Big names warned Dubai Desert Classic will be tough

The Majlis Course has proved to be a competitive match for most of the top players who have taken it on since the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was introduced to the European Tour 22 years ago.

The newly renovated clubhouse at the Emirates Golf Club.
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DUBAI // The Majlis Course at Emirates Golf Club has proved to be a competitive match for most of the top international players who have taken it on since the Omega Dubai Desert Classic was introduced to the European Tour calendar 22 years ago.

Those who look after the desert oasis, therefore, do not plan any major changes as they prepare to welcome the world's best three players and a host of other professionals for this week's conclusion to the month-long Middle East swing.

Craig Haldane, who has been superintendent of what is now a 45-hole complex adjoining Sheikh Zayed Road since 2005, has monitored the winning scores over the past decade. He believes the degree of difficulty is just right to provide the desired mixture of occasionally spectacular but generally respectable scoring.

He is mindful that Lee Westwood, the world No 1, dominated the neighbouring Earth Course 15 months ago when he romped home in the inaugural Dubai World Championship at 23-under par. He is aware that Martin Kaymer, the world No 2, went one shot better when winning the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship for the third time last month.

But Haldane is confident his course will not be humbled.

He points out that since Denmark's Thomas Bjorn overcame Tiger Woods in a final-day shoot-out at the 2001 tournament, none of the ensuing champions has managed to better that 22-under- par aggregate.

"I wouldn't be embarrassed by a score in the 20s under par," said Haldane, a South African who honed his greenkeeping skills working for Gary Player at the Fancourt resort in his homeland. "But for that to happen somebody is going to have to play exceptional golf."

Haldane said he works both sides of a line between making life too tough for his professional visitorsand rendering his course vulnerable to a "too easy" label.

"Last year we probably made the rough too penal," Haldane said, reflecting on the winning score of 11 under posted by Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez, who beat Westwood in a three-hole play-off.

"It was 100mm deep then. This year we've trimmed it to 64mm. It is not always a question of the depth of the rough, though, more the thickness and the rough as it is now is undoubtedly going to cause problems for those who stray into it."

Otherwise changes have been minimal.

"We decided not to overseed the greens this year," Haldane said. "I think you might see a few more putts holed. Players are going to be able to control the ball better and they like that."

"We have also built a few new tee boxes and on the two par threes on the front nine - the fourth and the seventh - we have shaved the embankment towards the water so there may be a few more balls running off than in previous years."

Haldane leads a staff of 78 who look after the Majlis and its sister course the Faldo, along with a nine-hole course. He and his team have worked closely with European Tour officials, notably Mike Stewart, the regular tournament director of the Classic, and Graham McNiven, the Tour's leading agronomist.

"Our job is to present the course for Mike to decide how it's going to be set up over the four days," Haldane said. "It's good having that level of communication with the two guys.

"Graham sees a lot more tournament play around the world than we do and it's great to be able to pick up his various tricks of the trade. He visits us about four times each year. In our industry we are not too proud to admit that we don't know it all."

While modifications to the course have been barely noticeable, the distinctive clubhouse at Emirates has undergone a massive refurbishment to get it ready for the Classic.

Chris May, the club's general manager, has overseen that multi-million-dirham venture and is delighted with the results.

"It has taken a while because it is a huge project," May said. "We look forward to showcasing it to everybody who comes to the tournament.

It has brought the clubhouse into the modern era. One of the main reasons for undertaking the project was to upgrade the back of house facilities. "When we opened in 1987 we were an 18-hole course. Although we have made changes to the club house in the intervening years, the golf has advanced at a greater pace and now we offer a choice of 45 holes.

"We needed to ensure that our kitchen and catering facilities were able to cater for that extra traffic of golfers. We are now in a much better position to do that."

May is looking forward to welcoming Woods back to Dubai, even though the world's most famous golfer is going through a sticky patch in his career.

"The tournament took off in 2001 when Tiger Woods first played in it," said May. "He took it to a new level and the attendance figures started rising from the time of his arrival here. Tiger was and still is a phenomenon to the game. In 2008, the last time Tiger came, we had 20,000 people in here on the Saturday. That's a lot for any sports event in this part of the world. The Desert Classic has a tremendous amount of history and prestige. To have the top three players in the world rankings competing here might see similar numbers again which would be fantastic."

May welcomed the arrival this year of Bahrain as a European Tour venue, creating a month-long golf festival in the region. "It is great to have three other tournaments now in the Desert Swing," he said. "It really has put this part of the world on the golfing map and that has been beneficial to us in Dubai.

"It is healthy to have competition because it makes you look at what you are doing and what others are doing. It makes you improve and you need to improve every year if you are hosting a tournament as important as this one.

"The Desert Classic has obviously been the forerunner for top class golf in the Middle East with the greatest history and a huge amount of prestige. Our list of winners here would be the envy of tournaments all round the world and I'm sure that roll of honour will have another outstanding name added to it this year."