Night golf takes hold in the UAE

Feature It may seem strange, even a little spooky, but night golf is catching on. Playing after sundown has its advantages - it's cooler and it allows people to play after work - and with six UAE courses now offering tee times after dark, Brad Reagan drives off into the twilight zone.

It may seem strange, even a little spooky, but night golf is catching on. Playing after sundown has its advantages - it's cooler and it allows people to play after work - and with six UAE courses now offering tee times after dark, Brad Reagan drives off into the twilight zone. Photographs by Clint McLean. A night spent on the links is a disruption of life's natural order, like eating ice cream for breakfast or bowling alone. Golf is a game designed to be played in the sun and the wind and even the rain, at times, but not the dark. At least that is what I used to believe. Before I came to Abu Dhabi, the only other place where I had managed a few nocturnal rounds was in Las Vegas, a city where night and day are classifications that lose their meanings for a variety of reasons. It is also a city built on gimmicks, and the floodlit nine-hole course on the west edge of town seemed like just another entry in the municipal catalogue, somewhere below the dancing fountains and above the Liberace museum.

I played there twice, I believe, during the year I lived in Las Vegas. Even during the boiling summer months, I preferred to sweat my way around the artificially plush resort courses because the discounted "twilight" rates kicked in at noon once temperatures reached 39C and 40C. The courses were empty, with the tourists opting to stay at the gaming tables in the air-conditioned casinos or roast under the sun next to the chilled swimming pools.

Having learnt the game as a boy in Texas, I was most comfortable golfing in the heat. Besides, there was almost no humidity. As the Vegas locals always insist on reminding newcomers, it is a dry heat. The floodlit course was less than a mile from my apartment, and I regularly drove past it in the evenings without the slightest temptation to pull in for a few quick holes. It wasn't "real" golf, I thought.

I first encountered night golf in Abu Dhabi a couple of months ago, when I was paired with a Filipino man named Tony for nine holes at Abu Dhabi's City Golf Club. He arrived in the capital more than 20 years ago to work for an oil company. As we stood on the tee box, waiting for the group ahead of us to clear, I asked him what the city was like when he arrived. He gestured to the emerald fairway stretched out in front of us and then further to the skyscrapers rising along the Corniche in the distance. "All sand," he said.

When we putted out on the ninth green, I shook Tony's hand and told him I had enjoyed the round. "Are you finished?" he asked. I said I was, but was slightly perplexed by the question. The sun was setting and there was not more than 20 minutes of daylight left. Along with another man who had joined us, Tony strode to the first tee and started off again for another nine. At the clubhouse, where I ate dinner on the balcony overlooking the course, I saw that the floodlights I had assumed were strictly for the horse track encircling the golf course also illuminated the fairways and greens. In the distance, I could see Tony and his new playing partner making their way to the second tee.

Good for them, I thought, but it's not for me. Soon after, I experienced my first taste of the Abu Dhabi summer, when I teed off at Yas Links at 10am. By noon my focus was less on scoring than survival. If battling through 18 holes in the afternoon sun is a minor dose of self-inflicted punishment in Las Vegas, here it is an affront to the Geneva Convention. In a brief moment of clarity amid my gathering delirium, I concluded that night golf in the Emirates is not a gimmick, but a necessity for dedicated players.

Those who are not that interested in the game might be unaware that the country is in the middle of a golfing boom that is expanding at a rate to rival the property market. As recently as five years ago, there were only three fully-grassed courses in the country. Now there are 14. The abundance of options means courses have to compete for players, and the addition of night golf is seen as one more draw. By my count, there are now six courses in the UAE that offer some sort of golf by moonlight.

"We've got to scratch and kick to get every golfer," explains Chris White, Aldar's director of golf. White oversaw the development of Yas Links, the much praised Kyle Phillips design on Yas Island that opened for play this spring. A veteran of the UAE golf scene, White fondly remembers Nad al Sheba, a floodlit nine-hole course in Dubai that was bulldozed three years ago to make room for the Meydan Racecourse.

On many summer nights, the course would be packed with players and White thought he could create a similar environment with a leftover patch of four hectares (nine acres) adjacent to Yas Links. He asked Phillips to piece together a par-three, nine-hole course next to the driving range, with 25 strategically positioned floodlights, and the facility opened to the public last month. "Clearly we need to do something to keep the momentum going through the summer, and night golf is perfect for that," he says.

The first tee sits across the road from Ferrari World, with an illuminated billboard of Sheikh Zayed visible in the distance beyond the green. The night I played, there was little traffic on Yas Island and the course was so quiet that it was almost spooky. But it was also at least four to five degrees cooler than the afternoon, and remarkably pleasant. I pulled a nine iron for my first shot and made what felt like clean contact. I followed the trajectory of the ball off the club until it broke through the lighted area and into the night sky. In what would become a recurring theme of my night golf experience, I stared at the area where I thought my ball might be headed, and endured a suspenseful two seconds before it finally came crashing back to earth.

Because it is a par-three course, the floodlit holes are necessarily short. The longest hole is 185 yards so the course is far from the pitch-and-putt style of some other par-three courses in the area. Still, White says he hopes it will be a fun venue where inexperienced players can improve and juniors can be introduced to the game. This summer, the course is offering a special of Dh120 for an unlimited number of golf range balls plus nine holes.

The Wadi course at the Emirates Golf Club, designed by Nick Faldo, is a different beast altogether. The only course in the country that offers a full 18 holes under floodlights, a night on the Wadi is like a surreal version of top-flight resort golf. I thought Andrew Whitelaw, the club manager, put it quite accurately when he said: "It's very different but it's not that different". Set just north of Jumeirah Lake Towers, the club nestles at the base of dozens of apartment towers and office buildings that provide a stunning backdrop for many shots. There seem to be fewer gaps in the lighting but, perhaps because of its larger scale, the course also feels more empty. There were other groups ahead of us and behind us, but it was hard to shake the creeping suspicion that we could be arrested for trespassing at any moment.

Whitelaw would not tell me what the club spent on the course - he called it "a significant investment" - but the outlay seems to be paying off. The club has already hosted more than 5,000 rounds and a summer night-golf league is already sold out. He says most days lately, the club sees more golfers at night than during the day. As a frame of reference: many years ago, I was the last one among my golfing buddies to switch from an actual wooden driver to the metal monstrosities that are dominant today. (I recently heard someone describe his driver as like trying to swing a toaster that is attached to a fishing pole.) All that to say, I am a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to golf.

I couldn't help wonder what a true purist would think about the night golf phenomenon here in the UAE. When I returned to Abu Dhabi Golf Club to try out the evening experience, the course was jammed with fellow duffers. On the second tee, a boy pulled up behind me in a buggy. He was playing by himself as well and since it was slow we decided to join up. The kid said his name was Ross Canning and he was 16. He was built like a three iron and plays off a six handicap, his drives streaking off the tee like tracers. I detected a distinct accent and he later confirmed that he was from Scotland - the home of golf.

In the summers, when Ross goes back to his home town of Glasgow, he often plays from sun up to sun down. His personal record is 64 holes in a day, but his friends back home find it hard to comprehend that he does not have to stop when the sun sets. "I mean it stays light there until 11 in the summer so they play at night all the time," he says. "But me playing under floodlit, they can't believe it."

In Abu Dhabi, he lives across the street from the golf club, which only started night golf this year, and the floodlights mean he can now sneak out for a quick nine holes after his studies are complete. Ross says playing at night takes two to three strokes off his score. The shadows from multiple sources of light make it difficult to judge the way your ball lies and to read the breaks on the greens. The distances are hard to gauge at times from the fairways.

"It's not the same as day golf," he says, "but it is better than not playing at all." I couldn't agree more.