Golf Travel Destinations
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Latest Golf News
Dubai has become a major golf destination and Minty Clinch road tests its collection of high calibre courses
‘LET there be Golf’. So said the rulers of Dubai when they decided to reinvent their Emirate, one of seven in the U.A.E, as the centre of the modern universe in the late 1980s. On the face of it, the omens were unpromising. Sand stretched to far horizons, empty camelcoloured sand. Water? You must be joking.
Fairways are thirsty beasts, but the sheiks didn’t allow a trifle like that to stand in their way.
Instead their minds focused on the gain beyond the pain. Tycoons would bond more seamlessly in shared golfing adversity. High achieving foreign nationals, among them the architects and project managers required to create a new world order, would welcome an alternative use for the cash they’d spend in the pub in a more booze-friendly society. Celebrities with shedloads of money would fly in for golf tournaments with imposing titles – Desert Classic probably came into the mix, though The Race to Dubai was still some way down the line.
Even the sun-baked tourists might welcome occasional relief from grilling and buying gold. From the tour operator’s point of view, the perceived wisdom is that three decent courses make a destination. Play each twice and you’ve got enough for a week.
Say that in Dubai and they’ll think you’re crazy. At the moment, there are seven 18-hole layouts within 40 kilometres of the city centre. In less than three years, there’ll be 12, with more in the pipeline.
When the sheiks build, they build in bulk – and they build now. When you remember that every blade of grass struggles to survive, its only lifeline expensively desalinated or recycled water, this is truly the stuff that dreams are made of.
Desert golf is, by definition, fairly flat and wholly artificial but Dubai’s courses offer surprising architectural and conceptual variety. The gold standard is the Emirates Club, famous for its much-photographed clubhouse inspired by a group of Bedouin tents.
The Majlis, the first grass layout in the Middle East when it opened in 1987, is now home to the Dubai Desert Classic, a prestigious winter fixture on the European Tour. It has a genuine desert feel, with open horizons and stretches of scrubby sand in addition to the full quota of more traditional bunkers. The greens are subtly infuriating, large, contoured and unreadable. Unimaginably, you may sometimes be grateful to three putt here.
Contrastingly, the Wadi, the second Emirates course, is the ultimate in urban golf, so close to the tower blocks at some points that you could catch a glimpse of CNN on the huge plasma screens as you drive past. The wadi – or valley – that gave it its name runs through it, adding character and unforeseen hazards for first timers.
Nick Faldo, who redesigned the course in 2006, makes good use of it and also of the water he’s incorporated into all but two of the holes. As early Faldo designs like Chart Hills suggest, the maestro has a liking for bunkering on a grand scale, a taste he indulges in this dramatic money-no-object layout. With a few genuine desert trees factored into the mix, this is a course that rewards strategy so take the time to pause for thought.
Just down the road, Colin’s creation was an oasis surrounded by sand when it opened in 2002. Now its fairways are lined with 12-bedroom palaces and its skyline is filled with Emirate Hills tower blocks. Four years ago, there were four. Now there are 90. And the cranes are still in there, cranking up building materials around the clock.
The fairway homes have also shot up, but in value with fourfold increases over the same period.
Nowadays when he stays, its in the new 20-room hotel in the Montgomerie suite, its decor dominated by vibrant red, not his best colour, but one he wears frequently.
Real estate led though it is, it’s impossible not to love the Monty for its combination of sybaritic luxury and informality. The new clubhouse incorporates the hotel and the Angsana Spa, staffed by masseurs trained at the Banyan Tree in Phuket, but the family-friendly Bunkers Spike bar serves reasonably priced fish and chips and shepherds pie on the terrace overlooking the 18th green.
Nineteen specialises in upscale Pacific Rim cooking from an open kitchen, but there is respect for tradition in the smoking arrangements. While handsome men in Arab robes huddle over their shisha hubble bubbles on a secluded terrace, the western-minded gather in the Monte Cristo Cigar Bar for cocktails, malt whiskies and billiards.
Oh yes, and there’s a course as well, immaculately run by Arizona’s Troon Golf and very playable given sensible tee selection - Black Pearl is the toughest, Ruby the ladies’ choice.
I don’t know what Monty was thinking of when he designed the 13th, a weird par-3 with an island green shaped like the United Arab Emirates and predictably credited with being the largest in the world. A 1.2km cart path runs round the perimeter of the lake that encloses it, giving access to the different tees. Even in an environment as artificial as this one, it’s in a class apart – or is it an embarrassing mistake?
The jury’s still out on that one.
Finding the Monty’s sister course takes needles in haystacks to new levels. On the map, it looks simple. Turn inland at Ski Dubai, drive until you hit the autodrome and it’s on your left. In practice, it’s lost in the middle of 5,000 alarmingly lookalike villas and the signposting is minimal. No matter.
Keep asking for directions from the guardians of these closed communities and you’ll get there in the end.
Surprisingly, it’s worth it. Overall, Dubai golf is pretty high end, but Arabian Ranches has a touch of grass roots that guarantees a large expat membership. People carry clubs or pull trolleys, for God’s sake, an unthinkable arrangement at the other clubs, which include the price of a buggy, often compulsory, in the green fee. The downside is the members play shotgun competitions all weekend - Friday and Saturday in the UAE – which prevent visitors from getting a game. So choose your day, but don’t give up because this is a course with lots of character.
Designed by Ian Baker Finch, the likeable Australian whose Open triumph at Royal Birkdale in 1991 was followed by a legendary slide into oblivion, it has no water and no defined bunkers, just large stretches of sand and scrub rough crowding the fairways. At times, the villas are a bit close for comfort, but hey, nothing’s perfect. The Spanish colonial clubhouse has 11 guestrooms – not recommended unless you prefer to be way out of the mainstream – and the Ranches Restaurant and bar, modelled on a London gents’ club with grub to match.
A very civilised spot for a pint or five.
Although the Emirates tents run it close, the clubhouse design prize goes to Dubai Creek for its white sails simulating an Arab dhow. Peace ruled when I first visited it, but boomtime has arrived in the shape of a villa city and the Park Hyatt Hotel. Freeing up waterfront space for these developments meant relocating the front nine – courtesy of Thomas Bjorn – in 2005, but the course retains its creekside finishing stretch, the narrow 17th and the deadly 18th.
Water, water everywhere is the cry here, with more balls drowned than saved, but all is forgiven on the final green, framed by those iconic sails reflected in the tranquil waters of the Creek. Provided you reach it, of course.
The Lake View terrace bar and restaurant live up to the name at any time of day and much of the night, while the Aquarium in the Yacht Club – inevitably boat-shaped – offers tables set around a circular glass pillar full of – yes, you guessed it – tropical fish.
No danger of running out of conversation when you can ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ your way through the menu in such glittering circumstances.
The Dubai Creek visitors’ green fee includes all day use of a handsome swimming pool, a bonus reserved for members at other clubs.
FOUR SEASONS GOLF CLUB AT AL BADIA
The course, by Robert Trent Jones Jnr, aims to please all golfers most of the time and it fulfils its brief to perfection.
It’s spacious and immaculate, with white flamingos on the fairways and little waterfalls in some of the many lakes. The clubhouse is less successful, a bulky shiny carbuncle that few would associate with golf. In its grandiose way, it is as distinctive as the downtown Burj Arab, seen in the background wherever you hit the ball. The Burj is the world’s tallest and arguably one of its ugliest buildings. Instead of being streamlined in the usual tower block manner, it is a narrow stack of non-aligned chunks, a technical miracle that allows for further upward mobility if it’s ever in danger of being overtaken by rival high rises, but one that does no service to aesthetics.
The Al Badia clubhouse is fatter and lower, but it posts its intentions just as clearly, a message underlined by the Four Seasons management. The top end chain is normally associated with hotels and although Al Badia has no bedrooms, it has everything else you’d need for conferences and fine corporate dining. The interiors are cool and soothing, with a choice of three restaurants, Blades for multi-cultural, Quattro for posh Italian and the Tea Lounge for tea and whisky. And I was impressed by the Jacuzzis in the locker rooms, ladies as well as gents.
Dubai’s golfing future is fast tracking furiously to meet pressing deadlines. The Ernie Els Dunes course at Victory Heights has opened and will soon be joined by the Tiger Woods inaugural layout nearby.
The hottest news is the Race for Dubai, the name to be assumed by the European Tour for a minimum of five years from 2009. The final tournament, previously held in Valderrama, will take place on the Jumeriah Golf Estates in November for a purse of £10 million, with added bonuses for front runners in the European Order of Merit. Compare that with purses of £3.5 million for the Masters and £4 million for The Open at Carnoustie in 2007 and it’s easy to imagine how fierce competition will be to be in the 60-strong field.
The tournament can be played on any of the four Jumeriah courses, Fire, Earth, Water and Wind, currently under construction. Fire and Earth are by Greg Norman, Water by Vijay Singh and Wind by Sergio Garcia, his first design.
Allegedly his plan is to express his ebullient personality as wind power. We’ll have to wait and see what that means in terms of turf and sand, but when it comes to opulent golf, it’s clear we ain’t seen nothing yet.
For tee time reservations on all the courses mentioned
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