Dubai’s city limits ended at the Crown Plaza hotel back in 1989. From there it was a quiet two-lane highway through the desert to the Emirates Golf Club. Bizarrely, a Hard Rock Café stood on the other side of the road. Then it was more desert to Jebel Ali Resort, and even more miles of empty sand to Abu Dhabi.
An aerial photograph brilliantly depicted the Emirates Course, the first grass course in the Middle East. Eighteen huge swaths of green grass cut through the sand, the fairways and greens of the Emirates. For miles around there was nothing but desert.
My how things have changed.
The City of Gold bears no resemblance to how it looked for the inaugural Dubai Desert Classic kicked off in 1989. Then and now pictures of the tee shot at the par-4 8th holes illustrate how Dubai has mushroomed. The tee shot was played towards an empty horizon in 1989. Now it’s played towards a skyline dominated by high rise buildings, a sort of Middle East version of Gotham City.
It’s hard to tell where Dubai’s city limits end these days. Urban sprawl has taken the city deep into the desert, with cranes dominating the skyline. The Hard Rock is long gone, and any thought of crossing from the golf course to the site the Café once stood is to risk life and limb. The once sleepy Sheikh Al Zayed Road is now a busy thoroughfare with vehicles speeding to and from Abu Dhabi and points in between.
Mark James won the first Desert Classic, the Karl Litten Desert Classic to give it its official title. He defeated Australian Peter O’Malley in a playoff and earned a check for £41,660. This week’s $3.25 million Omega Dubai Desert Classic has £472,000, approximately $616,000, as its first-place prize.
Former European Tour chief executive Ken Schofield has to be given great credit for taking the Tour to the Middle East. He was ridiculed for the idea in some quarters, but European Tour pros weren’t arguing with a £250,000 prize fund at a time of year, March, when there was little chance of playing golf in many parts of Europe.
Schofield’s foresight was obvious when the Sheikhs in Qatar got in on the act in 1998. The Abu Dhabi rulers joined the fray in 2006 to create a Middle East Swing. Saudi Arabia joins the Tour next week with the inaugural Saudi International, an event staged in controversial circumstances following the House of Saud’s alleged involvement in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Despite the changing landscape, some things never change in Dubai. Colin Montgomerie is back to try to win the tournament for a second time since 1996, 30 years after missing the cut in the inaugural event.
European Tour players have done well out of Dubai, especially those who’ve earned appearance money. The Dubai Sheikhs quickly realised they needed to dip into their ample cash reserves to lure the world’s top players, and wasted no time attracting stars like Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, and a host of other names. Throw Bryson DeChambeau into that mix. Don’t think the eccentric 5-time PGA Tour winner is playing Dubai this week because he had such a good time playing as an amateur in 2016. He’ll leave with ample wads cash over and above what he makes in prize money.
Sadly, one thing the Dubai Desert Classic hasn’t done in 30 years is produce a bona fide UAE tour professional. Scan the Official World Golf Ranking and you won’t find one UAE player. Thirty-six hole qualifying for three spots in this year’s Desert Classic featured 119 players from 23 countries at Dubai Hills Golf Club. Just one was a UAE national. Ahmed Almusharrekh shot rounds of 85 and 81.
So although Dubai has piled huge wads of cash into the European Tour and the back pockets of marquee names, it’s still stuck in 1989 as far as producing home-grown talent. Don’t be surprised if that’s still the case another 30 years from now.