Gary Player's new beach course at Saadiyat Island played host to the cream of the UAE's golfers for the first time yesterday with Ghantoot Polo Club's Alan Johnson claiming local bragging rights by posting the only sub-par round of the UAE PGA Championship. Johnson, previously operations manager at Abu Dhabi National, playing a key role in the staging of the European Tour event there, forecast a tremendous future for the picturesque course.
"It is a completely different venue to the National course, which is essentially parkland but it has just as much to offer," he said. "I reckon it is inevitable that the Tour event will move there soon ? possibly in two more years." Johnson believes Saadiyat will test the touring professionals just as much as it did the cluster of club professionals who did battle with the 7,100 yards of undulating seaside terrain yesterday.
"Any score below par here is something to be proud of, even for the very best players," he declared. "I'm delighted with my 70." Johnson conceded that he was at an advantage over most of the other members of the UAE PGA in this latest Order of Merit tournament. "I have been lucky enough to play here quite a few times already," he pointed out. "Course management is a big factor here because if you don't know the course very well you can be penalised heavily for what you think is going to be a good shot. You have to know where to place the ball. Get your ball on the right side of the hole and you can score well."
He did just that, converting two birdie chances on the outward nine to make up for the disappointment of a bogey on the third and then doing the same coming home to compensate for another dropped shot on the 16th. "Those four birdies [on five, eight, 13 and 14] were the key because they were all tough holes," he said. Johnson's two-stroke victory over Simon Payne and Calum Nicoll, the joint runners-up, improved his chances of making the season-ending Dubai Golf Trophy which involves the country's top 16 professionals taking on their amateur counterparts in a format similar to the Ryder Cup.
"Everybody wants to play in that," said Johnson, who began the day in 14th place. "This win is going to improve my prospects enormously." Payne's second place virtually guarantees the Tower Links professional another Order of Merit title. He arrived at Saadiyat with a commanding lead over his nearest pursuer Malcolm Young, of Arabian Ranches, and increased that advantage when Young could manage only a three-over-par 75.
"I can still be caught," said the Australian unconvincingly after his level par round of 72. "You should never take anything for granted. "But I have played well this season and I'm confident of finishing the job. I have been very steady this year. No fireworks, just grinding out a score. I was a bit disappointed not to have won after getting it to two under on the outward nine." Nicoll, who at 28 has a bright future ahead of him, was overjoyed at tying Payne for second place.
"That was great," said the Scotsman who is in his first year at the Els Club after learning his trade at Turnberry and Prestwick. "This was my first round here and I loved it. It reminds me of a lot of courses back home. "I haven't played Abu Dhabi National but this place looks ideal for staging European Tour golf." Stephen Hubner, of Dubai Creek, who acted as tournament adjudicator, forecast an exciting end to the season for himself and his fellow UAE professionals.
"There is so much to play for," he said. "Not only are we all competing for places in the Dubai Golf Trophy but the top three in our Order of Merit will represent this country in the European team championships. That is an honour we are all seeking." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org