x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Mickelson and Co bring golfing buzz to Abu Dhabi

The buzz is palpable at Abu Dhabi Golf Club as the biggest names in the game come to town for one of the Tour's top championships.

Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s National Course is set for four days in the spotlight.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s National Course is set for four days in the spotlight.

A small group of Indian men, wearing grey shirts and dark ties, stand amid a platoon of Cadillac Escalades.

Filipino workers scuttle around stapling red branding next to Abu Dhabi Golf Club's iconic falcon-shaped clubhouse. And, inside, familiar figures dressed in crisp polo shirts and neatly creased trousers sit with their caddies as waiters whiz past delivering heaped plates of food to nearby tables.

Everyone is chattering incessantly; the buzz word is "buzz".

Yesterday, as the last of the golfers - all 120-plus of them - arrived for the first day of practice ahead of this weekend's Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the atmosphere around the National Course was one of feverish, tangible anticipation.

The first tournament of the European Tour's Desert Swing, which takes in the UAE capital, Bahrain, Qatar and Dubai, starts on Thursday.

Ken Kosak, the general manager of Abu Dhabi Golf Club, says, however, that his club's flagship event does not simply have the best field of the four Middle East tournaments, but "one of the top three strongest fields" on the Tour's entire year-long calendar.

"The tagline for this year's tournament is 'It's not big, it's major'," Kosak said, referring to the massive billboards situated outside the club and displaying the famous forms of Phil Mickelson, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell and Louis Oosthuizen.

"This year there is a certain buzz about the championship. We have all four major winners, six of the top 10 players in the world and 11 of the top 20.

"That's a phenomenal draw and testament to how good this tournament is."

Andrew Whittaker, the course superintendent and the man charged with ensuring the golfers are given a tough - but fair - challenge, was yesterday busy "manicuring" and making sure everything is perfect and pristine.

But, he said, he was aware of an increased excitement ahead of the opening round.

"With HSBC coming on board, there is a huge buzz," he said, directing his eyes towards the masses of scarlet signs embossed with the bank's logo.

"I have never seen so many red triangles. There is a bigger vibe this year with all the colour and activity - even in my team, which is mainly Filipinos. It's good to see."

Whittaker has overseen several changes in an attempt to lower the winning score this weekend.

Kaymer, the German who is ranked No 3 in the world, finished on 21-under last year to emulate Paul Casey, the previous year's victor, and claim a second title in the UAE capital.

This weekend, however, both players can expect to find up to five inches of rough and a course that is 90 yards longer, courtesy of new tee positions on four of the 18 holes.

The 7,600-yard course will also feature extended greens at the second, fourth and 11th and Whittaker predicts a winning score of "around 15-under" this time round.

The most significant change, however, is a full bunker renovation programme that will "hugely enhance the facility, not just for the event, but for the members and their year-on-year play".

Converting a members' course into an international venue, one would imagine, is no easy task. But Whittaker and Kosak argue that when a club treats its members as equal to the world's finest players, the changes required are minimal.

The longer rough will immediately be thinned down the day after the tournament finishes, but most of the other alterations - be it expanded locker rooms or softer seating in the restaurants - will remain in place for the club's members.

Kosak added that part of the reason the club has such a high benchmark for quality is that, with Yas Links and Saadiyat Beach opening in the past 12 months, the capital's residents and visitors now have two alternative clubs to choose from when planning a round of golf. "One of the biggest things that moved us forward with the refurbishment is the competition that we now have," Kosak said. "Competition is a good thing because it makes you a lot more pro-active and that, honestly, has been the driving factor behind all of this."

While Saadiyat and Yas both pride themselves on their close proximity to water, Whittaker said he is hoping the National Course remains dry this weekend following worrying weather in recent days.

In 2009, a hailstorm halted play little more than two hours into the championship.

"It's difficult to predict because the forecasts are so inaccurate," said Whittaker, who cited the weather as providing him his biggest challenge.

"In the two years I have been here, we have had hail and fog and now we're getting super strong winds from the desert and overcast weather coming from Iran," he said.

"But we just have to keep going and try to prepare the golf course as best as we can."

Kosak said contingency plans were in place to keep the expected 36,000 spectators dry.

"We've stocked up on umbrellas in our merchandise tent," he said with a smile. "But hopefully they won't be needed.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae