In praise of the greens

Golf tourism in Oman could soon be all the go

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - ADAM RUCK

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

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