Emirate par excellence

Blue-chip designers have brought their talents to bear on the deserts of Abu Dhabi, with intensely challenging – and beautiful – courses. And the five-star lodgings don’t hurt, says John Gibb

October 25 2012
John Gibb

In winter, when it’s dark at 4pm and the ground is covered in snow, the black dog calls on me. The answer is to lift the gloom with a burst of sunshine, a round or two of golf and a decent hotel. Last year, I found the perfect combination of piercingly blue skies, top accommodation and world-class courses, and off I went to Abu Dhabi for a long weekend.

I left Heathrow at 8.25 on a bitter Wednesday night and landed at Abu Dhabi International Airport at 8.20 in the morning, after a six and a half hour flight. I took a light breakfast at the Viceroy Hotel on Yas Island and was on the first tee at Yas Links by 10am.

You will know you’ve reached Yas Island when you come across a bronze statue of Old Tom Morris hacking his way out of a clump of knee-high fescue. The course was laid out by Kyle Phillips, a designer from Granite Bay, California. He gave us Kingsbarns and the Dundonald in Scotland and the lovely PGA National in Sweden, and is a master of the rolling, windswept fairway. Yas is only two years old, but is a classic links, with springy turf, nine seaside greens and deep-pot bunkers. Of course, it’s manufactured – Phillips laid out not only the golf course but the coastline fringing it. The channel down the western edge of the island was dredged to produce the 1.8 cubic metres of fill needed to construct the course. The result is a landscape that lends itself perfectly to links golf and offers a tactful nod to the environment with its 130,000 newly planted mangroves.

I love Yas Links. It’s long – 7,414 yards from the back tees, with a par of 72 – and in January there is a cooling breeze from the sea. The setting is beautiful. The blue waters of the Gulf lined with white sand, a low reef and a mangrove fringe across the channel. The course is cut daily and the greens are fiendish, as groomed and tight as a sultan’s rug. They’re very fast – 13 on the Stimpmeter – but are true and full of hidden slopes. There are four short holes, three of which are over water. The first and only inland par three is the 212-yard fourth, a challenging four-iron down the left to a long, curly green nestling in the dunes. You may find the back nine more impressive, particularly the 12th, a 484-yard par four, where a ridge in front of the green confuses the eye and makes the second, or in my case, the third, shot hard to judge. This green is shared with the 15th hole and is again difficult to unravel when you try to work out its secrets for the first time. The finish, particularly the 16th, a left-turning slider, and the 646-yard 18th, both alongside the sea, are epic holes with no room for sloppiness or lack of moral fibre.

From Yas, it is just a short drive to the Westin Hotel, in the middle of the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Here, the European Tour was fighting it out for the HSBC Championship, so the next day, I took a 15-minute cab drive to Saadiyat Beach Golf Club to have a crack at the Gary Player-designed course. Player was a great shot-maker and, although Saadiyat Beach is long at just over 7,800 yards, it is essentially a strategist’s course. It is also stunning, with seven holes bordering the beach. Player is a frontrunner in environmentally acceptable design, using sophisticated water-conservation techniques and organic fertilisers. Although I played Saadiyat off the gold tees, which give an overall reduction of 530 yards, there was little let up with five very long par fours and par fives of over 600 yards each at the second and ninth. The second hole is very demanding: twin fairways and a bunker 200 yards long, 30 yards wide up the middle. And there are big traps full of brilliant white sand everywhere. I loved the fifth, a sharp-left-turning dog‑leg out towards the Gulf. This is a 481-yard par four: two long, straight shots into the wind towards a scenic and elegant target surrounded by dunes.

By the 10th, I was staggering a bit. This is a short par four, but the bunker on the left runs for 338 yards all the way to the green and beyond. You must hit your drive perfectly to reach the putting surface, which is protected by four deep-pot bunkers. I’m still having bad dreams about the 17th. At 147 yards, it’s the shortest hole on Saadiyat, with the breeze whispering across from the right. For me, it was a seven-iron, but just landing your tee shot on the dance floor is a triumph. There are dunes and heavy sand all the way and a long, swervy green round a kidney-shaped bunker cut into the left. Saadiyat is deadly, but it’s beautiful – a real treasure – and the club is welcoming and comfortable.

Two days later, after a nerve-wracking sojourn at Ferrari World – a theme park with the world’s fastest ride, which shot me from stationary to 240km per hour in five seconds and then carried on for another minute – I was allowed onto the aforementioned Abu Dhabi course. It was only a few hours after the HSBC tournament had been won by Englishman Robert Rock, who beat the world’s best with a 13-under-par total of 275, and the course was still set up for the professionals. It was a rare opportunity to experience the challenges top golfers have to deal with on the tour. Rock, a newcomer to the elite listings, beat Rory McIlroy into second place and was two shots ahead of Tiger Woods. I watched him scrape home by one shot after taking a six at the final hole. After the speeches, he drove away in a buggy, happily clutching the Falcon Trophy, while in the background, Tiger, licking his wounds, took off towards the airport in his helicopter.

We were made to play off the tournament tees and it was strange to stand surrounded by all the paraphernalia of the tour and look through the heat haze past the advertising hoardings and the camera gantries to the distant green. The Indian professional Jeev Milkha Singh dismissed the 405-yard first as “a drive and a sand iron, so you’ve got a decent chance of a birdie”. Well, that’s great for Jeev, but they’d let the rough – thick Bermuda grass about eight inches high – encroach a long way, so the fairway was very narrow. Miguel Angel Jiménez said: “The biggest mistake on this course is to miss the fairway; you can’t get any control out of the rough.” Tiger struggled with it all the way round. So did I, as my partner and I hacked our way up towards the hole, where the fringe was no more than a couple of feet from the putting surface and you could be in heavy rough only six feet from the pin. There was a stiff breeze and little run on the fairways, because the grass had been cut with the nap lying against the direction of play. When we reached the third, a 439-yard, tight par four, curving left and beset by bunkers, we were having trouble reaching the fairway with our drivers. Lee Westwood, describing the ninth said: “It’s tough; you must hit a good drive, but there’s sneaky water up the left. It’s a long par four and, at 456 yards into the wind, your second can be a four‑iron onto the green.” Well, having scraped onto the fairway with a miraculous carry of over 220 yards, I hit a fairway metal, followed by a seven-iron and was still well short. The Italian Francesco Molinari, whom I had watched on the practice ground hitting iron shots down the range while buying champagne for his audience of two adoring girls, described the 554‑yard 10th as “a birdie chance”. Maybe, but the fairway has been reduced to a width of no more than 20 yards and there is a large heart-shaped bunker cut into the front of the green. Some of these guys can clout the ball well over 300 yards off the tee and then carry their second 200 yards and drop it softly onto the putting surface. You have to admire them for their skill, but they don’t play the same game as the rest of us.

The 18th at the Abu Dhabi, a narrow dog-leg par five (557 yards), twists sharply right. The trouble here is the water you must drive across and the heavily bunkered, narrow, domed green. In 2011, I watched German Martin Kaymer stroll up this hole with a seven‑shot lead. He played it with a fade off the tee, a beautiful long second and two putts. I did well for me – on in three, followed by the regulation three putts.

This year, Robert Rock finished with a final round of 70. He was playing a course set up to make it more than usually testing. Worse, he was competing in a three-ball with Tiger, followed by a big crowd taking pictures and shouting encouragement on his backswing. His gutsy performance bore only a faint resemblance to the game we aspire to, and he was being chased by men like Graeme McDowell, who holed in one on the 12th and followed it with three birdies. It’s hard to compare the dignified amateur game and the merciless version of golf played on the European Tour. They’re separate sports, really, but we can learn from the men who make their living competing for serious money in the profession.

In the evening, the ground staff came to return this lovely course to its normal, benign state. I had to leave before I could play it, but it’s probably a piece of cake.