Abu Dhabi Golf Championship: far from a good walk spoiled

Sports such as tennis are easy to follow, but could a stranger to golf ever consider spectating? Kevin Hackett finds out at a local tournament

An Emirati and fans of different nationalities attend the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Now in its 10th year, the event has become a firm fixture on the calendars of golfers the world over. Kamran Jebreili / AP
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It is fair to say that if you see the three letters "i", "s" and "t" at the end of a noun when describing someone, unless the word is scientist or philanthropist, it is generally in a negative context. Consider arsonist, extremist, apologist, narcissist, trade unionist, even feminist.
So when the British television presenter and serial offender, Jeremy Clarkson, began to refer to "golfists" and their "golf bats", I instinctively knew what he was talking about.
Golf is a sport I just don't get. Played by men and women often attired in clothes that are considered crimes against fashion, I have always viewed it as a stuffy, old school, elitist and terminally dull activity that one should only take up after retirement.
And yet right here in Abu Dhabi, right now, it would appear I'm in the minority. Because golf is a really big deal in the UAE and, as I write this, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship is in full – ahem – swing and I have been asked to examine just how a complete stranger to the sport could ever consider spectating at a world-class event such as this.
I have been given some irksome assignments in my time but this threatens to outstrip them all. But there is only one possible approach to it and that, I have been forced to concede, involves a dropping of the attitude. I need an open mind.
Name any sport and there will be diehard devotees to it, quite willing and prepared to travel the world to witness and support their favourite participants.
Football and rugby (two more ball games I don't understand), skiing, athletics and motor sport all have armies of followers who sacrifice their spare time, money and energy in the name of sport. And golf is no different.
I approach Abu Dhabi Golf Club on a mild and sunny morning, park my car and take the shuttle bus to the club entrance. My fellow travellers are, it turns out, all visiting from afar.
Perhaps, I ponder, there is something in it and I'll become a convert. After all, that happened to me with tennis and polo. As spectator sports go, tennis and polo are quite easy to follow and learn the rules of play.
But golf? How do you actually spectate? And is there anything to see, apart from on the greens where there is a hole? I'm on a mission to find out.
I have an HSBC account, so I'm spared the Dh50 entrance fee, and on entering the grounds all I see is an ocean of red and white. There is no ambiguity, no mistake: this is HSBC's event all right, and even the flower beds are so coloured.
Now in its 10th year, this championship has become a firm fixture on the calendars of golfers the world over and there are hundreds of people here.
As some sit in the sunshine, watching the action on huge television screens, others are busy practising their swings on a long fairway, where there are marker boards to keep a check on how far they have hit.
Dozens more are on an enclosed putting green, trying to apply science to their strokes, squatting, squinting, checking their lines. And it is all being carried out in surreal silence.
They are (for the most part) normally dressed, too, and of all age groups. Perhaps I have had it wrong all these years and the chequered trousers tucked into Argyle-patterned socks thing has been banished to the history books.
They're (for the most part) evidently fit, too. All that walking, all those heavy clubs, all that swinging obviously pays off over time.
"Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an ever smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose." Apparently the words of Winston Churchill, who was not known to be a fan, they also sum up my knowledge of the rules of play.
So I wander through the grounds in search of the course to see if I can pick up a few pointers. Soon I reach the 18th Green Championship Pavilion, where three players, Stenson, Donald and Bjorn, have arrived to hit their balls down towards the next hole.
Their fans have arrived, too, having followed them around the course all morning, stopping only whenever and wherever their heroes stop to play their shots.
Before the players take their shots, I ask a couple standing next to me why they're here. It turns out that Mark and Trudy Connors are visiting from California and they are retired, having sold their printing business a few years ago. Now they like to play and watch golf. It is a shared interest, which is probably just as well.
"It's like any sport," Mike says. "If you're a fan of F1 or tennis then, if you have the means, you're likely to follow it closely and that may involve travelling thousands of miles.
"We try to tie this in with a holiday, too, and it's wonderful to be in Abu Dhabi. Neither of us have been to the Middle East before and we're looking forward to exploring the region."
We are told to keep quiet when the players take their positions on the green. A hush again descends and 37-year-old Englishman Luke Donald shuffles his feet, refers to a notebook and confers with the 'caddy' who carries his equipment around.
After three practice swings, he hits the ball with a hefty thwack and it seems to travel through the air into a different dimension, it is that far. Was it a good shot? The ruffled applause seems to say it was OK and, once the other players have had their turns, they are off again to the next one, followed by perhaps 50 spectators.
Birdies, bogies and pars – I have no clue what these phrases mean, but when I first started watching tennis I thought that deuce was what the players drank between sets. I am sure that, given enough time, I would be able to pick this up, too. I watch as the fans disappear down the fairway and others close in on the green where I am stood behind the ropes. I walk further up the course and talk to two German visitors, Thorsten and Marie Strunz, who are here to support their compatriot, Martin Kaymer. Just 29 years old, Kaymer has won the championship in Abu Dhabi three times.
"This is our second time here," says Thorsten. "It's great to be able to escape the cold weather in Germany and experience some sunshine and what better way to do that than this?" I confess and tell them why I am here, and they laugh. "I understand it might appear odd to anyone who is unfamiliar with golf," says Marie, "but it's one of those things – you try it, you like it and before you know it, you're hooked. It's a peaceful sport, nobody gets hurt [unless by a stray ball, I remind her], nobody really gets angry. It's relaxing, it keeps you fit if you walk the course instead of taking the buggy and it keeps you sharp. It's a game where accuracy is essential."
Gradually I find myself warming to golf and the people here. This is a worrying development but it is obvious that those who follow the sport do so avidly. If you have ever wondered, while watching it on the television, how it could ever be a spectator sport in the truest sense, the answers are here. You can walk the course, watching each shot as it is taken. You can sit in the micro-stadiums at each hole and just wait for each player to turn up, or you can watch it on a screen while enjoying your lunch – it is up to you.
As I walk back through the grounds, I stop and watch the golfers practising their long shots. I ask one of them if this is the golf fan equivalent of driving a lap at Yas Marina during Grand Prix weekend.
"Yes, that's about right," he says laughingly. "The world's best players are just over there and I'm getting my own moves right. I'm having a ball."
Whether or not the pun was intentional, the fact remains that the people here are definitely having a good time. Most of them I speak to are foreign visitors and that hammers home to me the point that this is a sport that is good for the economy.
They will stay here, spend money here, explore the cities and the countryside and they will be back next year, possibly with their golfing friends from their countries.
After four hours of golf immersion, have I been converted to the cause? No. But I have had my eyes opened and several of my previous prejudices have vanished, simply by mixing with the people here and seeing this staggeringly beautiful course for myself.
"Golf is a good walk spoiled," is a quote often attributed to Mark Twain. But on the basis of what I've experienced here today, I'm inclined to disagree.
My wife has threatened that when she turns 60 she will become a golfer, so perhaps there is no escape.
But I have 23 years to get my head around that and, who knows, I might even join her when the time comes.