With the Emirates' 14th fully-grassed course set to open next month at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, The National looks at the state of play in the country.
Investment that's really paying off
When the first Abu Dhabi Championship was getting under way in January 2006, the country boasted eight fully-grassed 18-hole golf courses, three long-standing full-length sand courses and three nine-hole grassed alternatives.
Now, four years on, with three annual European Tour events and more than 5.5 million residents - a 36.6 per cent increase on 2005 - the investment in the country's golf industry has grown exponentially too. When Saadiyat Beach Golf Club opens its doors to the public on March 1, it will become the 14th fully-grassed option in the UAE, following hot on the heels of the Greg Norman-designed Fire, which opened last month at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai.
With Saadiyat being joined in a few months' time by the Yas Island Links and, according to Dubailand's public relations department, the world No 1 Tiger Woods's first signature course possibly opening in Dubai as early as the end of this year, the grass is certainly getting greener for the country's golf enthusiasts. And it is not just Abu Dhabi and Dubai that are getting in on the act; both Ras al Khaimah and Sharjah have opened 18-hole grass courses in recent years as well.
Emirati investment in the sport is two-fold. Promoting the country as a golf tourism destination has long been the goal so recent talk of moving the Abu Dhabi Championship from its home at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club to a new venue at Saadiyat or Yas Island makes perfect sense. Showcasing the facilities on offer is just one part of it, however. When the tourists flock, they need to be able to take the same challenge their favourite players underwent on television and play the course - something that appears easier at some courses than at others.
While Saadiyat is the latest course to join the Emirates' collection, it also claims to be the first to offer the member experience without the commitment - or expense - of becoming a year-long member. The club does not operate a strict membership programme in a bid to ensure it remains open and available to both residents and visitors, instead offering its pay-as-you-play golfer's membership-like benefits, such as personalised lockers, carts and bag tags. Daily rates begin at Dh295 and rise to Dh825.
Of course, pay-and-play is available at the majority of courses in the UAE. Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa for instance does not offer membership, instead opening its nine-hole course and floodlit facilities - which include an academy swing analysis studio - to the hotel's guests and general public for a daily fee of Dh150. "We are primarily a resort course and for that reason do not offer memberships and have never really considered it," says Mark Bull, the assistant operations manager.
He said they had a good nucleus of regular guests who were residents of Dubai and membership could reduce the tee-times they were able to offer. Jumeirah Golf Estates (JGE) - whose Earth Course hosted the European Tour's season-ending Dubai World Championship - has a more authoritarian membership policy. The JGE membership ranges from the reasonable to the ridiculous: Dh20,000 to Dh750,000. Non-members are offered a one-off preview round for Dh795.
With the Saadiyat Beach Classic and the upcoming Haiti Charity Day at the Els Club on February 27, clubs recognise the exposure they can attain by hosting international, high-profile events. The Dubai Desert Classic has been on the Tour calendar for 21 years now and has been held at Emirates Golf Club for all but one of those. Dubai Creek, their sister club, held the event on the other occasion and has since evolved to host its own precursor to the annual US$2.5 million (Dh9.18m) tournament: the Al Naboodah Invitational, which this year attracted the Race to Dubai winner Lee Westwood.
Abdullah Saeed al Naboodah is a prime example of Emiratis getting involved in the game. That is the second goal of the country's investment in the sport: produce its own talent. With academies and schools opening across the country, the impetus is on developing young professionals for the future. Jumeirah Golf Estates have started talks with the Emirates Golf Federation to look into opportunities to encourage youngsters to play golf, as well as the possibility of the UAE national team using the facilities available at Earth and Fire.
Likewise, Saadiyat officials are said to have several Arabic-focused initiatives in the pipeline and two local players were invited to compete in this year's Abu Dhabi Championship on the National Course. The game is developing at pace in this country and if young Emiratis can improve at the same rate the facilities in the country have in the past four years, the future of golf in this country is as bright as the Arabian sun. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org