It appropriate that Abu Dhabi should win the prestigious Golf Destination Of The Year 2012, in the Africa & Gulf States category, just as the United Arab Emirates was celebrating its 40th anniversary as an independent country.
After all, the UAE’s phenomenal oil-fuelled rise has hinged on the spirit of co-operation between the various emirates (seven separate principalities each with their own monarchies) which, since 1971, have flourished jointly as a model of Middle Eastern enterprise. A similar united front between the three most high-profile golf clubs in the capital, Abu Dhabi, while each offering their own unique golf experiences, has cleverly reinforced the appeal of this stylish destination to international golfers. Add in the efficient workings of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority – which itself had the clout to sign Tiger Woods for January’s HSBC Tournament – and you have an operation well placed to catch the critical eye of the golf travel experts.
Their scorecards would have registered a few other maximums along the way. There’s the setting which, all within a 25-kilometre radius, varies from the bracing seaside drama at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, hard on the sandy shores of the Arabian Gulf, to the romantic mix of desert and tropical parkland at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, and the exhilaratingly modern duneland at Yas Links.
Obviously, there’s the climate, with sunshine virtually guaranteed year-round. On my visit shortly before Christmas it was a perfect 25 degrees (just as snow hit the UK), allowing golf in shirtsleeves and outdoor dining every night.
There’s another thing in rather plentiful in the region. Money. Lots of it – as any Manchester City fan will confirm. Though for a real view of what the world’s sixth largest oil revenues can buy, take a trip, not to the Etihad Stadium, but on Etihad Airways to Abu Dhabi itself. You could start with the view from the roof terrace at the beautiful clubhouse of Yas Links, where the panorama of the emirate takes in a heady snapshot of Arabia.
There’s the shimmering skyscrapers of downtown capital; the turrets of the Grand Mosque lit up at dusk by 3D holographic light shows; the Aldar HQ – the first spherical office building in the world – and the space-age structure of the ultracool Yas Viceroy Hotel around (and indeed through) which the Yas Marina Formula One circuit snakes. Meanwhile, beyond the first green lies Ferrari World, the world’s largest theme park and home to Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest rollercoaster that will take you on a 150 mph ride.
Meanwhile, all around the same vantage point, Yas Links itself offers an equally heady golfing experience crafted by master architect Kyle Phillips.
Once again, money has been no object in the creation of this extraordinary faux links with glorious dunes which it’s hard to believe have been fashioned from scratch on the banks of the island’s stretches of calm sea.
As well as all the humps, hollows, plateaus and dells that you’d expect from a championship links, Phillips has transformed the previously arrowstraight shoreline to meet his atmospheric vision.
This required dredging some three kilometres of sand and silt to create his own inlets, bays and reclaimed promontories on, over and around which are sited nine of the 18 fairways and greens. The result is the Middle East’s answer to Kingsbarns, Phillips’ modern, yet retro-styled links outside St Andrews which first catapulted him into the premier league of golf course architects.
The playing surfaces of close-cropped Platinum paspalum are flawless (you can easily putt from the many greenside swales). I can vouch that the rough is interesting, too, with the colourful indigenous desert flora apparently planted by ‘hydrospraying’ the relevant seeds to colonise the impromptu dunes.
As Phillips admits in the course guide, Yas Links wears its St Andrews influence on its sleeve, with the 12th and 15th sharing a double green – the former with a Valley of Sin-style dip to contend with, and the temptingly driveable par-four 14th among the many highlights before a sensational closing climax.
This starts in earnest at the 16th with its heartin- mouth approach to a green perfectly sited on its own narrow headland and at the par-three played over its own private bay to a wonderfully retrostyled green and bunker complex. The coup de grace is Abu Dhabi’s answer to the 18th at Pebble Beach, with its own watery grave all down the left, and a daunting second if you are to cut off the dogleg and avoid a long third back into the sea breeze to a dangerously sited green.
Only then can you relax in the sanctity of the classy clubhouse with its grand Arabic décor and labyrinthine locker room. Five sets of tees ensures Yas is playable by all, though it will be fascinating to see how the top pros fare tackle the 18th from the 646-yard tee when the Abu Dhabi Championship comes here in 2013.
As viewers will have enjoyed in January, the current home of the HSBC-sponsored event is the older but still magnificent Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which has also been stealing the headlines as the first stop on Tiger Woods’ 2012 campaign. There’s been much debate about Tiger making the switch from the Dubai Desert Classic after a long association with that neighbouring emirate. Not merely for the alleged $3 million appearance fee (that’s more than the whole HSBC prize fund) but also a rumoured exclusivity clause preventing him playing in any rival Desert Swing for a while.
Opened in 2000, Peter Harridine’s lush layout is the oldest in Abu Dhabi, though Troon Golf has refined it in recent years: lengthening tees, deepening the 70-odd bunkers and planting some 1,000 trees to ensure the tournament’s elite field (this year the strongest to have contested a Middle East event) face a test as challenging as it is beautiful.
“An oasis of tranquility carved out of the desert” may be the brochure cliché but it’s a fair summary of the 18-hole Championship and 9-hole ‘Garden’ loop that meander around seven freshwater lakes, date palms, ornamental trees and exotic shrubs that provide each fairway with its own sense of own isolation.
Another masterstroke by the Abu Dhabi tourism chiefs was to appoint the golf course management experts at Troon Golf across all these facilities. As reported in my recent travel piece on Morroco, Troon is involved with some 380 courses worldwide, consulting on everything from the latest agronomy practices to online booking systems. Their reputation as a kite-mark for course quality is borne out Abu Dhabi Golf Club’s many awards and course condition which is close to ‘tournament spec’ all year round. It’s no shock Martin Kaymer says this is among his five favourite golf courses, and not just because he’s a multiple winner of the flagship event. Sky Sports viewers will clock the clubhouse in the shape of a giant falcon, whose outstretched wings form the roofline, as one of the most distinctive in golf. It also forms the backdrop for that closing, monster par-five with water encroaching (at times imperceptibly) down the right, a gargantuan bunker to carry with the second shot, climaxing with a vast sloping green where two putts is a task in itself.
Be sure also to sample the floodlit facility which opened here last year. Intent on playing golf right up until my 2am flight back to Blighty, I enjoyed a memorable nine holes under the stars. Indeed, if you’re looking for wall-to-wall golf, you should consider the brand new Westin Hotel that directly overlooks the practice ground, with some rooms enjoying their own entrance allowing you to walk out in your spikes and be on the tee in seconds. Talking of hotels, Abu Dhabi’s premium offerings are as varied as the golf courses they cater for. The Westin itself is a modern eco-friendly design defined by minimalist wood and stone and offering plenty of sumptuous spa treatments and even a dedicated Superfoods restaurant along with a local specialities and a special Moroccan-themed nightspot.
In contrast, the Yas Viceroy where I stayed, is a triumph of modern engineering, starting with its glamorous Gridshell exterior whose stunning optical effect is visible from miles around. Consisting of steel girders supporting some 5,000 diamondshaped glass panels, it looks like a giant virtual blue whale when lit up at night – although, from the inside, it’s like being in a giant ProV1 with super-size tetrahedral dimples – at least when viewed from the trendy rooftop Skylite bar after a few mojitos. Luxurious, state-of-the-art guest rooms and restaurants with views of the Formula One circuit and the gin palaces in the surrounding marina are another highlight of this quintessential Abu Dhabi landmark.
Yet most surprising are the relatively affordable pricing of both green fees and hotels - partly down to the steadily rising supply in the area with, over on Saadiyat Island, plans for a string of further 5- star hotels in the immediate vicinity of the spectacular Gary Player-designed golf course that opened in 2010. The smart St Regis, which opened last month, has already bagged a prime spot overlooking both course, beach and sea, while a Park Hyatt, Rotana, Mandarin and Shangri-La are all set to open here in due course.
They will all be part of an ambitious plan for this island chosen as a new cultural district for Abu Dhabi and panned to site the world’s largest Guggenheim Museum, a Louvre Museum, various performing arts centres and concert halls.
But one work of art which debuted here in 2010 is the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club, billed as the Arabian Gulf’s first true beach-front course (the sea at Yas Links being not directly open water), with several golf holes all taking advantage of this superb setting further embellished with palm trees and native dune grasses. On the 16th, Player has skillfully designed a sea of bunkers with a series of white sand peaks and troughs to complement the backdrop of beachside dunes and the crests of waves in the Gulf beyond. Meanwhile, the fine stretch from the 11th, played directly to a green with another perfect seascape, reminded me of the fine finish at the Isle of Palms, near Charleston in South Carolina.
Together with Troon Golf’s Golf Academy and the vast, floodlit practice ground, Saadiyat is both an excellent resort course and another with genuine championship aspirations, as is acknowledged by many of the top pros, such as Martin Kaymer, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and Matteo Manassero, who have all played in the annual charity event which follows the HSBC Championship.
As well an astute technical challenge, the course’s charm is in its variety of flavours as you move between the stirring coastal holes and the quieter inland stretches among lakes, palm trees and villas. All of the latter are designed and managed in eco-friendly fashion sensitive to the local wildlife that include Hawksbill turtles and migrating birds such as European rollers and bee-eaters. And while the pros might face a mighty 7,806 yards from the tips, Saadiyat - like all the courses here – is designed to accommodate all-comers, with the front tees measuring a modest 5,290 yards.
As Manassero suggests, it is this rich assortment of facilities and natural settings across this geographically compact emirate that has seen Abu Dhabi emerge so swiftly as an award-winning golf destination.
“It is very rare that one place has such variation in course type. In fact, the only way you know you’re in Abu Dhabi is when you look up and see the blue skies,” says the Italian prodigy who was so impressed that he now acts as a global golf ambassador for the area. “The quality and quantity of playing options really is second-to-none,” he adds. Those options also include a convenient downtown golf facility, a championship-standard ‘browns’ course and an all-grass country course in the heritage heartland of Al Ain. Within a few years, they will be joined by exotic routing through the marshlands on the other side of Saadiyat Island by Robert Trent Jones II and involving a special nature reserve for indigenous wildlife.
Incidentally, the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is named after the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the ‘father’ and first President of the UAE who laid out the region’s long-term masterplan for international tourism and world class hospitality. We’re not sure if his vision would have extended to bankrolling Manchester City or hiring Coldplay for the capital’s New Year’s Eve party. But, certainly, with their Golf in Abu Dhabi initiative, his sultans of swing have done him proud.