GOLF IN ABU DHABI

Three spe­cial golf cour­ses, in­clud­ing a links, make Abu Dhabi a hot new break­away desti­na­tion.

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Contents - By Stu­art McLean

Three top cour­ses await trav­ellers to this new hot desti­na­tion.

Like many South Africans who travel over­seas, in the last year I’ve spent time pass­ing through the Middle East air­port hubs of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. The air­lines of th­ese three coun­tries not only pro­vide the most com­pet­i­tive fares in the in­dus­try, but will also y you vir­tu­ally any­where in the world once you get there.

The only down­side is the num­ber of ex­tra hours you have to spend in the air, com­pared to di­rect ights from South Africa to ei­ther Europe or the Far East. You could upgrade to busi­ness class to soften the dis­com­fort of upright econ­omy seats, but I have a bet­ter idea. Fly econ­omy to Abu Dhabi, and take a three-day break be­tween ights play­ing three of the best golf cour­ses in the re­gion.

Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emi­rates which make up the United Arab Emi­rates, is fast de­vel­op­ing its tourism in­fra­struc­ture, and to my mind is a su­pe­rior golf desti­na­tion to neigh­bour­ing Dubai, based on hav­ing now vis­ited both. Abu Dhabi has con­sid­er­ably fewer cour­ses in terms of choice, but their top three lay­outs out­play their ri­vals by some dis­tance in terms of the over­all ex­pe­ri­ence.

While there’s a gen­eral same­ness about the Dubai cour­ses, those in Abu Dhabi are re­fresh­ingly unique in de­sign terms. The two new ones have been built with tourism prin­ci­pally in mind. Yas Links does not con­form at all to what you would ex­pect play­ing golf in the Middle East. Amer­i­can de­signer Kyle Phillips (of Kings­barns, Scot­land fame) has in­tro­duced a won­der­ful replica of links golf to the desert. At

rst it feels un­nat­u­ral play­ing a Scot­tish-type links in balmy, wind­less con­di­tions – never mind that the club­house has a swim­ming pool! Yet the sheer fun of the mo­ment soon out­weighs any re­grets the purist in you may have about this be­ing to­tally arti cial.

Yas Links, opened in 2010, is start­ing to ap­pear in cer­tain lists of the top 200 cour­ses in the world. I’d hes­i­tate to el­e­vate it to that lofty sta­tus, but it does give you an idea of how pos­i­tively it is be­ing viewed by many golfers. It was ranked No 1 in the en­tire re­gion by

Golf Di­gest Middle East.

And yet, for me, the most thrilling golf ex­pe­ri­ence in Abu Dhabi is not Yas Links, but an­other 2010 birth, a Gary Player de­sign called Saadiyat Beach. Play­ing it for the rst time I ini­tially thought, Wait a se­cond, this is far too tough to be a re­sort course, but slowly I be­gan to ap­pre­ci­ate its com­bi­na­tion of chal­lenge and beauty, and it won me over.

Saadiyat Beach is the rst UAE course I’ve seen that oc­cu­pies a site of ex­cep­tional beauty, on the shore of the Ara­bian Gulf. The sand you’re see­ing along­side the course is beach sand, not desert sand. Vir­tu­ally all the UAE cour­ses are built in­land, among hous­ing es­tates and framed by sky­scrapers, leav­ing the at­trac­tive bits of coast­line for ho­tels and apart­ments. Saadiyat Is­land – one of sev­eral is­lands which make up Abu Dhabi the city – is the

ag­ship de­vel­op­ment of a tourism drive, and is turn­ing out to be one of the costli­est pieces of real es­tate in the world. LOU­VRE ABU DHABI Apart from the 5-star ho­tels, one of the chief at­trac­tions on the is­land will be the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi, in as­so­ci­a­tion with the Lou­vre in Paris.It is nally due to open in 2016, at a cost of per­haps a bil­lion dol­lars.The con­struc­tion costs were but a frac­tion of what Abu Dhabi paid to be as­so­ci­ated with the Lou­vre, and the art loans re­quired to stock it.

When the is­land is fully de­vel­oped – in­ci­den­tally, a Guggenheim Mu­seum is also one of the projects for the cul­tural district – it prom­ises to be a place of wall-to-wall 5-star lux­ury. The St Regis is a stun­ning beach­front ho­tel which over­looks Gary’s golf course. In fact, there’s a golf hole on each side of the build­ing. At one point dur­ing the round we ne­go­ti­ated our way in a golf cart past the sun­wor­ship­ping res­i­dents, driv­ing from the ocean­side sixth green to the sev­enth tee.

We had an in­ter­est­ing com-

pe­ti­tion on that sixth hole with Ital­ian tour pro Mat­teo Manassero. At the age of 20, Mat­teo, a highly like­able per­son, was a ma­jor star in the gol ng rma­ment, hav­ing won four times on the Euro­pean Tour, in­clud­ing the 2013 BMW PGA at Went­worth. He’s now 22, and no longer in the top 600 on the World Rank­ing. His fall has been fur­ther than that of Tiger Woods, and much more sur­pris­ing, be­cause he doesn’t have a bad back.

Mat­teo es­capes to Abu Dhabi ev­ery so of­ten to work on his game, and as an am­bas­sador to Golf in Abu Dhabi (GIAD for short, which had some peo­ple con­fused with the word Ji­had when they saw it on the side of our bus), he was on the tee of the par-3 sixth hole that day, com­pet­ing against us am­a­teurs. Up for grabs was Mat­teo’s tour bag; if you could beat his score on the hole. Mat­teo wasn’t keen to let his bag go eas­ily – the hole was play­ing nearly 200 me­tres with a sea breeze o the left, and they had placed the pin be­hind a bunker. Even he had to hit a 4-iron, and aimed away from the ag.

But Mat­teo hadn’t reck­oned on the fact that there were some use­ful women golfers in the eld too. Play­ing from a for­ward tee, one of them hit a short iron close, and took the bag with a birdie two. Not re­ally a fair ght.

Gary Player’s course mes­merised me all day.The greens were su­perbly crafted, the land had gen­tle un­du­la­tions, and the sea­side set­ting was pic­turesque. There was a pre­mium on driv­ing the ball solidly, and into the right ar­eas.There were lit­er­ally hectares of sand on the prop­erty, all of them en­cased in a va­ri­ety of di er­ently shaped bunkers.Where my ball nished in an im­mense fair­way bunker on the se­cond hole, a par 5, left me with the long­est stretch of rak­ing I’ve done in my life.Walk­ing back­wards to the cart, I felt like a Bud­dhist care­fully at­tend­ing a Zen Gar­den, the tines of the rake form­ing one long straight line. In­stead of calm­ing the mind, though, it had the op­po­site e ect.

There were also some fear­some pot bunkers. The short par-4 tenth pos­si­bly had more bunkers than you nd on the av­er­age South African course. There was a par­tic­u­larly deep one next to the green, and my play­ing part­ner, Len Flaum, ven­tur­ing into it, sur­prised a gazelle which was us­ing it as its den.

The back nine had some of the best holes and the nest scenery, twice stretch­ing its green ngers to­wards the ocean.A salt wa­ter la­goon came into play, and the chal­lenges never let up. Gary Player is on record in say­ing that he would like the Euro­pean Tour to move the HSBC Abu Dhabi Cham­pi­onship to Saadiyat Beach. It would cer­tainly look great visu­ally on TV, but the venue ap­pears im­prac­ti­cal in terms of spec­ta­tor ac­cess. The club­house is rel­a­tively small, and the 18th, com­pared to the test­ing holes which pre­cede it, is a some­what in­nocu­ous short par 4. SPA­CIOUS TOUR VENUE Our nal round was played at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which has hosted a Euro­pean Tour event since 2006. I have sel­dom come across a more nat­u­rally per­fect tour­na­ment venue than this one, and it would be sense­less to move it else­where. It is rea­son­ably close to the air­port, there is a huge Westin ho­tel on site, and you have a feel­ing of great spa­cious­ness wher­ever you are. The prac­tice fa­cil­i­ties are enor­mous, sep­a­rate from the course, but just a short walk from the rst tee. The club­house build­ing, as you will have no­ticed from an­nual TV cov­er­age of the tour­na­ment, is dom­i­nated by that iconic statue of a fal­con perched on top of a golf ball.

The course it­self, a Peter Har­ra­dine de­sign, is an im­pres­sively strong lay­out, park­land in na­ture with plenty of veg­e­ta­tion, and one which re­wards solid ball-strik­ing. Martin Kaymer won here three times, and his 24-un­der-par to­tal in 2011 is ev­i­dence of how the mod­ern tour pro­fes­sional can over­power cour­ses like this with their sheer length o the tee. The greens, though raised at times and well-bunkered, are quite at, so any time you hit the green it’s a birdie op­por­tu­nity.

Saadiyat Beach and Abu Dhabi GC are both run by Troon Golf, the Amer­i­can com­pany which spe­cialises in golf fa­cil­ity man­age­ment. And a high per­cent­age of their golf opera-

tions em­ploy­ees at th­ese clubs are South Africans. There were half-a-dozen at Saadiyat Beach, and at Abu Dhabi I chat­ted to Theo Pot­gi­eter, a quali ed PGA pro­fes­sional, who is in his se­cond year work­ing for Troon Golf. “It’s a great work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, be­cause we get to spend time work­ing in each area of a golf club, whether it be the pro shop or the kitchen,” he said. “It’s a busy work­ing life, but fac­tor in free board and food, no tax, and you can see the at­trac­tion for South Africans.”

The starter at Yas Links when we played there was Monde Mpompo, the golf op­er­a­tions su­per­vi­sor, who pre­vi­ously worked for Golf Data in the Western Cape.

Yas Links is run more along the lines of a pri­vate club than a cor­po­rate fa­cil­ity. Its mem­ber­ship mainly com­prises Bri­tish ex­pats, judg­ing from the names on the hon­ours boards. PGA teach­ing pro­fes­sional Mar­tyn Hamer told me that the mem­bers play golf all year round, even in sum­mer tem­per­a­tures reach­ing 50C. “We ride carts, and have plenty of wet tow­els to keep us cool,” he said.

The club­house at Yas Links was stun­ningly op­u­lent, the men’s locker room be­ing the height of lux­ury.The pro shop’s hours were 5am to 10pm each day, and look­ing at the prices it was no won­der they liked to stay open for so long. A sleeve of Pro V1s goes for R350. A rental set of clubs costs nearly R1 000 for 18 holes, and a ses­sion on the range is R400. You can see where I’m head­ing with this: golf in Abu Dhabi is ex­pen­sive, even if you’re from Europe and have a strong cur­rency. The peak sea­son rack rate at Saadiyat Beach and Abu Dhabi GC is R3 000 for a round from Sun­day to Wed­nes­day, and R4 000 if you wish to play Thurs­day to Satur­day.Yas Links was R2 600 from Sun­day to Thurs­day. You can vir­tu­ally halve those prices if you play as the guest of a mem­ber, or in the twi­light times. My ad­vice would be to rather look at pack­ages on the Golf in Abu Dhabi web­site which in­cor­po­rate ights and ho­tels. THEME PARKS Abu Dhabi city does not have Dubai’s gen­eral buzz, vi­brant nightlife, glitzy shop­ping malls and tow­er­ing sky­scrapers, yet it is a place of signi cant size and a uence. Morn­ing rush hour is a sight to be­hold. Ev­ery car on the high­ways which ow through the city and its sur­round­ing is­lands looks as if it has just left the show­room oor. Wave upon wave of SUVs and 4x4s.

Yas Links re­minded me of Ebotse Links in Gaut­eng when it rst opened for play, be­fore the gen­eral out­line and look of the course was lost amidst all the hous­ing de­vel­op­ments. The holes at Yas Links are built along­side a nat­u­ral large la­goon, which com­ple­ments the char­ac­ter of Kyle Phillips’ de­sign. The rout­ing sticks closely to the wa­ter at all times, and there are as many as eight holes skirt­ing the wa­ter’s edge.The back nine has ve of them, start­ing on the 13th, a short par 3, and they are among the fea­ture holes.

We played our best golf at Yas Links, and Mat­teo Manassero was of the opin­ion that it was the eas­i­est of the three cour­ses in Abu Dhabi. The fair­ways were gen­er­ously wide for most of the round, and the greens were on the slow side, due to ir­ri­ga­tion prob­lems. That and the good weather con­trib­uted to a sense of con dence you nor­mally don’t ex­pe­ri­ence in links golf. There was a course record 62 by a Ja­panese am­a­teur when they won the 2015 No­mura Cup teams event at Yas Links.

The course is sur­rounded by some of Abu Dhabi’s fea­ture at­trac­tions, plus a clus­ter of ho­tels which are in­vaded by For­mula 1 fans dur­ing the end-of-sea­son grand prix at the Yas Ma­rina cir­cuit. Scary-look­ing roller­coast­ers which are part of Fer­rari World frame the sky­line, as does what ap­pears to be the set from one of the Mad Max movies. It’s ac­tu­ally Yas Wa­ter World, a theme park with plen­ti­ful wa­ter slides and a sus­pended roller­coaster. Not just for kids ei­ther. Our trio of middle-aged golfers spent a pleas­ant af­ter­noon there hav­ing fun and get­ting soaked. On one ride you plum­met feet rst at speed through a nar­row pipe which then does a 360-de­gree loop be­fore spit­ting you out: and no, we didn’t take that on.

If you’re seek­ing more of an adrenalin rush, then Fer­rari World is the place to go. The high­light is the For­mula Rossa ride, which claims to be “the fastest roller­coaster on the planet,” ac­cel­er­at­ing to 240kph in un­der ve sec­onds and zap­ping all eight gog­gled oc­cu­pants into their seats with terri c G-force. At the end of a long straight the Fer­rari red “car” launches it­self into the sky over a “camel­back,” be­fore pick­ing up speed again for a se­ries of curves in­spired by race tracks. It’s so over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar that it was the only ride that had a queue on the Satur­day evening we were there. The wait­ing time was over an hour.

Even more ter­ri­fy­ing rides, with loops, in­ver­sions and corkscrews, are be­ing built, that will soon make the Rossa look like child’s play.

TRIPAD­VI­SOR LAND­MARK

The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque was com­pleted in 2007.

SAADIYAT BEACH Sand and sea meet on the chal­leng­ing par-4 16th hole.

ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB The par-3 sev­enth hole.

SAADIYAT BEACH The Abu Dhabi city sky­line rises above the golf course on Saadiyat Is­land.

THE BACK NINE AT SAADIYAT BEACH HAD SOME OF

THE BEST HOLES AND THE FINEST SCENERY.

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