1. Race to Oman

Race to Oman

Muscat may well be the most underrated long-weekend golfing destination for Indians

By: | Published: November 22, 2015 12:35 AM

Three hours flying time; three quality golf courses to tee it up at; perfect for a three-day sojourn: as far as hit-and-run international golf vacations from India go, Muscat makes a fairly compelling proposition. Heck, you could even fit it all in a weekend if you don’t mind playing 36 holes in one day.

But it would be disingenuous of me to say that I planned a golf vacation to Muscat lured by the golfing pedigree of Oman’s capital city. Au contraire, I had no idea that the game had made inroads into the Middle-Eastern kingdom until the European Challenge Tour first scheduled its season-ender at the Almouj Golf Club in Muscat in 2013.

You probably didn’t hear about the National Bank of Oman (NBO) Golf Classic Grand Final that took place a fortnight back: admittedly, the season-ending tournament on the second-rung circuit of the European Tour did not generate the same kind of buzz that, say, the CIMB Classic—a PGA Tour event in Malaysia—did this month. But, if you don’t know much about golf in Oman, and have been invited to play in Muscat, then that’s precisely the sort of validation that you need.

Still, nothing can really prepare you for the links-style lushness at the Almouj GC that meanders along the coastline of the Arabian Sea. You go in expecting to see camels plodding across a desert landscape, loaded with frankincense and dates, and get instead a world-class championship layout with greens so slick that you could skate on them. The NBO Classic Grand Final represents the raison d’être of the European Challenge Tour, at least from the player’s perspective: the top 15 players in the ‘Road to Oman’ rankings get playing rights on the European Tour.

Our motley group of golf hacks arrived just in time to catch the final groups teeing off on Sunday. The day’s action was a fairly riveting affair—with six players tied for the lead—belying the thin galleries. The players, chastised by a torrid Saturday, which saw gale force winds drive scoring averages well over par, were aggressive to say the least: from the sidelines, ‘The Wave’—the championship layout at Almouj Golf—seemed like a fairly easy course to play.

With the lead flitting about faster than a gnat on steroids, the Portuguese player, Ricardo Gouveia, pushed the envelope on the back nine, dropping five birdies in a row to set the bar at 13-under-par, which, at the end of the day, was too much for the rest of the chasing group. It was a fitting finale for Gouveia’s season in which the 24-year-old had already claimed 11 top-10 finishes.

Whether the Greg Norman-design layout felt defiled by that final-day barrage is a moot point. What isn’t, though, is that the hapless golf hacks who took to The Wave’s fairways the day after the culmination of the tournament, bore the full brunt of a snubbed golf course’s fury.

The anguish of realising that your golf swing (fickle and truant as ever) has abruptly decided to desert you is unmatched and one that most of us who play, nay, work at the game know only too well.

But add the further ignominy of that happening just as you tee it up at a beautiful championship course overseas (which you are paying top dollar to play) and the feeling evolves from anguish to utter despair.  At that point, your playing partner may run the gauntlet to say, “Forget the game mate, look around you… this place is stunning!” And just before smiting him down with a hard stare, you shoot a quick glance around you and stop, transfixed in your tracks. The man is right.

Of the three nines at Almouj, the back nine of The Wave is unquestionably the most picturesque golfing track in the Sultanate. Teal waters lap the edges of the fairways and a much needed sea breeze negates daytime temperatures.

And crucially, since the drink is on the left, perennial slicers like your columnist usually end up missing on the safe side. The Wave can be brutal from the tips—water, wind and cruelly-placed bunkers dominate the landing areas. I’d highly recommend the blues irrespective of playing ability—on a course as pretty as this, it’s a bit of a trap to get too focused on the golf. Course conditioning is top-notch and there’s a host of restaurants and even a bar (you can’t take that for granted in Oman!). If you can play only one course in Oman, then Almouj Golf is a no-brainer.

The Ghala Valley GC, the oldest in town, also has a charm all its own: with fairways running through rocky outcrops, plenty of blind shots and a charming clubhouse, Ghala GC is the perfect golf vacation course—not too long, decent conditioning and ample opportunities for scoring.

The Muscat Hills GC completes the trio. This realty-driven project is a modern layout, which can be a bit intimidating on account of the proximity of residential villas to the fairways. A luxury hotel is being built and it promises to be a fine addition to Muscat’s golfing firmament.

Buggies are available at all three courses in Muscat, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find caddies. For a relatively strong currency—one Omani Rial is approximately R170—the country doesn’t feel exceptionally expensive. Green fee at the Almouj is 31 Rial, which can come down significantly if you’re shameless enough to wait it out till you spot an Indian member—of which there are plenty—at the clubhouse and sign in as his guest. For luxury fiends, the gorgeous Shangri La is the most decadent pad in town followed closely by the spectacular Al Bustan Palace on the coast and The Chedi in the town centre.

Summer months are out the question and October to May is really the only window to play golf in Oman. That said, the best time, really, is when your swing is feeling good. I, for one, care less about the weather than about how I’m swinging the club. I’ll take a good ball-striking round played on a hot humid day anytime. Way better than a morale-crunching mirthless game on the most beautiful spring afternoon.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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