Is there a future for sand golf in the UAE?

Sand golf has played a key role in the UAE community but is now losing ground. We tee off with the ‘sandies’ to find out why.

Padraig Harrington of Ireland plays his third shot to the par-five 17th hole at the Abu Dhabi World Sand Golf Championship at the Al Ghazal Golf Club, in 2004. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
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The world’s top golfers are in town this weekend for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Dustin Johnson are just a few of the names duelling over the Falcon Trophy at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Meanwhile, only a couple of kilometres away, a dedicated band of golfers will be teeing off on a very different type of course. The club is Al Ghazal and the course is sand.

In his book, The Abu Dhabi Sand Golf Years, Dennis Cox refers to the sport as "the forgotten golf". Cox, an American who lived in the UAE until 2011, was a dedicated sand golfer or "sandie". He also wrote that the day may come when "sand golf will no longer be available in the capital".

When Abu Dhabi City Golf Club did convert to grass in 1997, a few disconsolate members went on to establish Al Ghazal Golf Club, an 18-hole course near Abu Dhabi International Airport that has to accommodate an archaeological site. A challenging course, it hosted the World Sand Golf Championship in 2004 and 2005, attracting players such as Miguel Angel Jimenez.

When I meet Rory Young, Al Ghazal golf professional and operations manager, I find him in a more optimistic mood than Cox. The club is owned and supported by the expanding airport. But any talk of closure has been put aside, for now. “There is a guarantee we will be here for at least six to seven years,” he says. Club membership currently stands at about 100.

Young says there is no substantial disadvantage to learning to play golf on sand. But there are some key differences: the greens are “browns”, slicked down with an oil and sand composite; a small piece of artificial turf is carried around to hit the ball from; a broom must be used on the browns to remove footprints and the ball does not roll along the fairway like it does on grass.

Another point is the eco-friendly aspect – sand courses do not require the millions of litres of water needed to maintain grass courses. Oil and sand is used to make the browns – but a membrane prevents oil leeching into the soil, and Al Ghazal now uses vegetable oil for the browns. Playing on sand is also considerably cheaper, with some courses offering 18-holes for just Dh100. Clubs have Emirates Golf Federation membership (the governing body for golf in the UAE) and you can get an official handicap.

The history of sand golf in the UAE begins with the early oil exploration camps in the 1950s. These pioneers established Abu Dhabi’s first official golf club on the atoll of Das Island in 1961. This was about a year before the first shipments of oil departed from the Das terminal to world markets. Das Island is situated about 180 kilometres into the Arabian Gulf and has remained a vital part of the country’s oil infrastructure.

The Das Island Golf Society course, incredibly, weaved its way around oil facilities, an airfield and storage tanks. In one picture, three golfers can be seen teeing off, while controlled fires burn in the background. By the ’70s and ’80s, sand golf had moved off Das. Tarif, Jebel Dhanna and Ruwais had courses while another existed on the site of the current grass course at Abu Dhabi City Golf Club. But the rapid development of the country brought world-class green courses such as Yas Links and Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. There are now only four public sand golf courses in the UAE: Al Ghazal Golf Club; Sharjah Wanderers; Al Dhafra Golf Club; and Al Ain Sand Golf Club.

“Google golf in Abu Dhabi and we come up. We are part of that conversation,” says Young. But he concedes that the long-term future is tough. Al Ghazal is also home to Saracens Rugby Club and it has expanded to offer archery, tennis and a junior sports academy. There has been sporadic talk of greening the course; and Young admits frustration with the lack of coverage the game receives here. “We are kind of overlooked by the golfing community in Abu Dhabi as a quirk and I would challenge anyone to come and try to beat their [grass golf] handicap here,” he says. “It’s not just a giant bunker – it’s a legitimate golf course.”

This frustration abounds among the sand golf community – in the clubhouses, along the fairways and on the browns. This is particularly the case for clubs such as Sharjah Wanderers and Al Dhafra. These clubs are run by volunteers, rely on local companies or individuals for sponsorship and function as community centres.

“It doesn’t get enough press at all, because it’s seen as the poor relation, which is a shame,” says Damian Murphy, club captain of Sharjah Wanderers, who started playing sand golf on Das Island in the 1980s. He explains the appeal of sand golf thus: “It’s about heritage. It’s addictive, it’s great fun. I understand the purists saying: ‘Why do you want to play on sand?’ but it is a different game – there is an art to it.”

Murphy says he would be keen to work with tourism authorities to boost the sport’s profile.

Sharjah Wanderers was founded in 1979 among rolling sand dunes close to Sharjah International Airport. Murphy says the game is under pressure and he is trying to boost the profile of the club, to seek out more sponsors and to revive the flagging membership. “Over the past few years there has definitely been a decline. Attracting younger players is difficult and it is a shame because somebody needs to carry on the legacy.”

About 250km west of Abu Dhabi is the Al Dhafra Golf Club. If any club speaks to the uncertain future facing the sport, it’s Al Dhafra. The course opened in 1988 in Ruwais beside the Al Dhafra Beach Hotel on a former wasteland site overlooking the Arabian Gulf.

Will Jones, a Welshman who worked for Gasco at the time, was one of the club’s founding members. “Life was exciting and the challenge to make the club work was great,” he says. “The centre of recreation for the Ruwais expatriate community was the then Dhafra Ramada Hotel [Dhafra Beach Hotel] and the add-on of a golf course was something else. Many beginners became avid golfers and still are.”

Today, the nine-hole course is, remarkably, the only public golf club in Al Gharbia, Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. It is still run entirely by volunteers. Inside the clubhouse are sepia-tinted pictures of sand golfers; old putters and irons hang from the walls; and historic trophies in the shape of oil barrels and forts are carefully mounted on shelves.

But Al Dhafra is not a museum. “It serves the community,” says Geert Saman, the Belgian club captain. “Ruwais is such a remote area. The only thing here is the hotel and the golf club and that’s why we opened the club to non-members. It’s like a big family. We spend so much time on this course and none of us are earning a single dirham, which makes what the club is today.”

But the club does not own the land it sits on. A few years ago, a security fence built by the Critical Infrastructure and Coastal Protection Authority to protect an oil refinery took away four of the club’s holes. The volunteers managed to extend back and maintain the nine holes but now there are plans for a significant extension of the fence, which would effectively mean the end of golf at the current location.

Saman says they are talking to Abu Dhabi Municipality and three other locations are being considered. But most probable is that the club will move and, if this happens, the future of a sand course is in doubt.

“We do not have the investment to build a new course. It would have to go to an investor and then it becomes commercial.”

He concedes the future for sand golf is not good, and playing numbers are declining. “People ask: why don’t you convert and grow grass? But you have to seed grass and water it and we don’t have the facilities. My answer is heritage.”

Current membership at the club is about 100. He points to the fact Al Dhafra had as many as 15 Korean players one season but they switched to making a day trip to the new grass course at Al Ain. Club president, Emirati Asaad Al Muharrami, also believes a grass course is the most likely option if the club has to move to a new location. But for now, the Al Dhafra volunteers are fighting to keep the only public golf course in Al Gharbia open.

Despite the efforts of everyone involved in sand golf, the game is facing a crisis. Almost everyone I spoke to reluctantly admitted this – from the lack of coverage to getting new players to join. But the community is not giving up – a tri-sand tournament between the three main clubs in the UAE will take place later this year, while there are also links with a sand course in Bahrain.

According to Cox, there were at least eight sand courses in the region during the game’s heyday, from Oman to the UAE to Bahrain. It was also popular in parts of Africa. But since then, sand golf has been on a downward spiral. In Dubai, the closure of the Dubai Country Club in 2007 brought the curtain down on sand golf in the emirate. Some courses may still exist at oil and gas facilities and it is thought a sand course still operates on Das Island. But these courses are not open to the public.

Of the four official clubs operating in the UAE, only three are functioning as regular clubs, with Al Ain Golf Club now effectively a social club for a dwindling number of enthusiasts.

“These types of golf courses don’t capture the marketing imagination of today’s UAE golf industry,” writes Cox, of sand golf. “The sports media focus is mainly on grass golf. Golf history, tradition and how golf began does not attract golf tourist revenue.”

Back at Al Ghazal, Young believes the growth of golf in the country inevitably means more courses. Therefore, a combination of the two would work best. The sand courses could be incorporated into a grass course thus securing the future of the game.

“If you play on one course or one grass, it makes you a one-dimensional player,” he says. “Sand golf has to be taken seriously. It’s not a Mickey Mouse game. It’s something every golfer in the UAE needs to experience.”

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.