Golfing drama in Dubai, published in the Mashreq Herald magazine

Published in Mashreq Herald magazine

As he stood on the approach to the final, decisive hole in this year's Desert Classic golf tournament in Dubai, South African Ernie Els held his breath. Ahead of him was an imposing grandstand, packed with thousands of fans, forming a maginificent semi-circle around the opulent green. Beyond that rose the giant towers of the Kingdom, symbols of its recent emergence as a global centre of business and tourism.

Locked in a showdown with Spanish player Miguel Angel Jimenez, Els was trailing by one shot. He would need to shoot a birdie [one shot below par] on this par five hole to have a chance of drawing level with Jiminez. Or so he thought.

Els then summoned his nerve and struck a sublime six iron from 178 yards that pitched and died just 20 feet from the pin. He then sank this tricky, heart-stopping putt for an eagle three - while Jimenez could only make par - handing the title to Els for a record third time.

After what was the most dramatic piece of golfing theatre in the history of the event, Els - who carded a final round 68 for a total of 19-under par (269) - admitted he was delighted to have again lifted the famous trophy. "The putt was right up there with the best," said the 35-year old South African after the event.

This kind of gripping viewing has led to an explosion in the options for golfing in the gulf, after Dubai's government-backed company Nakheel announced that it would develop six new golf courses in the emirate with a total of 96 holes.

Legendary Australian golfer Greg Norman has signed up to help design four of them, including one called Inspiration, which will recreate Norman's favourite 18 holes from around the world: six from America, six from Europe and six from Australia. Interest in golf in Dubai has soared after years of the world's greatest golfers paying visits to compete in events such as the Desert Classic, held each year in Dubai.

Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomery have all graced the tees and greens of clubs such as the Emirates in Dubai, recently named among the world's top courses in a survey by US-based magazine Golf Digest. The ballot, which included 1,005 of the best courses around the planet, was decided by a panel numbering over 800 course rating specialists and 22 editors of Golf Digest.

The Golf Digest award came just after Business Traveller magazine named the Emirates Golf Club Best Golf Course In The Middle East for the third consecutive year and is the latest in a long list of awards for the venue, helping to raise the profile of the sport in the region.

The Emirates Golf Club was carved from the Dubai desert in the mid 1980s and stunned those who were sceptical about the idea of an all-grass championship golf course in the hot, dry environment of the Middle East.

But today, 17 years after its 1988 opening, the Club boasts two 18-hole grass courses - The Majlis and The Wadi - and has played host to the PGA European Tour's Dubai Desert Classic on 14 occasions.

The stunning clubhouse is one of the icons of modern Dubai, and the Emirates Golf Club has officially been ranked among some of the world's most famous courses outside of the USA including the Old Course at St Andrews, Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia, and Royal Portrush in Ireland which took the top three spots.

Four of the new Dubai courses will be designed around the elements of fire, water, earth and air, while two of Norman's courses are to concentrate on environmentally friendly design, using local plants and moving as little soil as possible.

Other world famous golfers have joined in the process of designing golf facilities for Dubai. Courses have been built or are under construction by designers and golf stars such as Jack Nicklaus with Ian Baker Finch, Gary Player, and Desmond Muirhead with Colin Montgomerie. Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club has recently undergone a major redevelopment. The club's 18-hole, par 71 course boasts a new front nine, re-designed by Thomas Bjorn, providing an even greater challenge. There is also a new nine-hole par three course, a hi-tech studio, a floodlit driving range and extensive short game practice facilities.

The championship standard golf course is the centrepiece of a resort that will incorporate a luxury 225-room Park Hyatt hotel and 92 four-bedroom executive villas, in addition to a 121-berth marina, yacht club, golf clubhouse, restaurants, gym and leisure swimming pool.

"Golf is important. We hope we have proper accommodation and we're well-organised to receive Americans," says Pascal Despieres, the French woman who is marketing manager for Dubai Golf, the government's organisation coordinating golf tourism.

Some months before, Tiger Woods received a great deal of attention for hitting golf balls from the rooftop helicopter pad of the world famous Burj al Arab Hotel, Dubai's all-suites hotel with gold-plated rooms that can cost $1,500 per night. "Golf is a big plus for Dubai. America has the greatest numbers of golfers, so even if we get 0.5-per cent of Americans to come, it would be good," says Despieres.

The model for Dubai's golf course boom is American in style. The eight golf courses and facilities, with more on the way, are conceived and built not in the Spartan fashion of many of golf's original clubs in the United Kingdom, but rather with the comforts and appointments that Americans added to the game: motorised golf carts, automated GPS yardage devices, beverage carts and half-way houses, comfortable locker rooms and golf shops stocked with quality equipment and fashionable clothes. It is rare to see caddies, however, as there is little demand for them.

Golf visitors to Dubai can be assured of never getting rained-out, but in July and August, temperatures officially reach as high as 52 Celsius. This is a very official temperature since, by law, 52 is the highest number the government allows to be announced (52 Celsius is 125-degrees Fahrenheit).

The temperatures aren't always extreme, and the heat can be avoided by playing golf at Nad al Sheeba Club, a regulation 18-hole golf course that is open until midnight because it is fully illuminated by floodlights. "I am sure it is only a matter of time before we build an air conditioned, indoor golf course here," says Despieres.

Getting the big names to contest the Desert Classic is a publicity coup in itself. And all the better when there is a dramatic finish, as between Els and Jiminez this year. No doubt they, and many other stars of the sport, will be back to challenge for the Classic next year, as Dubai continues its ascent of golf's international ladder.