When golf in Dubai was one big bunker

Before Emirates Golf Club, the Dubai Country Club was where the community, and camels, came to the fore

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Fifteen years ago, one of the Arabian Gulf’s first golf clubs closed its doors for good, later making way for the Meydan complex.

Once the "place to be", it had long outlived its original remit of giving residents somewhere to play golf and socialise. As Dubai developed from the 1970s to 2000s, populated by increasing numbers of world-class golf clubs, entertainment complexes, malls and hotels, the Dubai Country Club (DCC) simply couldn't keep up.

And yet, when it first opened in Ras Al Khor in 1971, DCC immediately struck a chord with residents from across the world.

Len Chapman, who runs the website Dubai As It Used To Be, says a popular myth was that it all began with a meeting of "men sitting under a tree dreaming of building a club". In truth, it started with a meeting of 150 expatriates, who were keen to set up a golf course a little closer to their homes than the British RAF course in Sharjah.

The Dubai Country Club was built in 1971 on a plot of land granted by the former Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum. Photo: Dubai As It Used To Be

When the then Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, donated a plot of land to the group, their dreams became reality.

Each of the members donated Dh500, but after securing a Dh20,000 loan from the Commercial Bank of Dubai, things really started moving. Set over a plot in the desert, the club opened its doors in March 1971, with a nine-hole sandy golf course and a small clubhouse.

In ensuing years, it would gradually expand to include a swimming pool, tennis courts and an extension, used to host banquets and theatrical productions — such as the legendary 'Jones/Penson' plays of the 1980s, produced by Dubai College drama teachers.

Chapman, a member from 1971 until 1989, served for a time as a committee member and golf captain. Although playing on sand is today considered a curiosity, like many others who learnt their skills at the Country Club, Chapman had never undertaken a game on grass before and didn’t think anything of it.

“Those that had played on grass before soon adapted," says Chapman. "There were golfers who looked down on playing on a sand course and declined to play golf in Dubai until the Emirates Golf Club came along in 1988. Top golfing professionals played at DCC's sand course and other sand courses without any problem.”

Camels frequently made an appearance on the Dubai Country Club's golf course, with some even getting stuck in the pool. Photo: Dubai As It Used To Be

Besides local golf tournaments, such as the Tri Emirates that included Sharjah and Abu Dhabi Golf, the club hosted the annual, five-day Open Golf Championship, and the Ladies Open Golf Championship — with amateurs flocking from across the Gulf and Africa to compete.

The club also ran Pro Am events, where British Caledonian Airlines brought top professional golfers to Dubai, including members of the UK's Ryder Cup teams. Each pro would be assigned three local amateurs, competing in teams together. Some members even let visiting pros stay in their homes.

“Camels were a problem for the golf course in that the camels liked to walk over the ‘browns’ and wallow in the bunkers causing considerable damage," Chapman tells The National. "They did not cause a problem for the players.”

Another former member, Katie John, says her family used to visit the club most weekends. “I also used to go riding at the Dubai Polo Club, which was next door. My friend and I were out riding in the desert one day, and we strayed a bit close to the golf course.

“My horse suddenly got the idea that the fairway was a racecourse. He took off galloping and I couldn't stop him. I think we interrupted someone's game, judging by the outraged shouts that dwindled into the distance behind us.”

Before the opening of the Emirate's Golf Club in 1988, the Dubai Country Club was Dubai's leading golfing destination. Photo: Dubai As It Used To Be

Jackie Griffiths, who arrived in Dubai in 1969, remembers when the idea of building a club was first mentioned. “I was astonished when a woman said to me ‘it will be so nice to have a British club’,” she says. “It was anything but that.”

Griffiths didn't think of it as British: "It always had an international flavour for me.”

The club was not without its quirks. Griffiths, who worked with the club’s early chairman Kirby Broderick at Commercial Bank of Dubai, recalls: “In the months following the DCC opening, there were regular visitations to Kirby’s office from blonde ladies complaining that their hair had turned green after swimming in the club pool — the chemical balance was eventually sorted out.”

Asides from the land, Sheikh Rashid also built a road stretching out to the club, which was then considered ‘out of town’. Griffiths remembers having to watch out for camels on the road at night.

Cars weren’t the only hazard they faced, though. “Many a snake and the odd camel had to be rescued from the new pool: they would come to drink and slip in. The camels were lifted out with a small crane.” Griffiths’s own cat, Boots, named after an oil firefighter, become the club’s “official snake catcher”.

Ann Fulcher, a club regular throughout the 1970s and 1980s, says the ‘browns’ on the golf course were often covered in camel hoof prints in the early morning. The Fulcher family spent many a day together by the club pool — when the children came home from boarding school for the holidays — before moving into the restaurant for dinner.

Back to the camels, Fulcher remembers: “I actually hit one accidentally, on the practice tee. I didn’t think I would hit the ball far enough. Poor thing leapt in the air, but didn’t know where it had come from.”

Fulcher also recalls watching Scottish comedian Billy Connolly perform on the club’s tennis courts — one of the best-remembered events the club ever hosted.

While some 'looked down' on the sand course, those who learnt to play at the Dubai Country Club didn't know any different. Photo: Dubai As It Used To Be

Former club manager Julian Peck told Chapman that using the tennis courts for a comedy show was initially considered a “controversial” move. Another regular remembered meeting Connolly after the show, noting he could hardly talk for “dodging the moths”.

Marion Pollard, who joined the club in 1980 so her husband could play golf, didn’t watch the Connolly show but remembers it being a big deal. “It was a great family place with great food,” she says.

“Several chefs came and went but Chef Francois was amazing.” Francois Porte was a French chef who had worked in England and across the world, raising the club’s standard to that of Dubai’s best hotels.

Chef Francois Porte elevated the Club's food to rival that of Dubai's finest hotels. Photo: Dubai As It Used To Be

In later years, when the club started to cut costs, Porte remembers pointing to a packet of Bird’s Eye Frozen Peas, remarking, “How do they expect me to cook with this?”

Pollard says, ultimately there was a great community spirit at the venue. “There were always lots of children who soon became friends with each other. We made so many friends there, sadly some departed now but still in contact with others.”

Like many others, including Chef Porte, Pollard’s family left the club when the Emirates Golf Club opened in 1988, lured by the prospect of playing on grass. Since, Dubai has become a golfing destination and home to the Dubai Desert Classic.

“It seems strange to think it was the place to go to in those days, when there is so much choice today," says Pollard.

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Updated: August 20, 2022, 7:06 PM