A travelogue by Margaret Swaine in the June 2006 issue of SCORE Golf magazine entitled “Golf in the Gulf” hasn’t inspired me to travel to the United Arab Emirates any time soon…it was that episode of “Amazing Race” where the participants got to make snowmen and tobboggan in an INDOOR ski hill facility while it was plus fifty Celsius outside that did it. And as soon as they make a 24 hour indoor 36 hole golf course complete with palm trees and a cocktail bar on every hole, I’ll get on a jet. Well, and I should probably win the lottery first….
What Swaine accomplished was to get me thinking about sand golf courses. Not all of the courses in the UAE are sand: the Emirates Golf Club (which usually hosts the Dubai Desert Classic PGA tournament) is grass, as is Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club and Nad Al Sheba Club, which was built as part of a horse racing track and is flood lit until midnight year round. Courses such as these are artificial oases, complete with generous water features (some natural) and lush trees and shrubs brought in from other locations. The cost and labour required to maintain such constructs in a country where heat and sand dominate must be staggering.
Four sand golf courses can be found in the UAE, including Al Ghazal Sand Golf Course, the most well-known and best located (it’s directly next to the Abu Dhabi airport and is great for tourists hoping to get a round in before a return flight to their home country. Not sure what it would be like to play golf with the fairways directly adjacent to the runways, but apparently noise isn’t a problem). The course is well-treed and includes natural water, but the fairways and greens are pure sand. For those of us used to grass courses, the rules governing play on sand courses will be a bit different: for one, shoes must be spikeless, as anything with cleats or heavy texture will damage the playing surface. It is actually recommended to wear soft-soled sneakers instead. It seems that after every game, someone comes by to flatten and sweep the complete surface of each and every hole, making the course pristine for the next foursome. (No doubt this increases the gap between tee times – not a bad thing, in my estimation). A plastic artificial turf mat is carried by each player and used to hit shots from the fairway, as without the benefit of the mat, the ball is hard pressed to sit properly in the sand. Accurate shots are a must on a course such as Al Ghazal: hitting out of the rock hard moonscape that comprises the rough isn’t a picnic, apparently.
And then there are the greens…or browns, as they’re called, as they possess not a bit of greenery. The browns are a compacted mix of sand and oil, carefully constructed to avoid wind erosion (some are on two tiers). I would think that putting would be slightly on the fast side on browns, given the slick surface, but according to Swaine, it’s really quite similar to the turf experience. Once you’ve putted out, you are expected to brush your tracks away with a provided tool, leaving the brown smooth for the next player. (And if you putt like me, clean up will take a very, very long time…).
Of course, the creation of sand greens isn’t unique to the UAE – there are several “pasture” style golf courses in North America, for example, that advocate traditional links style designs and possess browns. To my chagrin, I am so far unable to locate any information regarding what type of oil is mixed with the sand to form the smooth surface: it is obviously forbidden in North America to pour motor oil or any other type of petroleum product on the ground. Apparently a soybean oil by-product designed to control dust on roadways may be utilized, but I cannot confirm this; I also read that in Puerto Rico coconut oil is used. In certain countries, an impermeable ground cloth is used beneath the brown so that less environmentally-friendly oils can be employed; I am unsure if this is the case in the UAE’s sand courses. Regardless of the content of the mixture, it is essential to position the browns in a location where drainage is optimum and where water runoff and wind will not erode the surface. Browns should not be built on heavy clay soils, as water will pool on top of the clay and wreak havoc with the stability of the sand layer above.
But back to Al Ghazal, where clay is never a problem. Did I mention that there are sand filled bunkers next to the sand constructed green, just for spite? And that you really don’t want to play during the months of June through September, when plus fifty Celsius and the obscene humidity will surely topple you if the golf doesn’t? Yes indeed, that indoor course is looking better and better all the time….