The UAE has a recent rich history of golf that is often the envy of many, aligned to the world’s best, primarily since the Dubai Desert Classic was first played on the Majlis Course at Emirates Golf Club in 1989.
The world’s best golfers travel every year to play here in European Tour events in both Abu Dhabi at the HSBC Championship as well as in Dubai for the Omega Desert Classic, and the season ending tournament on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, the DP World Tour Championship.
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Many of the top golfers and international designers have designed golf courses over here that are now well established and globally recognised: including the likes of Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Thomas Bjorn, Ernie Els, Ian Baker-Finch, Nick Faldo, Gil Hanse and the team under the European Golf Design banner, and, it seems, more are to come as the model of real estate aligned to golf continues to expand and thrive in the UAE.
Many players have also chosen to make Dubai and the UAE their home and international base, including Rafa Cabrera Bello, Adrian Otaegui and Adri Arnaus of Spain, India’s Shiv Kapur and Jeev Milkha Singh, plus Italians Guido Migliozzi and Renato Paratore, with many choosing to invest in property over here as a genuine home.
Player manager of both Rafa and Adri, Richard Rayment chose to headquarter his Spotlight The Agency in Dubai. Dubai and the UAE as a whole has created a golf industry that is far bigger and wider than just the physical golf clubs and international golf tournaments in the UAE.
There are still many residents in the more mature generation, both golfers and non-golfers, who will recall the earlier days of golf in the UAE.
Sand golf is where it all started in the 1970s and 80s. History books will show stories and photos of Abu Dhabi Golf Club (at the Equestrian Club), Dubai Country Club, Sharjah Wanderers Golf Club, Al Ain Sand Golf Club, plus sand facilities in Ras Al Khaimah, Al Dhafra Links at Ruwais, and at Al Ghazal Golf Club. Fairways were marked by posts and players could use their mats when on the ‘fairway’. Browns replaced greens, Tees were matted and often consisted of concrete mounded tees. Yes, there were bunkers, and the oil treated ‘browns’ produced a very consistent putting surface, that with proper year-round maintenance and brushing, replicated around 10 feet or so on the stimpmeter that survived the harsh summer climate of the UAE. There is not a golfer who has played on browns who has not been impressed with the smooth surface and consistent pace, receptive to longer shots as if it was grass, as well as, post putt, re-read the line of the putt traced on the sand surfaces. A check could always be made on a player’s alignment after every putt, without holding up play. A nice addition for many traditional and loyal grass golfers.
Buzzing clubhouses at these sand golf clubs, that were usually adjoining other sports facilities such as tennis and squash courts and swimming pools, were often the norm in the late 1980s and early 90s, with strong family memberships with a social environment, highlighted by the clubs’ busy domestic golfing calendars that usually also included men’s, ladies and mixed opens, as well as interclub initiatives.
A search on the web finds it difficult to see if these sand courses are still operational.
Al Ghazal Golf Club in Abu Dhabi is still going and this venue, opened in 1997, always needs to be credited with hosting the first of its kind World Sand Golf Championship in 2004 and 2005. It was played adjacent in the calendar to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Abu Dhabi Golf Club with international professional players finding the time to fit a one-day tournament on sand into their schedules. It was broadcast on TV around the world and produced huge interest from both the local and international media.
These events organised by Jamie Cunningham and his Professional Sports Group team were hugely popular and successful. Some big names were among the 32 players who competed over the 18-hole par-71 layout, including this year’s Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Paul McGinley, Jean van de Velde, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Poulter to name but a few. The two titles were won by Greg Owen of England and Thailand’s Thongchai Jaidee respectively.
I recall introducing legendary Scottish golf writer Jock MacVicar, who sadly passed away recently, to sand golf at Dubai Country Club.
Jock has travelled the world and been and played everywhere and what amazed me was the feedback to Jock’s visit alongside a trip to Dubai for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Jock told me that his visit to sand golf at Dubai Country Club was “one of the most interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking rounds of golf he had played anywhere in the world”.
So many stories have been created at the sand golf courses in the UAE. Let’s hope these tales and memories can be remembered and perhaps recorded somewhere safe as a reminder to all of us in 2021 where the game started as we all reflect how far it has come, so quickly.