x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Run its course?

As the world's top golfers, including all four major champions from last year, stroll the perfectly manicured fairways of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club this morning to polite claps from the crowd, the atmosphere will be slightly less genteel a few kilometres across Airport Road.

Dennis Cox is writing a book about the history of sand golf in the UAE, a sport whose origins can be found in the earliest days of the Emirates.
Dennis Cox is writing a book about the history of sand golf in the UAE, a sport whose origins can be found in the earliest days of the Emirates.

As the world's top golfers, including all four major champions from last year, stroll the perfectly manicured fairways of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club this morning to polite claps from the crowd, the atmosphere will be slightly less genteel a few kilometres across Airport Road.

There, at Al Ghazal Golf Club, the members are hosting a couple of small tournaments of their own, but with frisbee-sized discs of artificial turf serving as the playing surfaces and nary a natural blade of grass in sight.

While the tableau of khaki will strike casual golf fans as a bit strange, the members at Al Ghazal will proudly explain that this is the way the game was originally played in the Gulf - on sand - and argue that this iteration is no less of a test than the more pastoral version being played across the road.

"What's the difference? So what, you place the ball on a mat," says Dennis Cox, the unofficial historian of sand golf in Abu Dhabi.

Cox, an American and a 10-year resident of the capital, is writing a book about the development of golf in Abu Dhabi, which he says goes back almost 40 years. "You've got to remember, from 1971 to 1998, sand golf was the only game in town," he says from the living room of his 14th-floor apartment overlooking Khalidiya Park.

The operative word there is "town", as Cox explains that the first course in the emirate of Abu Dhabi actually goes back to 1961, when a group of British Petroleum workers carved a sand course out on Das Island, a tiny atoll about 180 kilometres out in the Gulf where much of the early oil production was based. At the end of each of the sand fairways, a "brown" was constructed out of clay and topped with a "dressing" - a mixture of oil and sand - that created a remarkably true putting surface.

The first sand course in the city was built around 1971, near to the Sea Palace off the Eastern Ring Road, but it was moved in 1976 just down the road to the Abu Dhabi Equestrian Club. The club grew steadily and at one point claimed more than 450 members, Cox says, until the city opted to build a nine-hole grass course - now called Abu Dhabi City Golf Club - on the site.

The sand golfers were summarily evicted. A number of players dropped their memberships - "they went to grass", Cox says with some bitterness - while the others took their case to Abu Dhabi International Airport officials.

"They came to us at the airport and asked if we could help them establish their club again," recalls Mohamed Mounib, at the time the managing director of Abu Dhabi Duty Free. "They said: 'We have 300 members who will join tomorrow morning. We will give you whatever we have [in terms of assets] but give us a piece of land.' I thought this was a great idea and my boss did as well."

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan agreed to give the club a plot of land south of the airport and a few members helped to design the 18-hole layout. The members even managed to get the use of some of the construction equipment donated from their employers.

As he watched all the activity from his office at the airport, Mounib says he thought the game was "boring" at first but became enthralled as he watched the members trudge through the sand in even the most extreme summer heat. He decided to give it a try.

"Then I got hooked," he says.

Now an 18-handicap and the chief executive of Pearl Azure, a hotel company, Mounib remains a member of Al Ghazal as well as belonging to Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the plush, resort-style course that hosts this week's European PGA tournament.

To some extent, Mounib deserves at least part of the credit for bringing the tournament to Abu Dhabi.

In 2004, he came up with the idea of Al Ghazal hosting the first-ever World Sand Golf Championship and he managed to recruit 32 top professionals, including Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington. The one-day event, televised live in Europe, was held the day after the Dubai Desert Classic and the pros were drawn by a hefty first prize, a 10-kilogram bar of gold.

The inaugural winner, the UK professional Greg Owen, opted to take his prize in cash which, according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the price of gold at the time, was around $105,000 (the bar of gold has since appreciated to be worth around $360,000.)

Another strong field came back to Abu Dhabi in 2005 but the next year Abu Dhabi officials landed the rights to host the European PGA event. The World Sand Golf Championship was no more.

There is some speculation that Al Ghazal's days are numbered as well, because of the airport's continued expansion. Like many members, Cox says Al Ghazal provides an economical golfing option in an area where expensive grass courses are proliferating (there are now four.)

But the number of sand courses in the region is dwindling. Cox recently heard through the grapevine that a sand club in Al Ain lost its next-to-last member. When he tried to contact the club, he got no response.

"The club cannot support itself on one member," Cox says. "I suspect it is no longer in operation."

Yet Mounib says the legacy of sand golf in the Gulf is not yet erased. He notes that he recently visited one of his company's hotels near Ruwais, not far from Sir Bani Yas Island, and stumbled upon a "lovely" nine-hole sand course along the beach that the local workers had built.

Parts of Al Ghazal sit on a heritage site, so it cannot be bulldozed entirely, but Mounib concedes the club and its members face long odds. "They might survive and they might not," he says. "At the moment, I think they are safe.