The Middle East’s First Great Course?

Adam Lawrence reckons Kyle Phillips may have built the Gulf’s first great course.

Golf in the Middle East is an odd beast. Maybe it’s inevitable; after all, a desert environment in which temperatures often rise about 50 Celsius is hardly an obvious location for a game that grew up on the cool and damp coast of Scotland.

But it’s not just the incongruity of playing in the desert that makes Gulf golf peculiar. Nowhere else in the world does the game feel quite so much like a trophy asset, built to elevate the status of a destination rather than necessarily as a place for golfers to play the game they love.

The rapid development of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Oman et al, accelerated by the wealth provided by oil and the fear of what will happen when it runs out, has brought golf to the region. But it has been a particular type of golf – almost exclusively based around the sale of housing, with the compromises to the golf courses that invariably follow that model around the world. Only a couple of courses have been built without integrated real estate, and one of those – Emirates Golf Club, the region’s first showpiece – is now having housing retro-fitted.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the golf and real estate model, even though it has taken a big hit in the last two years. But very few golfers, presented with two otherwise equal courses, one of which runs through a housing development, and the other of which is core, would pick the housing course as their favourite. The needs of golf and housing are not the same, however hard the masterplanner tries to balance them, and it’s inevitable that he who pays the piper – in other words, the real estate buyers – should call the tune.

The irony is that the sheer scale of development in the Middle East should provide the opportunity for core golf courses to be developed. If you have 500 acres of land and you want to build a golf course and some houses, you can’t be criticised for using the course frontage to maximise the value of properties. If, on the other hand, you have 5,000 acres, and you are going to build golf, housing, hotels and many other amenities, then it surely isn’t too hard to find space for a compact, core golf course that has the potential to be an anchor asset in the way that housing courses often struggle to be?

That’s what has happened on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. Developed by local firm Aldar, Yas, like its neighbour Saadiyat Island, is a massive, multi-faceted project, including golf, housing, hotels plus, most high profile of all, Abu Dhabi’s new Formula One circuit, which hosted its first Grand Prix last year, and the Ferrari World indoor theme park.

Compared to these grandeurs, in some ways Kyle Phillips’s Yas Links golf course seems like small beer. But it isn’t, at least for everyone who loves golf. It is, in many ways, the first pure golf course in the Gulf. Routed up and down more than three kilometres of coastline, with no less than nine greens right on the water’s edge, it is a golf experience like no other in the region.

This being the Middle East, the story of Yas’s construction is almost beyond belief. Golf architects, the lucky ones at least, are not unused to designing golf holes along coastlines. I am not, however, aware of any previous example where the architect was able to design the coastline itself! Here, because the channel needed to be dredged to produce the fill that would be used to build the course, and in order to make it a more appealing body of water, Phillips created the shapes of the coastline in order to allow him the maximum opportunity to build great golf holes.

It works, too. Take the par three eighth, where the green is so tight to the sea that a mean bunker on the left of the green sees way more action than might be expected. Or the magnificent par four sixteenth, which demands a drive that is both careful placed and ideally mighty, as few would be confident hitting a lengthy approach into the very long, narrow green (in some ways the hole is a shorter cousin of the par five twelfth at Phillips’s Kingsbarns course in Scotland).

The created coastline is not without its issues. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some degree of coastal erosion is already taking place, so the crew is adding iceplant to the banks in places, with the aim of stabilising the shoreline. In one or two areas, the degree of erosion is such that more drastic measures are needed, and an experiment with gabions of rock was taking place during my visit. But these are relatively minor, and will, I’m sure be solved with time. The construction work has been done to a very, very high standard; contractor Tanto International and Phillips’s staff shaper Dave Smith should be very proud of the way they have created something that looks like a genuine Scottish links on the shores of the Persian Gulf.

Making it play like a links is a bigger challenge. All over the course are features that have been designed to move golf balls around on the ground, either to the golfer’s assistance or his chagrin. Making these features come alive demands firm turf, not easy to provide in an environment where the course requires millions of gallons of water every day just to keep it alive.

Nevertheless, greenkeeper Mike Clarke, whose experience in the Middle East goes back to the earliest days of golf in the region, is confident that, with time, he will have the bouncy surface the course’s design needs. The Platinum paspalum grass, supplied by Jennings Turf International, has grown in tremendously well – the course looks superb, if perhaps a little greener than a true links aficionado might like – and should go dormant only briefly, if at all, in the warm Gulf climate, thus minimising the need for overseeding. Creating linkslike turf with paspalum is hard (though the dormant version is a fine, bouncy surface, it’s not practical to have little or no growth all through the busy season), but so long as Clarke judges the amount of water the course needs and irrigates to that level and no more, it should be feasible.

Ah, the irrigation. Yas is a trailblazer in that regard too. Andy Brown of Toro recalls with a rueful smile the moment when Phillips told him that he wanted a decoder-based system for Yas, so as not to spoil his carefully designed dunescape with hundreds of metal satellite boxes. The completed irrigation package totals around 3,500 stations, around twice as big as any decoder-based system Toro has installed anywhere in the world.

This story about the irrigation system well illustrates the scope of Phillips’s vision for Yas. General manager Chris White says that the cart paths on the course were a source of some debate between architect and client. Phillips didn’t really want them, but in an environment where, for much of the year, walking a course would be a physical impossibility, some paths are a necessity. But it is good to see that they are only partial, around greens and tees in most cases, and the design does a fine job of hiding them, so the ugly ribbon of concrete that does so much to ruin golf course aesthetics is conspicuous by its absence. To walk the course, when temperatures drop below the 40C that prevailed during our visit, would be a pleasure – on few modern courses I have seen are tees so near to the previous green.

Yas’s finishing stretch is epic. The only one of the last six holes not on the water is the excellent par four fifteenth, which provides a masterclass in visual deception with a bunker around thirty yards short right of the green that one would swear was tight to the putting surface – even with the benefit of GPS! The two waterfront par threes on the home side, thirteen and seventeen, are both beautiful, and the way the back tee of the short par four fourteenth is hidden right behind the thirteenth green is masterful.

Perhaps my only quibble is down to my own lack of skill: the par five finishing hole, almost 560 yards even from the 6,200 yard tees, is among the toughest I have come across, and I can imagine plenty of golfers dumping more than one ball in the Persian Gulf and entering the clubhouse with a scowl on their faces. But when they reflect on their round, the smile will surely return: I am very confident in asserting that Yas is the best course in the Middle East by a distance, and that it has taken golf in the region to a whole new level.

Adam Lawrence
Golf Course Architecture
17 November 2010

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