Golf in the gulf
Ball-swallowing desert dunes interspersed with undulating greens, a warm, dry climate year-round, high profile tournaments and the clever urban development of golfing communities has helped golf to thrive in the Gulf over the past 30 years.
The unveiling of a new event in Saudi Arabia this year becomes the region’s sixth European Tour meet along with Abu Dubai, Dubai, Oman, Qatar and the season-ending DP World Tour Championship (also in Dubai, offering the biggest winner’s cheque in world golf at $3 million), further consolidating the Middle East’s reputation as a hotbed of international golf. These European Tour stops join a Challenge Tour event in Ras Al Khaimah, a Seniors event in Sharjah and Ladies European Tour stops in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
The Dubai Desert Classic is singled out by many local golfers as the region’s most iconic annual event. Celebrating 30 years, the tournament’s rich history predates the conspicuous features of Dubai’s modern skyline. Some of the UAE’s most legendary golfing moments stem from the Desert Classic, such as Colin Montgomerie’s winning shot on the 1996 European Tour, commemorated by a plaque in the 18th fairway, and what remains one of the most famous photos in event history, when organisers posted a “sold out” sign at the entrance to Emirates Golf Course in 2001 when Tiger Woods was at the peak of his career. It marks the only golf sell-out in UAE history.
Golf professional and Jumeirah Golf Estates brand ambassador MG Keyser took this year’s MENA Tour title setting a new course record at 19 under par at Dubai Hills. Living in Dubai for five years, the South African has been a golf pro since 2013 and hopes never to leave the UAE.
Why? “This region has done amazing things for my career. The golf here is unbelievable, the facilities and conditions are amazing and the people are welcoming,” he says. In 2017 Keyser became good friends with Ismail Sharif, known as the ‘Forefather of Emirati Golf’, who helped him to “open up a few doors”. This year he will compete in up to 30 events – ten in Europe and 15-20 in Asia. His favourite course in the region, unsurprisingly, is Jumeirah Golf Estates which he believes is the best test of golf in the UAE. “There are at least ten brilliant golf courses to choose from that are all excellent. Golfers here are so lucky.”
While the UAE golf scene extends beyond the glamour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi cities into six surrounding Emirates of Ajman, Fujairah, Ras al-Khaimah, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain, each of the 18 courses remain within two hours of Dubai Airport. Dotted amongst mangroves and desert terrain, professional players such as Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Nick Faldo have purposely incorporated these natural features into their world-famous golf courses. The recent introduction of floodlights enables golfers to play well past sunset.
Golf fitness coach and ex-golf pro Claudine Foong says the world’s top golfers are drawn to the Gulf because the climate is “phemonemal”, even in winter, and the facilities and golf courses are world class. Location-wise too, the region marks an ideal midway point between Asia and Europe. A highlight for Foong was getting the opportunity to caddy on two occasions for her friend, Rory McIlroy, at the Abu Dhabi Invitational tournament on Yas Island. Another stand out event for Foong is the annual Desert Classic at the Emirates Golf Club thanks to “an epic view of the Marina skyline”. In the six years she’s been there, Foong says it has been incredible to witness so many more women take up the game.
“Growing up in Canada, it was rare for me to play golf with another woman. Times are changing and golf has become much more inclusive with lots of courses offering top class clinics and lessons specifically for female players.”
Foong’s husband, PGA Golf Coach Alex Riggs, also credits the quality of the golf courses in the UAE. “This area is a major tourism hub and golf has become one of the top sports to play while holidaying here. Also, to host three European Tour events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi is unprecedented for a small geographical area and that has really put the region on the world golfing map”, Riggs says. As a Canadian, with golfing meccas such as Florida on his doorstop, the UAE is somewhere he would never have considered moving to until he was offered a job here in 2013. He hasn’t looked back since. Charging AED800 per hour for golf coaching – one of the highest rates in the region, he admits – Riggs has a full schedule of clients these days and travels extensively to India, Europe, Thailand and Hong Kong for work.
Director of Operations for the Long Drive World Series, Jamie Marland moved to the UAE from England four years ago, initially to work in oil and gas. An ex-golf pro, surgery ended his career prematurely and the cold weather at home didn’t do much to entice him back to the fairway.
Living in the UAE has changed all that and it wasn’t long before the year-round summer temperatures and well-manicured courses tempted Marland back to the green. He finds that the golf clubs in the UAE are more accessible than in England where the sport remains more of a member-only scenario. Marland favours any of the Emirates Golf Federation Open tournaments because they attract amateur players as well as pros. The MENATour is another fantastic stepping stone for aspiring golfers, he says, as is the annual Race to Dubai event at Jumeirah Golf Estate, where the European Tour finishes, as it is the only event with “no cuts” meaning every player in the tournament finishes on the fourth day, regardless of their score.
It appears that the way forward for golf in this region is to move beyond outdated moulds of exclusivity. Look no further than the rise in popularity of footgolf across the UAE, opening up the fairway to golf and football fans of all ages and levels. This push for inclusivity has been recognised by the upper echelons as well with such people as European Tour CEO Keith Pelley in favour of moving beyond the traditional 72-hole tournament towards a shorter golfing format to engage with a wider global audience. For these reasons and many more, the future of golf in the Gulf looks (desert) rosy.