x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

'Earth' will be a worthy host

The golf course designed by Greg Norman prepares for the arrival of the Dubai World Championship.

Bob Knott kneels down by one of the 102 bunkers, full of fresh, white sand, which are dotted around the  par-72 course designed by Greg Norman.
Bob Knott kneels down by one of the 102 bunkers, full of fresh, white sand, which are dotted around the par-72 course designed by Greg Norman.

Ever since Greg Norman christened his sparkling new UAE creation "Earth", the marketing men behind what was originally billed as the richest tournament in golf have been in their element. "The Greatest Show on Earth" was a banner crying out to be used in readiness for the exciting arrival of the Dubai World Championship (DWC) in two months time.

And, after surveying much of the 7,706 yards of beautifully undulating terrain, the end-of-season showpiece event warrants a title of such magnitude. Norman - the former world No 1 whose title-winning exploits earned him the nickname of "the Great White Shark" - has, in his recent role of a golf-course designer, provided Jumeirah Golf Estates (JGE) with a veritable gem of which they are rightly proud.

The 60 lucky European Tour- affiliated golfers, who earn the right to play there for big money in November, are sure to like what they see. Bob Knott, who carried out the building and development work to Norman's precise specifications, is delighted with the results. "The course has exceeded my expectations," said Knott, the senior development manager who gave The National a preview of Earth which will not be used competitively until the opening round of the DWC on November 19. "To bring all of this to fruition in a comparatively short space of time has been tremendously exciting and a great challenge for everybody connected with the project. We are all so proud of what we've achieved.

Knott confessed to being scared stiff when the momentous announcement was made in 2007 declaring that Leisurecorp, the Dubai-based development company, were going into partnership with the European Tour with a view to renaming the Tour's order of merit as the 'Race to Dubai' and rounding off the season with the lucrative DWC. David Spencer, who at the time was chief executive of the golfing arm of Leisurecorp, pledged that his company would inject a total of US$100m (Dh367m) over five years, the sponsorship money to be divided equally between the Race to Dubai and the DWC.

That funding is likely to be reduced by 25 per cent because of the effects of the global financial downturn on development work in Dubai. An official statement on the size of the cut is expected next month. Knott recalled the day the DWC was announced. "We were carrying out the construction of what were originally intended to be resort courses of Earth and Fire [the sister course at JGE] when all of a sudden we were given a two-year completion deadline.

"It was probably my scariest moment here, knowing that this wonderful course had to be ready for top-class action in two years. "We had to refocus on what we were doing and finish Earth quickly to give it two full seasons to grow and mature into the advanced state it is in at the moment." Indeed, Earth looks as though it is several years old, rather than awaiting its grand opening. The fairways are lush and well-defined from the two grades of Bermuda grass rough and most of the 102 bunkers are full of fresh, white sand - similar to that used at Augusta National for the US Masters and ready to inconvenience those who stray into them.

Curiously, the sand in those bunkers will be the only sand to be seen on the course by the time the 60 competitors arrive. The contrasting colours - there is an abundance of treated bark mulch dyed into a rich red shade beyond the fairways and comparatively short rough areas - make it extremely pleasing on the eye. There is also that considerable air of mystery about the place. "Course management is going to be a huge factor because none of the players has played the course," said Knott, a successful amateur golfer during his own playing days and the only person who has so far played all of Earth's 18 holes.

"A lot will depend on how quickly the pros work out where the pitfalls lie. They are all aware of how demanding the last four holes [Norman calls them his Golden Mile because they measure a total of 1,703 yards] are likely to be. "I think it is fair to say they are capable of producing a six-shot swing on the homeward stretch, so nobody will be safe until they have holed out at the last. "It is not a course that will be overpowered, not even by the big hitters like Alvaro Quiros [the Portuguese winner of the Qatar Masters] and company.

"They will soon discover that not only do you have to find the fairways here to score well, but you have to find the right part of the fairway to be able to attack the flags." Knott insists that he and Norman have not modelled the Earth course on famous American forerunners, but they admit to having created similar features. Having Norman make nine site visits was a big help in bringing the Australian's ambitious vision to stunning reality.

"Our version of Augusta's Amen Corner comes a little earlier in the round between the fourth and sixth holes," said Knott, "and then there is the 17th." That picture book penultimate hole at Earth bears an uncanny resemblance to the one at Sawgrass, Florida, venue for the annual TPC Players Championship, which is widely regarded as golf's unofficial fifth major. The green there is an island surrounded by water. So is the one at the JGE.

"I'm reluctant to call it our signature hole but it will certainly get a lot of publicity," said Knott, who suggested it was not a hole that typified Norman's architectural style. The plan is to capitalise on the potential for the 195-yard par three to be a card-wrecker for the professionals chasing the big prizes in November. Aaron Richardson, spokesman for Leisurecorp, said: "We are keen to recreate what they have established at Sawgrass and provide something that reaches out to a wider audience than the traditional golf fans.

"The more casual supporters will enjoy sitting there wondering how many balls are going to land in the water and we intend making the surrounding area an entertainment centre where they can spend the whole day if they want to." wjohnson@thenational.ae