One of the rewards in reporting on tournament golf is to admire first-hand how new golf courses hosting new tournaments have matured.
I was present at the 1991 Dubai Desert Classic and have been amazed not only at how the Majlis course has matured but how much Dubai has grown. It is the same in attending the second Qatar Masters and admiring how the Doha Golf Club has matured and also how the course, once on the outskirts of the Qatar capital is now surrounded by buildings.
Scotland’s Kingsbarns Links always impresses me from having been present on the Monday of the 2000 Open Championship when this Fife links gem was officially opened and with the course now annually hosting a round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship.
There was also the day after Thomas Bjorn won the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic when we were afforded the invitation to travel the hour or so drive to a then young but relatively unknown Abu Dhabi Golf Club course. Joining the media playing the course that day were Swede Pierre Fulke and Justin Rose.
And staying in the Middle East, there was this Saturday morning of the 2010 Abu Dhabi Championship when a handful of the media gathered on the eighth tee and then only grassed hole at Yas Links as course designer Kyle Phillips spoke of his work at Yas Links. The UAE course is to now host the 17th staging of the Abu Dhabi tournament later this month.
This theme of being present or within a year or two to the opening of a new golf course applies very much in recently visiting Arabian Ranches Golf Club in Dubai ahead of the 2021 season-ending DP World Tour Championship. The Golf Operations Manager at Arabian Ranches is Ryan Smith, who kindly organised my visit to the club.
The course was designed by the 1991 Open Champion Ian Baker-Finch, my own third attendance at golf’s oldest major, but then Baker-Finch is now better known for the TV work than his golf design work and in designing Arabian Ranches, he teamed with Nicklaus Golf Design.
I recall ‘Finchy’ was present just a few weeks after the course was officially opened in February 2004, when I first tackled the course early in the week ahead of the 2004 Dubai Desert Classic. Of course, in talking of nearly 18-years ago, Dubai was very different to today just as it was when the Emirates Club, the first course to be built in the UAE, was opened in 1987. Also, the Arabian Ranches estates of 2004 did not boast the houses existing now in a thriving gated community.
The first change at Arabian Ranches was to raise the height of a number of tees, as standing on some of the original tees made it difficult to see the fairway, though that’s no longer an issue.
I played the course in December 2014 with Gareth Lord, then caddy to Robert Karlsson, along with good friend Eoin Clarke and also dearly departed European Tour colleague, Denis Blasdale. I returned a year later with good friends, Ireland’s Denis Kirwan and Scot Stuart Adams.
My recent visit in November 2021 was to see first-hand a bigger task to have been undertaken at Arabian Ranches, and that was the redevelopment of all 18-greens due mainly to the invasion of foreign grasses, which had affected the uniformity, appearance, and smoothness of the greens. The work actually began in June 2019 with the course showcasing the new greens early in November 2019.
Quoting from a press release at the time it was Sean Kinsley, Director of Agronomy at the Emaar Hospitality Group, and his team who supervised the project’s progress saying that the desert surroundings on most holes were also cleaned-out and enhanced as part of the ambitious course improvement program. Then on the tail-end of the project, there was a major reshaping and returfing of the driving range along with returfing the practice putting green.
It was not all plain sailing as there was an irrigation issue in September 2019 but has since been sorted.
“This has been the largest enhancement the club has ever undertaken, since when the course was first opened back in February 2004,” said Kinsley.
“And the new work has now presented the club with a foundation that should serve us very well into the future, so onwards and upwards. The greens will only get better while we have other plans for the course.
“Arabian Ranches has long been one of the most under-rated designs, architecturally speaking. This is a very special golf course. It’s a little unique. In Dubai we have this golf corridor that is uninterrupted by housing, so we looked forward to welcoming back our members along with our many visitors.”
The renovation was undertaken by Desert Landscape, a division of Dubai-based Desert Group, who completed the project two weeks ahead of schedule.
“From re-surfacing of our greens to eliminating the existing mixed turf sward and replacing it with a new higher quality playing surface. It’s been a huge team effort,” said Kinsley.
“Before we started, it was clear that the existing Tifeagle Bermuda turfgrass had become weakened and contaminated with off-type mutations, Tifway 419, and significant Paspalum encroachment. However, by bringing together the right expertise, we have now managed to remove this plant material along also removing the top 15cm of greens/collars root zone and replaced it with a new USGA Greens Root Zone (greens core) and Red Sand (collar core), before replanting with Platinum TE Paspalum that was flow over in refrigerated containers from Georgia in the U.S. and planted from early June to August.”
The result is remarkable, to say the least, with the new putting surfaces hardly recognisable from those had been first laid out in 2004.
Unlike the recent greens work on the Majlis Course at the Emirates Club where the ‘flatness’ of the original design has been kept, the new Arabian Ranches greens now boast bumps and hollows; the humps and hollows you find on true links courses.
What this has done is add a new dimension to putting. Not only do you need to get the line right but there is now that ‘imagine feel’ you get with true links greens and by that, I mean using your imagination to get a break correct. Compare the ninth green with before and now. What a great change in providing real character and challenge to the original green.
And when I mention introducing ‘humps’ that is no more evident than at the short par-4 13th hole where I was on the front edge of the green in ‘two’ but staring a new mound on the edge of the green.
Given the position of the pin, I could either putt the ball up the slope and hope I got the line of descent off the slope correct or I could have used a high-degree wedge and taken the hump out of play. I liked my chances better with the putter and somehow got the line of descent off the slope correct with the ball coming to rest close to the hole for an official one-putt par. I could have found the green in regulation and not be faced with the third shot I had but in a way, I was pleased where I was as that small hump on the front edge of the 13th presented me a test and has added a new dimension and a new character to the green.
With the sun setting behind me, I came down the final hole to admire also the great changes to the final green. Now there’s a finishing hole.
Well done Arabian Ranches and thank you so much, Ryan.