How Dubai and Abu Dhabi helped UAE become a global golf powerhouse

From sand courses in the 1970s to driving the 'new era', the UAE's contribution to golf has been vital to the game's expansion

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The landmark news came last month, not far from the UAE’s milestone birthday, a further reinforcing of the country’s contribution to global golf. Its importance too.

“Today’s announcement is undoubtedly a momentous one in the proud history of our tour,” said Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, as the continent’s lead professional circuit signalled a significant rebrand.

The European Tour, established in 1972 and soon to celebrate its own 50th anniversary, would from the 2022 season be recalibrated as the DP World Tour. Made public at the DP World pavilion at Expo 2022, and with the Dubai-based company marking its half century next year also, it all felt rather fitting.

Pelley proclaimed the heralding of “a new era in global golf”, while Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion with deep connections to Dubai - his first professional win arrived at the 2009 Desert Classic - labelled it as “great news for global golf”.

To be fair, the new-look DP World Tour guaranteed a sizeable increase in prize money; the total on offer through the campaign would for the first time break $200 million. The length of the new deal, or the total financial investment staked by DP World, was not detailed.

Yet its value should not be underestimated. And not just to Europe’s lead tour, either.

There would be major investment, the tour said, in the second-tier Challenge Tour - elevated prize funds, increased playing opportunities - and a commitment to grassroots golf, with the aim of promoting the game at all levels in the countries visited (a minimum 27 for the 2022 season). The UAE, given DP World’s HQ there, would benefit particularly in that aspect.

More broadly, the Emirates has for some time played a prominent role in the worldwide game. The Dubai Desert Classic welcomed the European Tour from way back in 1989, the circuit's first Gulf stop quickly adopting the “Major of the Middle East” moniker.

Emirates Golf Club had opened the previous year, commissioned in 1986 by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, now Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to be sited on a piece of sand 25 kilometres from the emirate’s centre. Karl Litten was tasked with designing the Majlis Course, with the new development palpable proof of Dubai’s realisation that sport and tourism would drive a sustainable economy for the future.

More than three decades later, the Desert Classic’s roll of honour underlines its place in professional golf: Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia have all captured the renowned Coffee Pot trophy.

In 2004, when already one of the most recognisable figures in sport, Woods took time away from the tournament to launch into the Arabian Gulf golf balls from the helicopter pad of the Burj Al Arab. In the process, the game's undisputed No 1 sent images of Dubai across the world.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - MARCH 2:  Tiger Woods of the USA hits balls from the heli-pad on top of the Burj Al Arab Hotel prior to the 2004 Dubai Desert Classic played at the Emirates Golf Club on March 2, 2004 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

From there, the UAE’s footprint in pro golf only enhanced. The Abu Dhabi Golf Championship was inaugurated in 2006, and went on to reside as the European Tour’s first main event of the calendar year. Its champions include Paul Casey, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler, Tommy Fleetwood and Lee Westwood. Housed until now at Abu Dhabi Golf Club and played on the National course, its Falcon clubhouse can claim to be one of the easily identifiable in the sport. From next January, the tournament relocates to Yas Links Abu Dhabi.

In 2009, Dubai became the central focus on the European game. The tour’s Order of Merit was rebranded the Race to Dubai, with the season-ending event, the Dubai World Championship (it was renamed the DP World Tour Championship in 2012) staged on the new Earth Course at the recently developed Jumeirah Golf Estates (JGE). The European Tour’s international office, and then Middle East office, was housed there.

Westwood, McIlroy, and Stenson have triumphed at JGE; so too current world No 1 Jon Rahm. Last week, world No 2 Collin Morikawa secured both the DP World Tour Championship and Race to Dubai there. The week before, the neighbouring Fire Course hosted a second successive European Tour event.

The present landscape seems a long way from the birth of golf in the country, when the game took place on sand courses in the 1970s and 1980s. Staged right across the Emirates, fairways were marked by posts, players hit from mats and the greens were replaced by “browns”.

In 2004, Al Ghazal Golf Club in Abu Dhabi even hosted the first World Sand Golf Championship. The tournament ran a second time, in 2005. Montgomerie, Padraig Harrington and Ian Poulter have competed at Al Ghazal.

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 23: Rayhan Thomas of India plays his second shot on the par 5, 13th hole watched by Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland as a preview for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic on the Majlis Course at The Emirates Golf Club on January 23, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Today, the UAE offers championship courses designed by Greg Norman, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Thomas Bjorn, Ian Baker-Finch, Nick Faldo and Gil Hanse. Woods was once to open his first eponymous track in Dubai; he could still, at the Trump World Golf Club Dubai, as his course-design website details. At present, there are 20 golf courses across the UAE.

Yet it hasn’t been simply the pinnacle of pro golf that has aligned itself to the Emirates. The Challenge Tour and the Asian Tour have staged their seasonal climaxes in the UAE, the former at Al Badia Golf Club in Dubai and Al Hamra Golf Club in RAK, the latter at the Els Club Dubai. In 2018, the Challenge Tour’s season-long rankings were renamed the Road to Ras Al Khaimah, although that has since changed.

Meanwhile, the developmental Mena Golf Tour took root in the UAE in 2011 and went on to provide valuable playing opportunities for amateurs and professionals. Some of the fast-rising local talent made their mark there, including wins by amateurs Rayhan Thomas and Josh Hill. Thomas was 16 at the time of his victory; Hill a year younger.

What's more, both the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic have in the past offered sponsor’s invites to up-and-coming UAE-based golfers. Some have grasped the opportunity with both hands; for instance, in 2017, Dubai resident Thomas made the cut at the Desert Classic, aged 17.

In 2022, three of the five premier Rolex Series tournaments will be held in the country: the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic and the DP World Tour Championship. For the first time, Ras Al Khaimah will host an event on Europe's head circuit, the Ras Al Khaimah Championship stretching the tour’s UAE Swing to three consecutive weeks.

So, the Emirates' position in golf’s upper echelons sustains. In fact, the launch of the DP World Tour only amplifies it.

Updated: December 05, 2021, 3:54 PM
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