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