x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Earth Course's rough is ready for the World

Jumeirah officials say organising the showcase tournament is easier for them this year - but the conditions will be anything than that for the players.

Some of the world’s leading golfers can expect more challenging conditions from the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course.
Some of the world’s leading golfers can expect more challenging conditions from the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course.

When the Earth Course was first unveiled to the world in January 2009, the organisers had to cope with the presence of two unexpected visitors.

A pair of wild white swans had flown in from lands unknown to bunk up on the plush surroundings at the 18th hole. They remain there to this day.

This year, with Jumeirah Golf Estates preparing to host the European Tour's season-ending Dubai World Championship (DWC) starting on Thursday, those in charge were anxious once again about any possible problems posed by unexpected guests.

This time, however, the stature of such potential visitors was strikingly greater.

"Our two main concerns were Tom Cruise forcing Emirates Road to be closed off to the public, so they could shoot the film, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and Queen Elizabeth II arriving in Dubai on the weekend of the tournament," Geoff Hunter, the general manager of Jumeirah Golf Estates, said.

Cruise's latest Hollywood film is in its final recording stages at the nearby International Media Production Zone, but assurances have been provided by the Roads and Traffic Authority that the surrounding access lanes and infrastructure will not be affected.

Meanwhile, should Queen Elizabeth, who makes her first visit to the Emirates in 31 years later this week, decide she wants to witness Englishman Lee Westwood attempt to retain his title, she will have little problem: organisers have sent a batch of tickets to the British embassy just in case.

Tickets, which are available free on the DWC website, have been in high demand. Organisers have, according to Hunter, distributed "around 800,000, which is 100,000 more than last year," but the general manager is realistic in his expectations and added that if 70,000 spectators turn out across the four days, he will be pleased. Some 60,000 made the trip to Earth last year.

Since the success of the inaugural event - which acted as the official opening of the course - Jumeirah Golf Estates has registered 200 members, four of whom are Emirati.

More than 25,000 rounds have been played across the Earth Course and its sister Fire Course in the past 12 months and Hunter hopes that, following last month's decision to permanently open the club to the public, next year's figure will rise to 40,000.

Mark Tupling, the Earth Course's superintendent and the man in charge of the agronomy, said the course is more mature now, citing the bunkers and the rough as areas that have improved the most.

Westwood's winning score of 23-under par at last year's tournament was seen as proof that the Earth Course was not challenging enough and action has been taken.

Hunter, Tupling and Neal Graham, the director of golf at Jumeirah Golf Estates, all agree that this year's winning score will probably be closer to 16 under.

"Yeah, Lee spoiled it for us a bit last year, because we wanted it to be around 15 [under]," Hunter said.

"So, one of the biggest differences this year is the rough. Last year, we didn't have that much rough, so we have brought it up to 65 millimetres and given it a lot more definition, which should make it that bit tougher. But generally we were quite happy with what we had last year. It was a case of if it's not broken, don't fix it."

Graham, who oversees the social side of the tournament, believes this year's event can live up its name, provide "the greatest show on Earth" and surpass the success of last season.

"We've pretty much got the same people playing this year, but their names have rocketed as star players," Graham said. "Don't get me wrong, they were star players, but now you have the successful Ryder Cup team playing, you've got around 10 of the top 20 in the world, you've got three major winners and, last but not least, you have the world No 1, so the attraction there is better than ever before."

Much may remain unchanged, but that does not mean the 90 staff members - from waiters to dishwashers, green keepers to inhouse golf professionals - are relaxing at the 19th (watering) hole.

A meandering, confusing drive through a sandy lane off Emirates Road brings you out at the entrance to Jumeirah Golf Estates, where you are met by a throng of people. And everyone is busy.

Construction workers build, while polo-shirted staff flee in golf carts up and down the left side of a two-lane road (the right side is out of service because large portable buildings are being repositioned).

A smartly dressed man is taking the golden Dubai World Championship mace and the massive Race to Dubai trophy from its glass cabinet in the temporary clubhouse to the Showtime studios, where both will feature on Rob and Derek's All Sports Show tonight. Preparation, if you will pardon the pun, is in full swing.

"Last year, everything was unknown to us and our soft opening was the Dubai World Championship," Hunter said. "But you do something once and then second time it's a bit easier because you're dealing with the same people, the infrastructure is similar. This year is a lot easier; it's a lot more relaxed."

More than 130 students have been recruited from the GEMS group of schools to act as scoring support this weekend. They will join the rest of the marshals to ensure the event runs smoothly.

In 2009, staff members were still being recruited five weeks prior to the event. Graham was in charge of helping to train many of the staff and says this time their familiarity with the players will prove beneficial.

"A lot of them had no training, so they did not even know what a golf ball was. In the first five weeks, we had to give them the basics of 'this is a ball', 'this a tee', 'this is a fairway'," Graham explained.

"We printed off pictures of the top 60 and they tried to remember as many names as possible. Now this year they are asking whether 'such and such a player' is coming. Their interest is growing, which can only be a good thing for us."

Another potential problem organisers faced last year has also been acted upon. Last year, after it became apparent the massive planned clubhouse would not be ready in time, a temporary clubhouse was erected just weeks before the tournament was due to start. Such a job was understandably hectic, but came together successfully and the makeshift suite earned compliments from the players.

With the global financial crisis forcing construction work to stop entirely these past 12 months, the clubhouse remains covered in scaffolding and is far from finished. But good news arrived last week.

"Nakheel, Dubai's master developer, [have] announced that Jumeirah Golf Estates has received the necessary support from the Government of Dubai to recommence development of the project," said a Nakheel spokesperson last week. The Associated Construction and Investments Company, one of the primary contractors, is expected to remobilise infrastructure works on the site soon after this week's tournament.

Hunter, while agreeing the Government support is "great news", refuses to project any potential timetable. The temporary structure is 16,000 sq ft, while the permanent clubhouse will be 130,000 sq ft, so construction and the resultant relocation will be no small task. It does bode well for the future.

The season-long Race to Dubai has been the focus of rumours since the recession first arrived on the emirate's shores in 2009. The prize fund was cut by 25 per cent - from US$10 million (Dh36.7m) to $7.5m - and talk had been rife that the season-ending Dubai World Championship might not take place this year, despite the European Tour having a five-year contract for both the Race and the DWC.

Such whispers proved unfounded and now, with Government support, Hunter is convinced the tournament will return in future years and added the Earth Course might even have to give way to the Fire Course.

"Eventually we will hold it on Fire," he said. "It's just Earth is a bit more developed just now. Possibly next year or the following year, we will have it on Fire, because we do think Fire is just as good."

Although if the Earth Course gets the royal seal of approval from Queen Elizabeth this weekend, such a decision may be unnecessary.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae