All golfing eyes have been on the Gulf state Abu Dhabi as the world’s top players have been competing for the now familiar Falcon Trophy. As you watched triumphant Welshman Jamie Donaldson lift the silverware in the glorious sunshine many of you shivering at home may well be wondering whether the long trip to the Middle East for a week’s winter getaway might be a good idea.
Staging this competition in January as most of the Northern hemisphere is shivering has proved to be a shrewd marketing ploy. But is the long flight to the Middle East really worth it?
I visited Abu Dhabi to check out the golf in December just over a year ago, and from what I found then, a golfing trip is certainly worth the effort and the expense. When I was there the pace of development was dramatic, with construction projects everywhere. From what I hear, things have slowed a little due to the global economic climate, but the golf offer remains as good as it was during my visit.
Beyond the golf, Abu Dhabi as a whole is well worth a visit. You have to accept you are in a conservative, Muslim emirate, and that means bar and restaurant life is largely reserved to the hotels and they are not cheap. That said, it is a fascinating city and with so much development going on, it is simply breathtaking.
Abu Dhabi is a city on the move. The richest Emirate of all, thanks to its oil reserves, it is one of the wealthiest places on the entire planet. Yet with its black gold beginning to run out, it has been planning for a future without oil.
And it sure is a big plan…
It has looked over its shoulder at the construction disaster that has hit Dubai, just an hour’s drive through the desert along a bustling highway and has formulated an alternative, if not audacious future, based on cultural tourism.
The focal point for this new world is Saadiyat Island, a coastal strip, previously noted for nothing other than its turtles.
Paris has its Louvre, New York has the Guggenheim. Neither of them has both, but in the next few years Abu Dhabi will have, and much more…
The masterplan for Saadiyat Island, despite several delays due to the fragile world economy, is expected to see millions pumped into breathtaking projects designed by a clutch of the world’s most celebrated architects.
In the making are both of the world renowned art galleries already mentioned, but also the Zayed National Museum to honour the late H.H. Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, a stunning Performing Arts Centre and a colossal Maritime Museum.
Construction work on a campus for New York University is also underway.
The remainder of the island is being transformed with upscale business, leisure and residential developments which will make Saadiyat Island a world famous resort.
While this is the headline act for the Abu Dhabi of the future there is enough to do for those who enjoy the excitement of a major city and although lacking the buzz of Dubai, there is interest all around.
The Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the sixth largest mosque in the world is well worth a visit although you need to ensure to check the times when tourists are allowed in. A guided tour will teach you a great deal about this fascinating modern building and an introduction to the Muslim faith.
Abu Dhabi’s spectacular waterfront drive is known as the Corniche which stretches for miles. It has a walkway for the entire length and features go-cart riding, playgrounds and even stages for shows. In the evening it is the focal point of the city.
Saadiyat Island is not the only sandy strip to be transformed by development.
While the former is concentrating on culture, its near neighbour Yas Island has become the focal point for sport and leisure and the drive for international events ensures that there is something going on here almost continually. Kylie Minogue, Madonna, Eric Clapton, Prince, Linkin Park, Kayne West, Nelly Furtado, Gabrielle, Corinne Bailey Rae and Guns and Roses are among top names who have entertained crowds at the island’s du Arena as the island cements its place as a globally important entertainment hub.
The lavish leisure and entertainment destination already boasts the world’s largest indoor theme park – Ferrari World – and has a testing Formula One circuit, marina and yacht club, a world class golf course and several brand new hotels. There is more to come – another golf course is being planning, and a giant shopping mall and a water park are under construction.
The racetrack, which features the longest straight of any F1 circuit has already hosted several F1 events and it has an incredibly futurist feel. It is simply jaw dropping to witness it weaving around the marina and under the stunning Yas Hotel. You don’t have to be Sebastian Vettel to sample the thrills either. The Yas Racing School allows paying customers the chance to race Aston Martins or even a modified drag car and there are guided tours of the pits, team garages and race control.
Nearby, the curved red hulk of Ferrari World is home to 20 rides and attractions, including what is billed as the world’s fastest rollercoaster. The rides are designed to simulate some aspects of motor racing and to suit all levels of daring. There are rides for smaller children too.
The national airline Etihad has expanded its flights from the UK and is very serious in its challenge to Emirates as the Middle East airline of choice. It’s healthy competition; both are among the best airlines in the world and they both mean business.
The recently upgraded Abu Dhabi International Airport is a little confusing but it is not far from the city itself. Taxis are cheap and easy to find; though many drivers are irritatingly lacking in knowledge of destinations. On numerous occasions I found they didn’t know where they were going and I ended up in the front seat, map in hand, giving directions.
Abu Dhabi is built on a collection of islands now linked by an excellent road system. It’s a great destination for winter sunshine in December. Throughout my visit temperatures were a steady 20c in the sunshine, and although a little cool in the evening I was able to dine outside, occasionally with the need of a light sweater. Summertime is unbearably sweltering by all accounts.
Not unlike Dubai, shopping malls are a-plenty and it is safe to walk around day and night. There didn’t seem to be any bargains however.
Abu Dhabi used to be known for its quirky golf club, Al Ghazal, which has sand fairways and greens. A novelty no doubt, but not somewhere you would travel half the world to play on. Today, however, there are three Championship standard courses and a couple more in the pipeline. Between them Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Yas Links and Saadiyat Island Beach Club combine well with differing challenges to make a perfect week’s golfing break.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club
From its superbly appointed, recently renovated, clubhouse to its extensive practice facilities and 27-hole course, everything is top drawer.
The clubhouse, which dominates the scene from many holes is designed in the shape of a falcon with outstretched wings – a reference to falconry which remains the sport favoured by sheikhs, and the bird is a symbol of strength and goodness.
The course has three loops of nine with 1-18 known as The National, the favoured circuit. It is good enough to be ranked in the world’s top 100 courses by Golf World and last year was named the Best Course in the Middle East at the Asia Pacific Golf Summit.
It is soon apparent why this course stages the prestigious European Tour event in January. The pros face a challenge of 7,500 yards when they take on the HBSC Abu Dhabi Championship and often complain about the length of the rough, grown especially long just for them.
Mere club golfers face quite a challenge too. Playing from the greens tees you are faced with 6927 yards which sees reasonably long hitters facing well struck drives and a long iron at least on most of the par fours.
The course is renowned for its greenery amid the desert of Abu Dhabi. It features palms, ornamental trees and shrubs with seven saltwater lakes, which attract a host of birds.
Golfers are however likely to be more engrossed by the shortish, wiry semi rough, which grips the ball tightly requiring a very clean strike to send it on its way.
Bunkers are well placed to catch the errand shot, but the plentiful water hazards are more for show than being unduly penal.
Large greens are immaculate – fast but true, they do however require accurate reads.
Fairways are lush, pretty generous but when over seeded they do not allow for a great deal of run.
The 1st requires a drive away from the water and large bunkers running down the right and is one of the shortest par fours at 387 yards. But with this safely out of the way you are then faced with a monster par five of 582 yards. What appears to be a relatively easy third, a par 4 of just 362 yards, has a sting in its tail; the green slopes viciously from back to front requiring an accurate approach shot over a cavernous bunker guarding the putting surface.
A reasonably straightforward par 3 follows, placed in a far corner of the course. The fifth requires a drive over water but the carry is not too penal, to a wide fairway that turns to the right. A decent drive here gives big hitters a chance of reaching the green. The sixth returns parallel to the previous fairway and at 423 requires two good hits.
The 7th is probably the toughest par three requiring a well-flighted ball 190 yard to centre left of the large putting surface. The brave, or the foolish, will attempt to hit further right, but must take on a rocky shoreline and two deep bunkers.
Respite comes at the dogleg left 8th which requires three straight hits to reach the large green.
Players turn back to face the majestic clubhouse on the 9th where a straight drive is required to avoid the wiry rough and sand on either side of the generous fairway.
The 10th shows another side of this tricky course to best effect – bunkers purposefully designed to catch your ball off the tee. Careful club selection is required here from the tee and for your approach shot to the elevated green, guarded each side by treacherous bunkers.
The dogleg right 11th is a very pretty hole, the green is well framed by the background trees. A pulled approach shot though will find a large greenside bunker.
This is followed by a lovely par three 12th, with a lengthy carry over water to a large, sloping green. Two shortish par fours then test your accuracy from the tee – left pulls will find sandy wastes and looming bunkers. Relief comes at the relatively straight forward par 3 15th before the course returns with three fine finishing doglegs, where water and sand threaten. The 18th, which plays to a huge, sloping green in front of the clubhouse is a fitting finale to a great course.
You don’t feel the drama of Yas Links when you see it from the roadside. But once you drive up to the club house the first sense of what is to come unfolds as you spot the 10th tee and its gently undulating fairway.
It has taken a great deal of money, imagination and effort to produce this course on what was a most uninspiring stretch of barren desert coastline.
Wisely the owners looked to none other than Kyle Phillips, designer of the high-rated Kingsbarns Links, to create a course that has quickly been labelled among the best in the Middle East.
A true links course it features verdant undulating fairways, deep bunkers and firm, rolling greens. Sand dunes have been created and planted with native grasses to catch off-line shots. It is everything we Brits expect from a links – except for the weather and often the lack of buffeting wind.
There are five sets of tees to make it a fair challenge for all levels of golfers but do not expect an easy ride if you are not on your game. Three-putting is almost taken for granted at least early on as you get accustomed to the speedy gradients, and you must be straight off the tee. Even if you manage, as I did, to record a good score from the start you must be prepared for a three-hole finale which is taxing and hair raising. It is as if the designer wanted us to go home with the memory of a wrecked card.
Eight holes run alongside the Arabian Gulf offering excellent views.
The first offers an easy introduction for what is to come. A decent drive will leave you with a short iron to the green, but take care not to roll into the inviting bunker front right of the pin.
Climbing on to second tee you catch the first glimpse of the domed roof of Ferrari World, which seems to be hiding over the horizon like a hull of a Martian space invader. Another threat appears ahead as you peer down the long fairway which runs like a valley among the dunes. Bunkers…lots of them… and with the fairway sloping in all directions it is difficult to picture where to attempt to land your tee shot.
Number three is the first of the eight holes running by the side of the Gulf and brings water into play for the first time. A slight dogleg, the fairway follows the coastal contours and care is required for the approach shot. Another three putt beckons here unless you are very careful.
The first par three is the typically links-style 4th which features hidden bunkers, a blind approach over dunes and a huge green. Five is relatively straight forward but don’t be big with the approach shot. Anything long risks running out of dry land and into the Gulf behind the green. The sixth turns away from the sea giving an uphill fairway that requires two strong shots. Even if you reach the green you are likely to be faced with a long and treacherous putt.
An outstanding hole follows, a long par five which needs some canny approach play using the excellent, extremely detailed Yas Link Strokesaver for advice.
Next comes one of the most photogenic par threes, which has water running all the way down the right. There is a temptation to nip a bit off the corner here, but it is a dangerous shot. Wise players favour the left hand side of the green and hope that the ball feeds in towards the hole.
The final hole on the front nine is a beauty. The back tees require a drive over the water’s edge onto another undulating fairway. A long second shot will be required and danger lurks in the shape of the Gulf, yet again, lapping close to the right hand side of the green. A par here should be celebrated in style.
The back nine starts with a pleasant and not too difficult downhill par four. Make the most of your chances, though, because things are about to get difficult. You will need a few good hits on the next – a 560 yarder down a narrow-ish valley. The 12th too requires two good shots to reach a large elevated green – shared by the 12th and 15th pins.
There follows a gloriously scenic par 3 by the water’s edge, yet it is fairly short so have no fear! 14 and 15 should not present too many problems if good drives are despatched down the middle.
It may be time to make use of the rest room facilities by the 16th tee before embarking on the final three holes which provide a rigorous examination of players all abilities.
A good drive down the fabulous 16th is absolutely essential to give you an opportunity of going for the green. Even then a daunting second shot awaits. It is a long iron to the green which juts out into the sea. It is tempting to play to the right of the putting surface, yet this approach is guarded by large grassy sand dunes.
The 17th, a long par three, is even more daunting. The tee shot has to carry a coastal inlet and avoid a series of large bunkers surrounding the putting surface. A par here will feel like a birdie.
The finale is a huge par five which presents the player with a number of options. The entire length of the fairway hugs the shore and the temptation to shave length off the dogleg left will see many a drive find a watery grave. A careful reading of the Strokesaver is essential to safely negotiate this breathtaking finishing hole. A true contender for any golfers “must play before I die” wish list.
Saadiyat Beach Golf Club
A first impression is that it seems a shame that so much development is going on around this course which has been built next to a beautiful beach in what was the middle of nowhere. Yet when you get to understand what is going on here on Saadiyat Island, all becomes apparent.
This course, and another currently being built on the other side of the sandy stretch that makes up Saadiyat Island is going to be a major draw and is certain to become internationally renowned not just for its quality but for the celebrity A list visitors who are certain to enjoy themselves here. A good deal of thought has been put into conservation, protecting among other things the Hawksbill turtles which lay eggs in the nearby dunes.
The course is part of an overall masterplan that will see Saadiyat Island emerge as a one, if not the best, cultural, business and leisure hubs in the Middle East.
It was designed by Gary Player and has the kind of scenic beauty that is hard to imagine.
In my mind the course is a little easier to negotiate than Yas Links and Abu Dhabi Golf Club but there are some killer holes.
The 1st gives players a gentle introduction. A straight drive leaves a mid iron to a large, but sloping green. The 2nd, a par five, gives an early opportunity to open the shoulders, but careful thought is required with the second shot which offers two fairways to aim at, left and right of a huge stretch of sand. The 3rd is a straight-forward par three where the biggest problem is the green which slopes sharply. The next is relatively unmemorable but leads to the 5th, which one of the best looking holes on the course. It is worth admiring the view before you tee off because the pleasure it gives you can be quickly ruined by the difficulty of the hole which dog legs left slightly downhill towards the beach. The 6th is a par 3 playing along the beach. A duff off the tee will see you playing a recovery from ankle deep sand!
A long, uphill par 4 comes next, requiring two good shots to reach the green.
The 8th is accurately named Right is Wrong, for that’s where the trouble lies.
Two conservative shots favouring the left are what are required on this shortish par 4.
A short climb takes golfers to the 9th tee offering spectacular views. It’s a long par five with lots of bunkers, sand dunes and undulating fairways to negotiate. A very pretty hole, much photographed.
The back nine starts with a perplexing hole – a short par four which is almost driveable if you are prepared to take the risk of avoiding the sand which runs along the full length of the left hand side, cutting into the fairway strategically around the common landing place. There is also a series of pot bunkers guarding the well-contoured green. Think carefully on the tee before you make your decision…
Another good view from the tee is enjoyed from the 11th, a relatively straight forward par five. The main danger from the tee is the large bunker encroaching from the right.
The 12th is a long par three which tests your ability in club selection. Over estimating the club required may prevent you pulling the ball into a cavernous trap to the right of the green.
Next comes another hole that taxes the brain on the tee. A short, slight dogleg left, the golfer seems faced with sand and yet more sand as he wondered where to attempt to land the ball. A tee shot to the right angle of the dogleg is ideal, but you will need an accurate measurement to avoid the dunes.
A large fairway on the 14th is your respite after the previous hole but again the green is extremely well guarded by large expanses of sand.
The 15th again requires a lot of thought. It’s a par five with reachable water down the left from the tee. Sensible players will lay up their second shot rather than attempting to clear the same lake which meanders across the line of play. This is a really good, tough hole.
At least as scenic as the 4th is the majestic 16th which as well as being attractive is very tricky. A U shaped downhill fairway aids a long straight drive, but anything off line particularly to the right will find a bunker. The right in fact really isn’t the place to be for once in the enormous waste area, you may well stay there for several more shots. A good drive down the middle will put you in range for a shot to the green which projects out onto the beach. It is not easy though and in any circumstances a par 4 here is a bonus.
Also on the beach is the short par 3 17th but club selection is vital here. Either short or long will find the traps guarding the green and left and right finds the beach or the dunes.
A very pleasant finale completes the round. The fairway curves to the right around a dogleg, hugging a large lake. The dogleg and large sandy waste areas to the left make it tempting to aim long over the water, but it is a risky strategy. Success however will leave you with a short iron to the very large rolling green.
It doesn’t have a sea view but the Shangri la Hotel makes up for its rather backwater location with great charm and oodles of class. The hotel fronts onto a strait that separates Abu Dhabi island from the mainland, and it has five well maintained beaches. They are man-made, but very natural in feel. Over the water is the captivating sight of the Grand Mosque which looks majestic both day and night when it is illuminated. The hotel itself is beautifully designed in modern Arabic style and the public rooms are well appointed. The bedrooms are spacious, feature large bathrooms, are very well designed and have all the features you would expect. Service throughout during my visit was very attentive giving the impression that training is well conducted by a management well versed in the requirements of five star service. The restaurants are diverse in terms of culinary taste – Chinese, Vietnamese, Continental and French. Buffet breakfast is extensive and first class. The award winning classic French Bord Eau restaurant is extraordinarily good and is well worth a visit. Its French chef has fresh products flown in twice a week from his homeland bringing authenticity and quality.
If you are staying on Yas Island you simply must book a room at the amazing Yas Hotel. Its striking architecture and internal design make a compelling statement of contemporary chic. The hotel’s appearance is hard to put into words. Its two blocks are wrapped in a glass and metal shroud which is illuminated at night, the colour of the lighting changing from blue through to pink making it an iconic landmark for miles around. Its location is also very special. Sited on the swish Yas Marina, the hotel straddles the F1 circuit, home of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It is also adjacent to the du Arena and very close to Ferrari World theme park and the Yas Links. Public rooms do not disappoint. A contemporary colourful minimalism pervades. The bedrooms are large and stylish in keeping with the rest of the hotel’s modernist statement. Yet the hotel does have its quirks. In true style-over-functionality it is virtually impossible to get to grips with the bedroom lighting, controlled by the TV zapper, and you need to be strong and inventive to open and close the sliding door leading to the balcony. A stay here will certainly impress your friends and you will end up with some great photographs.
Palace by name and palace in reality. This hotel was designed as a home for royalty, but became a hotel instead. Run by Kempinski Hotels, it has become one of the world’s most desirable destinations and it is certainly worth saving up to stay here. It cost £2billion to build it in 2005 and it is easy to see where the money was spent. The hotel is absolutely huge, and guests welcome the map handed out at check-in to help them navigate the labyrinthine corridors. The public rooms are absolutely enormous and no expense has been spared to impress the wealthiest of guests. Opulent gold leaf, crystal chandeliers and marble is everywhere and even the staff uniforms are amazing. Service is impeccable, the bedrooms are very smart and guests have the service of their own butler. Outside, there is a private beach stretching 1.3 kilometres along the Gulf and there are two enormous swimming pools. The hotel’s beach frontage is so long guests are invited to make use of a golf buggy shuttle service or use a bike to get from the East to West wings. I have never seen a vending machine dispensing gold bars before, but they have one at the Emirates Palace. Astonishing.