In praise of the greens
Golf tourism in Oman could soon be all the go
On a regulation winter’s day in Muscat – cloudless, 30C, light onshore breeze – a golfer I can’t identify plays his approach to the 18th green at Almouj, Oman’s Greg Norman-designed flagship course near the airport.
The swing looks good, but body language tells a different story and a puff of sand in the distance confirms it. Bad luck, whoever you are; still, better to miss on that side than the other, where the Gulf of Oman licks the boulders of the sea wall a few yards from the flag. I make a note to adjust my sights when my turn comes to do battle with Greg.
Five minutes later, the same golfer jumps down into the bunker, flicks his ball out, bangs the sand off his shoes and holes from seven feet for par. Understated fist pump; polite applause from the gallery. Several minutes pass before I work out that I have just seen Ricardo Gouveia, of Portugal, pull off an impressive double — a one-stroke win on the day, and the potentially life-changing breakthrough of overall victory on the Road to Oman.
This may sound like a Bob Hope film but is, in fact, a serious part of golf’s professional treadmill, modelled shamelessly on the Race to Dubai, whereby the European Tour reached its annual climax not far from here last November. In this version, played out over 25 tournaments in 20 countries on four continents, professionals who are not quite good enough for the top tier compete for promotion.
Oman’s willingness to play second fiddle to Dubai in this copycat way fits in with its low profile, and a natural modesty that is part of the charm of the country and its gracious inhabitants. Muscat straggles for more than 32km along the shore, with no swanky hotel towers to overshadow the Opera House, Grand Mosque and other public buildings erected by Sultan Qaboos in his munificence. Unlike its noisy neighbour, the sultanate has tiptoed cautiously into tourism over the past decade.
Oman’s reputation for political stability and moder- ation in all things has led to an influx of heat-seekers who might otherwise have chosen Egypt, Tunisia or Turkey. Having announced that it was going for golf, Oman can hardly be accused of rushing the job. Eight years have passed since I took a 4WD preview of a golf resort overlooking Muscat from the foothills of the coastal mountains. “Next time you come...” said my guide that day, giving an expansive wave as the dust settled over a fractured arid wasteland that looked to my inexpert eye about as golf-hostile as earth could be. Next time... a verdant Shangri-La for sport, leisure and luxury. Here a green, there a fairway villa with swimming pool. On that scrubby outcrop, a luxury hotel and clubhouse complex.
Eight years on, the transformation is impressive – as far as it goes. Muscat Hills has been open since 2010 and the course is in fine shape: the fairway receptive, tee positions varied, greens well kept and quite fast enough, thank you. The hills are no more than pleasant undulations and there are interesting shots to play at holes with names like Leopard’s Leap, over and alongside the wadi, a rocky gorge that snakes through the course. But the resort part of the project is still a work in progress. “Next time you come, it will all look quite different,” says the manager. An InterContinental hotel is on the cards, for
Almouj course in Muscat, above; the souk at Nizwa, left