Many of the world's best golfers are setting up base in the sunshine of the Emirates.
Golf in the UAE is in the swing
DUBAI // As the Emirates Airline Invitational tees off today, industry insiders say they have seen an influx of professionals choosing the UAE as a winter training ground.
At least 17 professional golfers have spent the winter here, according to Nick Tarratt, the director of European Tour International.
One of them is David Howell, a member of 2006's victorious European Ryder Cup team.
The English player says the growing popularity of golf courses in the UAE is in part down to the quality of the facilities, and the rising number and status of tournaments being held in Asia.
This is Howell's second winter living in the UAE. He is glad, he says, to do without the enforced break he had to endure in Surrey, a county in the south of England.
"[In winter] I'd play social golf when the weather permitted. You would go out and hit some balls but it'd be in dreary weather," he says. Worse than dreary, his home course in the UK has been under a blanket of snow for much of the past month.
And, he says, the appeal of the UAE is more than a lack of negatives. "Every golf club has brilliant ranges. Jumeirah [Golf Estates] was planned with tour players in mind - it's got pitching greens and you can hit every shot possible."
For the past few days, professionals and their coaches have been arriving for the Gulf legs of the PGA European Tour - the four tournaments that begin in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, known collectively as the Desert Swing.
Many of the professionals will warm up today at Yas Links when they compete in the Emirates Airline Invitational before embarking on the first leg of the Swing, the Abu Dhabi HSBC championship which starts on Thursday and finishes on Sunday. On Monday, some of the players will compete in the Saadiyat Beach Classic alongside amateurs for charity. They will then head to Bahrain and Qatar before returning to Dubai for the Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club's Majlis course on February 7 -13.
"Not only do we have the tournaments here, we also have so much in Asia. Everything is more accessible than London," Howell says.
There are six European Tour events in Asia, with four of them at the end of the year before the Dubai World Championship, which starts on December 8.
According to Nick Tarratt, the director of European Tour International, there are at least 15 professional golfers at Jumeirah Golf Estates, including Howell.
"With the year starting with events in India, the Far East, Africa and the Middle East, the UAE is also the ideal location for pre-season practice, using it as a hub before flying to their respective tournament destinations," says Mr Tarratt.
Chris May, the general manager of Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, says he has seen at least 20 professionals on his driving ranges over the past three weeks.
"Most are staying in hotels or with friends they have met here. Henrik Stenson [another member of the 2006 Ryder Cup winning team] lives around the corner from here [Emirates] and is a member," Mr May says.
Over the new year break, he says, Paul Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion, managed to get some practice in at the Emirates course while on holiday in Dubai with his family.
Colin Montgomerie, a winner of the Order of Merit a record eight times, visits regularly. He designed the course at Montgomerie Golf Club in Dubai.
"The majority here are preparing for the Desert Swing," says Mr May. However, unlike other parts of the world, where players fly in, play and then go the next destination, they stay longer in Dubai. "They rarely play on the golf course. It's all about practice and getting their swing and putting sorted," Mr May says.
Pete Cowan, who was named coach of the year at last year's UK Coaching Awards, regularly brings his players to the UAE. Just last week, the world No 1, Lee Westwood, was taking advice from Cowan. Yesterday, Oliver Fisher, who at 22 is regarded as future champion, was under his charge.
Cowen says the UAE has all the right ingredients for professional golfers. "Quite a few players live here," says Cowen. "They enjoy it. The friendliness of the golf clubs is the difference. A lot of them feel uncomfortable [in European clubs]. In Dubai, they feel comfortable.
"Dubai is the most welcoming place for the pros and the best place to practise. It has all the facilities needed.
"You can go to an expensive restaurant or go and eat reasonably. Hotel prices are now reasonable and the families can get to the beach and everything else they have to offer."
He says one of his clients, the world No 3 and US Open champion, Graeme McDowell, was practising in Dubai last week to prepare for the Desert Swing.
Chris White, the general manager of Yas Links in Abu Dhabi, says the prizes are on a par with other tours. The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship has a prize pot of US$2.7million (Dh9.9m), while the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Spain in May has a purse of €3.4m (Dh16.7m).
"The European Tour openly competes against the US PGA Tour. All they [in the US] have to do is go south or go to California. They've got the geography to do it. So the European Tour can go to Spain and Portugal and Italy, which are attractive in January and February, although not as attractive as the Middle East," Mr White says.
As a new course, the Yas Links has yet to establish itself as a practice ground of choice. But the professionals are starting to arrive. Howell and Stenson have been there, as have 15 of the Scottish Golf Union's players for a training camp. "It's going to be long winter in northern Europe," Mr White adds.