Like that Steady Eddy in your regular weekend four-ball whom you’d rather not bet against, Abu Dhabi makes its case patiently. The capital emirate of the UAE has just three major golf courses, but all three are championship layouts; the nightlife isn’t frenetic, but it’s surprisingly good; and there’s enough culture, entertainment and adventure to fill out a long weekend. Abu Dhabi doesn’t bomb its drives; it just kind of putts along, winding along a translucent green sea, compiling a bogey-free card that puts it high on the leaderboard among golf destinations in the region. You go in expecting some kind of suburban Dubai, where the desert is still visible, the smell of frankincense wafting in the air and the sound of hooves still lingering like a historical footnote. What you get, instead, is an ultra-modern port, littered with supercars, and fantastic golf courses draped in foliage lush enough to fool you into thinking you’re playing in the tropics.
To be fair, Abu Dhabi isn’t in the middle of the desert; rather, it’s a small island in the Persian Gulf, a stone’s throw from the mainland. Most of the city lies on the island, with extensions on the adjoining Saadiyat Island. Lolling about in a marble seafront pool at the Shangri-La, staring across the Abu Dhabi creek at the magnificently lit-up Grand Mosque, it’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago, the city was an unremarkable fishing village hemmed in by the sea and the desert. The epochal moment of change came, of course, when prospectors struck gold — the sixth-largest reserves of oil in the world—in the late 1950s. And, among the many modern wonders to have come up since then, is Yas Island, a manmade island that has been fashioned into an adventure-leisure-entertainment hub. The island’s attractions are many, but, for golf lovers, the pick would have to be the spectacular Yas Links golf course.
With as many as eight holes running right along the western coastline of Yas Island, this genuine links layout is as picturesque a seaside layout as you’d encounter anywhere in the world. The authenticity is not coincidental: the course was designed by Kyle Philips, the man behind the Kingsbarns Golf Links, in Scotland. Not surprisingly, Yas Links has been rated the best golf course in the Middle East, by Golf Course Architecture magazine, and was previously rated among the ‘top 10 new international courses’, by Golf Magazine. The sea breeze is a factor around the course, but it mercifully blows in from the right on most holes, handing a second chance to hapless amateurs who would otherwise slice into the ocean. Still, accuracy is at a premium and wayward shots either land in the drink, or in the fairly thick stuff. Meandering around an inlet in the coastline, the signature Par-3 17th hole requires a daunting 200-yard carry-over water and some very unforgiving pot bunkers. Unless you’re a single handicapper, challenging this course from the tips can be pretty sadistic and the white tees are a much more fun option. If you can only play one course in Abu Dhabi, it should be this one.
The host of multiple European Tour events, the Abu Dhabi Golf Club is the emirate’s best-known course, and, consequently, the busiest. Think of a first-rate parkland course with few trees, generous dollops of sand (there are no less than 90 bunkers), and water hazards—water comes into play on as many as 12 holes — and you get the picture. Most of the holes on this course play left to right, making it easier for players who like to fade the ball. For those looking for less of a challenge (and more enjoyment) than what the championship layout poses, there’s the option of teeing it up at a shorter nine. The Westin Hotel sits at the heart of the course and is the preferred lodging for itinerant golfers looking to get more than one round at the course.
The third and possibly the most spectacular of the three is the Gary Player-design Saadiyat Beach GC. Overlooking the St Regis Hotel, this was the first ‘ocean’ course to be laid out along the shores of the Arabian Gulf. Saadiyat is definitely the most picturesque golfing track in Abu Dhabi, with over a third of the course boasting views out over the coastline, and it is home to an assortment of wildlife, including a herd of impalas. You can even expect to see hawksbill turtles and the odd dolphin off the Par-3 17th hole. Three salt-water lakes and restored beach and sand dunes double up as on-course hazards. For golf vacationers, St Regis and Saadiyat Beach GC combination is hard to beat.
The weekend in Abu Dhabi is Friday-Saturday and it’s pretty tough to get a weekend spot unless you book in advance. And this also applies to hotel guests at the Westin and St Regis — don’t expect to get a tee time from Thursday—Saturday unless you specified it while booking your room. Monday to Wednesday is usually the lean period, and you can get a walk-in spot. Carts at all three courses are GPS-equipped, and it is possible to play without a caddy if you’re relatively straight off the tee. Summer in the emirate isn’t exactly tepid: from the end of May to August, Abu Dhabi is best left to those who live and make handsome tax-free salaries in the kingdom. As a visitor, you’ll find the emirate most amiable between November to April. But, for golfers, the best time, really, is when your swing is feeling good. I’ll take a good ball-striking round, played on a hot humid scorcher, anytime…Way better than a morale-crunching, mirthless game on a beautiful spring day.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game