Golf in the Gulf

Transforming the world's largest sand trap into the world's greatest fairway is not easy but the rewards are high.

Golf course design is booming in the GCC
Golf course design is booming in the GCC

Transforming the world's largest sand trap into the world's greatest fairways is by no means easy, but for the designer that gets it right, the rewards are high, says James Boley.

Golf course design is a particularly unique form of outdoor design - a game as much as a commercial endeavour, it requires above and beyond design skills, passion, commitment and a real understanding of what makes for a good game of golf.

For the golf course designer, the Gulf is rich with opportunities. With the golfing industry growing almost as fast as the construction industry, the most exciting golf course developments are all happening in the GCC.


A great golf course is like a piece of music - you have a gentle start, it's quite complex in the middle, has a nice feel to it three quarters of the way through, and then finishes with a crescendo.

And not surprisingly they are attracting the top name designers, with Greg Norman, Tiger Woods, and Pete Dye all putting their stamp on the region in recent months.

Desert golf

Despite the growing popularity in the region for the sport, however, it's a widely held belief that the desert is ill suited for a game characterised by rolling green hills and a background of trees. But this simply isn't true, say specialist designers.

Sand is an exceptionally easy medium for shaping a golf course, says Mark Voss, senior project architect, Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects, which worked on the Al Badia golf course at the Four Seasons Golf Club in Dubai. "It's like shaping butter, rather than shaping rock," he opines.

The sandy terrain lends itself well to the development of golf courses, say experts, and is free from the restrictions of land in other areas, and with little hindrance in the way of trees, shrubs and grasses.

"It's a blank canvas. Because it's largely quite a sterile environment, you're not being troubled by invasive weeds coming in and growing in among the fairways and making them unsightly," notes Robin Hiseman, architect at European Golf Design, which designed Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.

The natural sandscape actually lends itself to the creation of stunning golf courses, add designers.

"The topography of this region, particularly in the area where you have the larger dunes, is spectacular. You don't really have to manipulate the shape of the land at all," says Iwan Baxter Hughes, group projects director at contracting firm Septech Emirates, which worked on the construction of The Els Club golf course at Dubai Sports City.

Climate challenges

There are, of course, some challenges with shaping a golf course in the desert. The most obvious one being the heat. With temperatures reaching over 45°C in summer months, keeping golf courses green is a big investment.

One of the most important considerations is the type of turf used. "First and foremost, you need to select a grass which is heat tolerant. It's also got to be drought resistant and salt tolerant," says Hiseman. Designers recommend the tough Paspalum grasses as one of the best suited for the region. Bermuda grass is another popular option.

In a region that receives on average less than eight millimetres of natural rain a month, irrigation is also important. The 18-hole golf course at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club, for example, requires an average of 1.5 million gallons of water a day in summer.

Treated sewage effluent water is typically used to irrigate golf courses and is seen as the most sustainable option.

Experts also advise golf course owners to have water storage on site in case the irrigation system breaks down. Water can be stored in tanks, but a more decorative solution is to use lakes as emergency reservoirs.

It's an obvious point, but limiting the amount of turf on a course also helps to cut water wastage. Although the idea of reducing the amount of turf might seem to run contrary to idea of a green golf course, some experts point out that traditional courses actually have limited turf. Links courses, the oldest type of course, feature sand dunes, with limited water features and trees - arguably perfect for transplanting to the Middle East.

Golf by night

Another climate-related challenge that designers have to contend with is usage of the course in the summer. A typical 18-hole course takes around five hours to complete, which would put even the most hardened golfers to the test during the hotter months.

For investors, a half-used golf course represents a poor investment, so despite the climate conditions designers have to find ways to make golf courses usable for as long as possible.

One way in which this can be done, say designers, is by using floodlighting to encourage golfers to use the course at night when temperatures are cooler. "[Night lighting] is a very practical measure in the Middle East because it's simply too hot in the middle of the day," says Hiseman.

The love of golf

One of the most interesting debates on golf course design is whether or not a golf course designer needs to be an actual player of golf. Many of the world's leading golf course designers are also world-class golfers, but does a great player necessarily make a great designer? Peter Harradine, principal and senior architect at Harradine Golf, opines that it is crucial that a golf course designer understands and appreciates the game.

"I think you cannot be a golf course architect unless you play golf," he comments. "I'm not talking about an excellent pro-golfer, but a golfer [with a handicap] of at least under 15 otherwise you don't know the strategy and the dangers. How can you design something that you've never played?"

Some contest, though, that being a star player could be a hindrance to designing a multi-user friendly course. It is important, says Hiseman, to keep in mind the less able or learner golfer. "If you are very good, it's hard to see it from the viewpoint of those who aren't. A good golf course designer has to be sympathetic to the lesser golfer who makes up the great majority of golfers," he argues.

Inevitably, most golf course designers are golfers and one thing they share is a big passion for the game. A great golf course should be beautiful but also challenging, says Hiseman.

"[Making] a golf hole look harder than it actually is, is always quite a good thing," he says. "People enjoy hitting good golf shots and if you can design a golf course in such a way that it rewards good golf shots, you're going to make them smile."

One way in which designers can keep the golfer on their toes is by building in slopes into the greens and fairways, which can be used by tactical golfers to feed the ball towards the hole.

Case study

Designed by Robert Trent Jones II Golf Course Architects, the 18-hole Al Badia golf course at the Four Seasons Golf Club in Dubai opened under the Four Seasons brand in January last year. Mark Voss, senior project architect, talks through the project with Commercial Outdoor Design.

"On a new golf course site, you have an existing site condition which can create either positive opportunities or things you have to work around. On that particular site, there wasn't a lot to work with. It was all sand and it was a fairly constant gentle gradient. It was a true creation from scratch."

"Dubai is a worldwide destination city, so [we felt] the golf course should speak a bit to that location, because if someone is going to travel somewhere they like to feel it offers something different to where they came from. [The designer] can do that through the landscaping - using the plants and the gravels and sands."

"We used the colours of the sand that were found there naturally, some gravel and rock, those muted browns and greys that fit that setting and that are incorporated in that landscape, so you realise that you're not in the tropics of somewhere else.

The plant material was chosen so that it would be acclimated to living in a very dry, warm condition. You go through very beautifully landscaped areas and then you transition into more subdued areas where there is more sand, more gravel, and [these elements] played off one another."

Golf and real estate

With so many golf courses under development in the region, one of the main challenges for golf course designers is making their course stand out. How do you make your course become the destination course, the must-visit, must-play location?

One way is to give it an identity, such as the Jumeriah Golf Estates, which has differentiated itself through its Earth, Wind, Fire and Water set of courses. Associating the course with a star golfer such as The Tiger Woods course in Dubai is another way to set a course apart.

Like the Jumeriah Golf Estates, many of the courses under development are closely linked to real estate. In the desert, acres of greenery are a draw for property buyers helping the investor to recoup some of the value of building the golf course.

But not all designers are convinced that combining real estate and golf is a good idea. Critics argue that they limit the potential of the course, and place restrictions in terms of buffer zones. "The best golf courses are standalone golf courses where the golfer can really enjoy himself," says Harradine

Whatever the reasons for developing a course, there is little to match the praise a golf course designer gets when they get it right. As David Spencer, CEO of Leisure Corp, the owner of the Jumeirah Golf Estates, comments: "A great golf course is like a piece of music - you have a gentle start, it's quite complex in the middle, has a nice feel to it three quarters of the way through, and then finishes with a crescendo."

And far from taxing creativity, the high number of new courses in the region seems only to be spurring on designers more. The Middle East climate may not be the most obvious place for a golf course phenomenon, but that's certainly not stopping one happening.

Golf courses under construction


Jumeirah Golf Estates -Greg Norman, Pete Dye, Sergio Garcia, Vijay Singh

Al Ruwaya

Tiger Woods

Abu Dhabi

Saadiyat Beach Golf Club

Gary Player

Yas Island

Kyle Phillips


Riffa Views

Colin Montgomerie/EGD

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