forget Scotland’s Stephen Gallagher scoring back-to-back victories in 2013 and 2014? Or Rory McIlroy’s smashing victory at the second attempt in 2015? I could go on forever.
But what about the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club with its unique clubhouse that is designed like the lateen sail on a traditional dhow, and what memories does it hold for me? Plenty.
Once again, I was privileged to be invited to the gala opening ceremony where the legendary Shirley Bassey and her orchestra thrilled Dubai’s A-listers and in years to come the venue would host top-class entertainers such as Tom Jones, Stevie Wonder, Rod Stewart and Elton John, and even Bollywood stars Aamir Khan and Preity Zinta.
The Creek, which was also designed by Litten, was popular for hosting the Rod Bogg-created Big Five-O Golf Tournament in Aid of Children for 14 years, during which it raised close to Dh10 million.
It was also home to the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club Academy of which Rayhan Thomas was its most famous graduate. Thomas won the Creek Open at just 17 years and would go on to play in the prestigious Mena Tour.
I remember Chris May, the club’s CEO saying: “The Creek is very, very special because it’s like a haven in the middle of the city.” And nobody could have said it better. It is in the heart of the city and a stone’s throw from Dubai International Airport.
A bit of trivia about golf in Dubai is that the hugely influential Colm McLoughlin, the CEO of Dubai Duty Free, is the only golfer to have been honoured as Captain of both the Creek and Emirates Golf Clubs.
Those were early days. Today the UAE boasts 20 top-quality golf courses in Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. And the numbers are growing.
I also remember the day that the Emirates Golf Federation came into existence in 1995 as golf’s governing body in the UAE. UAE golf also received significant boost that year with the formation of the UAE Golf Association under the chairmanship of Saeed Khalfan and with talented Emirati golfer Khalid Al Halyan as the Secretary General.
And all this was only possible due to the vision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, who over three decades ago had the vision to make Dubai and world-class golfing destination that it has been offering unique experiences on and off the courses.