At Al Ghazal, you’ll find a course of sand and a taste of old Abu Dhabi

January 20, 2011

ABU DHABI — This week the Abu Dhabi Golf Club will be host to all four major champs from last year, including Phil Mickelson in his first playing appearance in the Middle East, as well as a procession of the city’s top oil execs, financiers and other high-living expats for whom the global financial crisis is little more than an abstraction. The bubbly will be flowing (the 19th hole is a fixture even in most parts of the Arab world), the wives will be dolled up in summer dresses and hats, and the emerald fairways will be so tight that you’ll want to reach down and stroke them to confirm they are real.

Blink and you could be convinced you were in Phoenix or Las Vegas. But less than a mile in the sandy distance, the Al Ghazal Golf Club is a reminder of how this once-obscure emirate was not so long ago much more than half a world away.

When I played Al Ghazal for the first time — on Christmas Eve, no less, when the temp topped out at a balmy 78 degrees — I was checked in at the front desk by a woman in an abiya. In the bar, two Egyptian men were drinking beers and silently watching camel races.

My friend Seamus and I were there to check out what is supposedly the top sand course in the world, not least because the rumor is that it will soon be bulldozed.

For the uninitiated, Abu Dhabi was the territory of a bedouin people before oil was discovered in 1958. Western oil companies rushed in to get a piece of the action, naturally, even if most of the profits were retained by the royal family. (Abu Dhabi is one of seven members of the United Arab Emirates but controls the vast majority of its oil wealth. Contrary to popular perception, neighboring Dubai has relatively little oil money.)

It was British oil workers in 1961 who created the emirate’s first golf club, a sand course on Das Island, a tiny atoll about 100 miles out in the Persian Gulf that was the site of some of the country’s first oil production.

Given the natural topography, a grass course was out of the question, so the roughnecks instead constructed elevated mounds using a clay substance called subkha. These were the greens, or the “browns” as they soon became known, according to Dennis Cox, an American helicopter pilot and 10-year Abu Dhabi resident who is writing a book on sand golf.

But while the clay created the necessary shape, it did not prove a suitable putting surface. Through trial and error, the workers concocted a top dressing, essentially a mixture of sand and oil, that rolls smoothly and even presents a spongy landing area for an incoming approach shot.

And to ensure that a match did not feel like one fairway bunker shot after another, they agreed that each player could carry around a small patch of Astroturf. As long as the player’s ball was in the fairway, he could place it on his swatch before hitting.

By the 1970s, sand golf had moved off Das Island and was a popular pastime for the growing number of expats in Abu Dhabi proper.

In the Al Ghazal clubhouse, there is a collection of vintage photos — think Johnny McEnroe circa 1983 — showing sunburned expats in headbands and short white shorts. It wasn’t always pretty, but for more than a quarter-century sand golf was the only game in town.

That all changed in the late 1990s, when Abu Dhabi began spending some of its vast oil wealth on sod, irrigation systems and fertilizer. The first grass course opened in 1998.

The original Abu Dhabi Golf Club, a sand course that happened to occupy the infield of a horse-racing track, lost more than half of its members overnight.
“They all went to grass,” Cox told me with more than a little bitterness.

But the hardcore sand players changed the name to Al Ghazal and moved to the current location, near the Abu Dhabi airport, where the layout was mapped out and sculpted like any grass course. Cox said there are other sand courses in Australia and Africa, but Al Ghazal is considered “the only world-class sand course on the planet.” (Sand-and-oil greens also have a history in the rural U.S.)

There was even an effort to make Al Ghazal an annual stopover in the European PGA’s silly season, when it hosted the World Sand Golf Championship in 2004 and 2005. The event drew top stars including Nick Faldo, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie, but it petered out after a couple of years. (Your two World Sand Golf Champions: Greg Owen and Thongchai Jaidee.)

These days Abu Dhabi boasts four grass courses, including two resort-quality tracks that opened in the past year, and Al Ghazal increasingly feels like a relic. Its location in the path of the rapidly expanding Abu Dhabi International Airport does not seem to bode well for its future either.

“We’ve been hearing that for five years,” said Cox, who acknowledged that the financial crisis probably bought the course a couple of extra years.

Seamus and I decided to host our own two-man version of the World Sand Golf Championship before it was too late. It seemed to me that he held a serious home-course advantage, having played there once before, although the only memory he retained with any clarity was an encounter in the brush with a fringe-toed sand lizard.

We struggled early on, with pars few and far between, and debated whether we could hit off the Astroturf in the rough. “Could be a little argy-bargy there,” Seamus said in his soupy Cork accent, an apparent reference to an action that could lead to a dispute between players.

The sheer bizarre-ness of the outing is hard to overstate, as one does not often hit the links amid such a drab and unrelenting palette. But there is also a primitive pleasure in playing a course that makes no attempt to imitate the game’s traditional look.

The most difficult element to get used to is the sweeping of the browns. Because they are quickly littered with footprints, each player is required to drag a broom behind him, quite similar to the way a baseball grounds crew sweeps the infield between innings.

Seamus’ way around this chore was to chip in three separate times, making us all square as we made our way to the 16th tee. I parred the final three holes, but it was not good enough — Seamus birdied 17 and parred the other two to finish ahead by one.

Who would have thought it? The (unofficial) Sand Golf Champion is a man from Cork. Wait ’til Paddy Harrington hears about this.