x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A different kind of water hazard at Abu Dhabi Golf Championship course

Keeping the 7,600-yard National Course dry should be a relatively easy task for the ground staff, not so, as Gary Meenaghan discovers.

Greens keepers work to get the National Course looking in pristine condition.
Greens keepers work to get the National Course looking in pristine condition.

Twelve years ago, as Apollo Dimaisip turned up to start his new job as a member of the course maintenance staff at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the sight that greeted him would have appeared slightly surreal.

The Filipino would have surveyed a lush green course surrounded by practically nothing but sand and shrubs. An oasis in the desert.

Dimaisip could hardly have expected, more than a decade later, that not only would the club he calls home - as foreman, he lives on site - be encircled by construction projects, but also that he would be fighting to prevent genuine oases manifesting and manipulating his perfectly manicured course.

When water inexplicably started appearing in the rough, on the fairways and even in the sand-filled bunkers of the National Course a few years ago, staff were baffled.

Much like the postured flamingoes that turned up one day and have since made the course's man-made lakes their home, nobody quite knew where the water was coming from.

Andrew Whittaker, the course superintendent, quickly realised it was the result of ground water no longer being able to complete its natural route to the ocean.

"There are a lot of people who have different opinions on why, but essentially the water is coming up from below the surface because of the buildings and construction around here," he said. "It has nowhere else to go."

Abu Dhabi Golf Club is now surrounded 100 per cent by development projects, including the newly opened Westin hotel. While the ground water would normally go out into the Arabian Gulf, it is now hitting barriers and looking for what Whittaker calls "the nearest point of relief".

Unfortunately for the Englishman and his 60 staff, that means the course itself.

"As we are the only natural area around, the water is finding us to be the weakest structure and breaks up through there," he said, adding that some mornings he would arrive to find bunkers filled with puddles of water. "It is similar to how an oasis would work."

More critically, however, the water is what is known in the industry as "brackish", which means twice as salty as seawater. Because of the high salt concentration, the rebellious water, which was appearing in certain pockets of the course, was killing the grass. With the amount of water growing progressively more substantial year-on-year, in 2011 Whittaker decided to take decisive action.

Sixteen bore wells - 10-metre-deep holes with submersible pumps that siphon the water and redirect it towards the nearby lakes - were installed. Now, with the National Course set to host its annual Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week, the fairways are flawless, the bunkers dry as the desert and the only water making the grass glisten comes from the sprinkler system that sprays an average of 37 million gallons of the stuff per month.

The course has been tweaked slightly since last year's event too, with the tee box at the 18th being moved back to make the final hole even longer and bunkers being added to the second hole as well as the 18th.

The 7,600-yard course was closed on January 14 in anticipation of Thursday's opening round of the US$2.7 million (Dh9.9m) European Tour event, but not before Lucas Neill, the Australian professional footballer who plies his trade at Al Jazira, completed a round. Heikki Kovalainen, the Formula One driver, also made a brief stop at the club last week to enjoy 18 holes in tournament conditions.

While both men are recognisable figures within their own sports, they are unlikely to have suffered too much attention on the fairways. The same cannot be said for the group of men who started arriving yesterday.

Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer - the four highest-ranked players in the world - will be joined by Charl Schwartzel, the Masters champion, and Darren Clarke, the British Open winner. Tiger Woods, the 14-time major winner, will also make his debut in the UAE capital.

It is little wonder then that organisers have been so bold with their projections. Last year's event attracted a record 40,000 spectators across the four days, yet officials have said expect to see 80,000 pass through the club this week. Clubhouse receptionist Charlotte is preparing herself for a hectic few days.

"It's going to be a crazy week," said the Filipina, who will welcome each of the 188 players in the field to the clubhouse. "More busy than previous years, for sure. There are just so many people planning to come."

With the objective being a 100 per cent increase in attendance, one should imagine wholesale infrastructure changes would be required, but Whittaker said any amendments to accommodate the lofty ambitions have been minor.

The only alterations since last year have seen the viewing area behind the green of the 18th hole made slightly larger and the seating at the ninth now being a double stand.

"The Tiger aspect is what everybody is pinning their hopes on," Whittaker said of the expected inflated attendance. "Fitting an increased number of spectators around the course is not going to be a problem though."

The clubhouse may have been a different matter were it not for the fact the iconic falcon-shaped building is closed off during Championship weekend allowing entry only to players and the club's 300 members. Each player is provided no more than two guest passes, which will also afford access to the lounge.

Scott McCaw, the director of operations at the golf club, said if the players are not on the course or in the clubhouse, they are most likely to be at the Emirates Palace hotel.

The luxury resort has again invited all players to stay there for the week as part of the hotel's sponsorship and it is hardly surprising to learn that even those who miss the cut on Friday tend to remain in the capital until Monday.

"It's a funny week because after Friday's cut there are probably just as many people out practising on the Saturday as there is on the Thursday," McCaw said.

For Woods, visiting the city for the first time, the elegance and grandeur of the hotel may appear like a chimera. Were it not for the other 187 golfers walking its vast hallways, he may even consider it an oasis in the desert. But one that nobody complains about.