That is all changing with the opening of Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and Yas Island Links, two plush new courses outside Abu Dhabi that were designed by Gary Player and Kyle Phillips, respectively.
The backstory is that, in a battle between two ambitious sheikhs, Abu Dhabi is on a quest to overtake Dubai as the premier golf destination in the Middle East. But wait, you might be thinking, isn't the credit crunch affecting Abu Dhabi in the same way as Dubai, which has become the poster child for excessive borrowing and grandiose development?
Many Westerners are unaware that Abu Dhabi, which like Dubai is one of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates, sits on nine percent of the world's oil. It is just in the last four to five years that the Abu Dhabi government has opted to use the resulting piles of cash on dozens of luxury hotels, beautification projects and, yes, golf courses.
By comparison, Dubai has little oil and fueled its expansion largely by, ahem, borrowing from global banks. So while Dubai is putting the brakes on many of its grandiose projects, Abu Dhabi is charging full speed ahead. Thus the most exciting new golf openings in the region this year are government-backed projects on small islands just outside Abu Dhabi.
Saadiyat Island will eventually be home to branches of the Guggenheim and the Louvre museums, as well as the only international campus for New York University. (It may go without saying, but the Abu Dhabi government wrote massive checks to lure those institutions to the desert.) The Player course will presumably draw tourists who find a bit of culture less nourishing than a hard-earned par. I played there shortly before the course opened to the public on March 1.
"Watch out for the bun-kahs," said the amiable South African marshal who greeted us on the first tee just shy of 8 a.m. All the employees seemed to be South African, almost as if the Black Knight himself did most of the hiring. The wind was brisk coming off the Persian Gulf, and I was just barely warm enough in shorts and a wind breaker.
After three holes, I realized what our marshal was warning against – the square footage of some of the bunkers rivals that of a sheikh's palace. Combined with false fronts and awe-inspiring undulations on the greens, it was clear that Player intended this course as a more daunting challenge that most of his resort courses in the U.S.
After four holes, our group instituted the "first par earns a pint rule," and the winner was not crowned until No. 6. But after heading straight out to sea – and directly into the wind, on the day we played – for the first six holes, the course turns once it reaches the Persian Gulf.
Those accustomed to reading about the Persian Gulf in political reports may be surprised by how beautiful it is. The sight of the cerulean waves crashing in on unspoiled beaches is stunning, and it will be interesting to see if the pristine feel of the place is retained once the museums, hotels and other surrounding development is complete.
Perhaps to compensate for the bunkers and challenging greens, the course boasts little rough. That meant we didn't spend much time searching for balls, but that savings was more than lost on the time we spent raking bunkers. It's virtually impossible for four double-digit handicappers to get through a hole without at least one trudging through a gaping bunker.
That said, the feeling in our group was that Saadiyat Beach Club would immediately be crowned Abu Dhabi's top course, ahead of Abu Dhabi National Golf Club, where the European PGA Tour stopped in January.
One sticking point could be price. One player in our group insisted that the weekend rate would be more than 800 dirhams, or about $250, while the gal in the pro shop insisted the top rate would not be more than 500 dirhams, or about $140.
The Yas Island course will be slightly more exclusive. While Saadiyat will be daily-fee only, Yas aims to be primarily a members course with some tee times set aside each day for daily fee players. The course is marketed as the first true links course in the region, and Phillips certainly has the pedigree to pull it off. He is arguably best known for designing Kingsbarn Golf Links, the 18-hole public track in St. Andrews that is No. 61 on Golf Magazine's list of the Top 100 Courses in the World.
There is already reportedly a waiting list among locals to get in. It is scheduled to open in June.
On the day I played Saadiyat, the cool morning temps gave way to afternoon sun and I left with a slight burn on my exposed skin. And this was February. It remains to be seen how many golfers will be willing to brave the links in Abu Dhabi when the mercury reaches 120 degrees Fahrenheit in July and August. Of course, as anyone who has gone around PGA West or any Las Vegas course in the summer knows, it always depends on the quality of the track.
Abu Dhabi is at least making it tempting.