Golfweek Raters Travel to Dubai

Golfweek Raters Travel to Dubai

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Golfweek Raters Travel to Dubai

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A special team of Golfweek’s Best course Raters were on an 8-day trip through United Arab Emirates, Dubai in March 2019.  Golfweek Rater Jonathan Cummings weighed in on the trip.

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Maria Muldaur may have once dreamily sung about midnight at the oasis, but most raters, arriving at the United Arab Emirates for the first ever Golfweek Middle East outing, were singing a distinctly different tune.  Most barely lasted to the sunset much less midnight hours.

Bleary-eyed traveler syndrome was quickly cured by eight hours prone and waking up to a strong dose of Turkish coffee along with stunning sunrise views of the Dubai Marina skyline.  But duty called and to the sounds of morning call to prayer, the raters quietly loaded clubs onto the bus.

First off was Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, home for several years of the Dubai Desert Classic.  The championship course is nestled along a river (Dubai Creek), which is actually a natural saltwater canal, backwashing some ten-miles inland from the Persian Gulf.

A resort course, including residential development, hotel and an unusual – well, for any place other than Dubai – clubhouse in the shape of a giant sail, the course has a distinctive Palm Springs feel.  Standout holes include the excellent par three 5th framed in city skyline, and the waterfront finishing pair, both scenic and demanding straightness and accuracy, especially in a stiff breeze.

Up next on the golfing docket was Jumeriah Golf Estates.  A new complex much like Dubai Creek, Jumeriah offers 36 holes designed by Greg Norman over courses named Fire and Earth.  Always well grounded, the GW raters played Earth, finding similarities to other Norman courses.  Penal flashed fairway bunkering, difficult approach target values and some blind and awkward shots all characterize the course.  Earth’s putting surfaces appeared to have suffered some recent seismic activity as they were often highly contoured and even stern, sometimes bordering on wild.  The rater crew found better hole variety on the inward half with par 3s, as a group, the best part of the course.

Fire was left for a future visit while the raters took in some sights.

Thousands of years ago, nomadic herders roamed the Arabian Peninsula, stopping at various points along the Persian Gulf to engage in trade.  Today, part of those lands is the UAE, with its seven Emirates, or sheikhdoms, of which Dubai and Abu Dhabi are far and away the largest and most well-known.

In ancient Persia fish, pearls, spices, desert fruit and meats were all traded at tent camp bazaars called souks. Modern day souks cater mostly to tourists, interested in testing out their bartering skills with the many small shops and street vendors in Dubai’s old town.

Places like the malls at Dubai and Ibn Battuta and the famous Souk Al Bahar all boast shops selling dry fruits, herbs, nuts, seeds and exotic middle Eastern spices such as frankincense and myrrh; alongside Chanel, Gucci, Bentleys and every American chain store you have ever heard of.   Silver and gold in jewelry or bulk is widely available as are perfumes derived from the flowery oil-based attar favored by Persian women and oud, the rich and smoky resin distilled from the agarwood tree.

A visit by the rating team to the souks, the bustling waterfront, the Dubai fountains (that reminds you of Bellagio), and the Burj Khalifa observatory – atop the world’s tallest building, were all part of a day-long tour.  The day was capped off with an enchanting river cruise dinner through the Marina district aboard a faux Chinese dhow.

Maybe the crown jewel in Dubai golf is Emirates.  The Majlis Course, built in 1988, was the first grass golf course in the Middle East.  A Karl Litton design, The Majlis has hosted both the Dubai Desert Classic (25 years) with many notable winners, as well as the Dubai Ladies Masters (12 years.)

The raters found a superb tropical course including mature palm groves, fountain ponds, artificial creeks and abounding sand, some in the form of deep-faced bunkers.  Approach shots are mostly designed for the better players with a number of small well-protected greens requiring pinpoint accuracy from sometimes quite daunting distances.  The excellent conditioning and world-class clubhouse (in the shape of Bedouin tents) all add to a very memorable experience, one fit for a sheik.

But the setting….

One of the most incongruous backdrops in golf, you wouldn’t have to tell Toto he wasn’t in Kansas anymore.   The par 4 eighth hole doglegs right with the view from the tee merging into what seems like 20 densely packed 1000’ skyscrapers.  The Bedouin history juxtapositioned onto the 21st century backdrop is surreal, leading one noted golf course analyst to describe Emirates, more in awe than disparagingly, as “cartoon golf.”

Rating courses is not just a nine to five job, sometimes you need to put in a little OT.  Just so as the raters, after an adult beverage and quick bite, teed it up on the Majlis sister course, The Faldo..….after sunset.  No problem as Faldo, a more open and less bunkered version of Majlis, is lighted, offering play until midnight on a full sized 18-hole course.  Surreal on steroids.

Thirteen hundred years ago Islam was introduced to the Arabian Peninsula by the Umayyad Caliphate.  Islam prospered in the large cities like Mecca, Cairo and Bagdad, but for centuries in what is now the UAE, Islam played a minor role in society as clan and tribal influences on the nomadic Bedouin were far more important.  Little changed until 1962 when oil was discovered in the Emirates and the rest is, as they say, history.  A history rich in, well, riches.

Dubai is known for world-class hotels, luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture, vibrant nightlife and an outstanding restaurant scene.  On artificial islands just offshore are Atlantis and The Palm, a resort with water and marine-animal parks.   In fact, the entire marina district is built around an artificial channel complete with boardwalks, shops and vendors and a waterway to the Gulf which is teaming with boat traffic.

Next up – The Els Club – a part of a huge sports complex which, besides golf, includes training centers for hockey, soccer, cricket and tennis.  Ernie’s course features endlessly wide fairways and expansive continuous waste areas.  Most trouble can be found around the greens where the flatter surrounds transition to putting surfaces with quite a bit of undulations.  At Els it’s imperative for your approaches to find the putting surfaces as the protecting greenside bunkering is often deep and penal.  Notable holes include the 7th/15th pair which run along and are closely guarded by a feature lake.

Think New York has a few skyscrapers?  Hardly.  The few dozen tall buildings of New York don’t hold a candle to the 400 boasted by Dubai.  Easily the world record, but Dubai’s records don’t stop there.

Besides the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa), Dubai also boasts the world’s most luxurious hotel (Burj Al Arab Jumeriah), the world’s largest mall (2000 store Dubai Mall, with aquarium where you can cage dive with sharks), largest picture frame (The Dubai Frame at 492’), largest flower arrangement (Dubai Miracle Garden), and the world’s largest indoor theme park (IMG Worlds of Adventure).  A mixing bowl of over 200 cultures, Dubai, in just a few short decades, has gone from nearly unpopulated desert to a vibrant city of 1.3 million and one of the world’s top vacation destinations.

But back to golf.  Next up was Dubai Hills GC.  A new upscale development, still under construction, Dubai Hills, a European Golf Design, is characterized with broad gently contoured fairways and well varied green complexes.  Although immature, the raters still gave The Hills a thumbs up for good hole variability and good conditioning.

Moving day.   Checking out, the raters loaded up the bus for the ninety-minute ride to the capital of UAE – Abu Dhabi.

“Abu Dhabi”, Arabic for “Father of Gazelle”, was named for the gazelle that once populated this part of the Persian Gulf.  A business, banking, oil and political center, Abu Dhabi is more conservative Arab and less commercial than Dubai, and accounts for about two-thirds of the roughly $400-billion UAE economy.  Wishing to be a bit more green the city planted a few palm trees, like 42 million in the last eight years!  A religious center as well, Abu Dhabi is home to the second largest Mosque in Islam, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, covering 33 acres and able to accommodate over 40,000 worshippers at once.

HBSC Abu Dhabi Championship, held annually at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s championship course (holes 1-18 of the 27-hole complex), was next up for the raters.  An oasis-like setting, the Abu Dhabi course is mostly flat with palms framing desert plantings in manicured sand areas, and a number of saltwater lakes that come into play on no less than nine holes.

A tough but fair layout, ADGC boasts solid architecture with much less of the frills than some of the Dubai courses.  Particularly cool was the par three seventh with its very wide green perched on a knoll and guarded by water on the right half.  The unusual design aspect is that viewed from the tee, the second green is framed to the right of and just below the seventh green, which is just on the other side of the pond.  It’s almost as though the architect is teasing you with a twin-green complex, a short elevated green and a longer lower one.  The ninth and eighteenth are quite memorable as well as they both skirt a prominent lake leading back to the clubhouse which is architecturally shaped to suggest a keen falcon in flight.

As if our golf games need any more intimidation.

Last on the rater golfing docket was Yas Links.  Highly ranked and a highlight of the trip, Yas didn’t disappoint.  Named after the Bani Yas clan – the nineteenth century Al-Maktoum dynasty who ruled the Abu Dhabi region – the links course at Yas Park is part of a huge seaside complex that includes hotels, Warner Bros, Ferrari theme, and waterworld parks, as well as commercial and private real estate.

The Kyle Phillips course is cast along a treeless shoreline of nearly pure sand dunes (all dredged from the Gulf).  All holes are along or in close view of the water.  Like his acclaimed Kingsbarns, Phillips was not shy about introducing bold, sometimes severe, contours to Yas’s putting surfaces and green surrounds.  In places, it seems more roller coaster ride than golf.  Standouts include the wild shared green at holes twelve and fifteen, and the beautiful forced carry par 3 at seventeen.  There’s equal drama on the outward half with views to die for and strong interesting golf.  Again, the pair of par 3s at four and eight were striking.  While the entire finishing series is strong, especially in the wind, the final double forced carry par 5 may be asking too much.

That evening, the rating team enjoyed a final dinner at a faux Bedouin wadi in the desert dunes.  Entertainment including harrowing sand dune races, camel rides, belly dancing and a fine Arabian meal.

All that was missing was a magic carpet ride. But still a magical end to an enchanting trip.

Ms. Muldaur will be happy to know that on this final night, unlike the first night, the raters were easily able to put the camels to bed.

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