By Bernie McGuire in Abu Dhabi.
A dozen years ago early on a Saturday morning in January, a handful of the media were taken out to the eighth hole of the Yas Links Golf Course.
The par-3 eighth hole was then the only grassed hole on the newest golf course in the United Arab Emirates. Meeting the handful of media was Kyle Phillips (pictured below that very day), the Yas Links course designer who had arrived a few hours earlier on a flight from the U.S., and after a short visit to his hotel, he also was heading to the eighth tee.
It was the week of the 2010 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship that was taking place at the close-by Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
In finding our way along dirt paths and driving down un-grassed fairways and past unfilled bunkers, we came to the edge this narrow strip of land beside salt marshes and tidal estuaries that feed into the Persian Gulf. As we walked up this narrow path there was the stunning sight of a fully-grassed golf hole and what a golf hole. It seemed to have a Kyle Phillips design written all over it. If you ever played Kingsbarns Links, the par-3 15th very much came to mind.
Though before I go any further let’s get one thing straight. While Yas Links has been described as the ‘first true links course in the Middle East’, it is not a links course. A links course, as long ago instilled into me by the European Club’s Pat Ruddy, is that link between the arable land and the sea.
Yas Links is laid out along a three-kilometre stretch of shoreline. During the construction stage, some of the 1.8 million m3 (cubic meters) of fill dredged from the sea to construct the golf course, where nine of the holes are laid out along the shoreline.
When the front nine holes were opened on March 26th, 2010, Yas Links was not the only course laid out close to the waters of the Persian Gulf as Al Harma in the neighbouring emirate of Ras Al Khaimah had been opened in 2007, where the waters bordering around half the course are tidal.
Also in 2010, the Gary Player-designed Saadiyat Beach opened and was located about 20-kms from Yas Links and while running along the beachfront, there are no holes actually where the waters of the Gulf come into play.
The Dubai Creek and Yacht Club course was opened in 1993 where the closing two holes were laid out along Dubai Creek.
It was not till 2015 when Al Zorah was opened in the emirate of Ajman that there was a second UAE course where the waters of the Gulf came directly into play and a Nicklaus-designed layout where you can play a shot off dry land that at high tide will be covered by water.
It is well documented that Phillips, who worked under Robert Trent Jones II, got into ‘links’ design after accepting an invitation from Sir. Michael Bonallack, then R & A Secretary to play the Old Course at St. Andrews. It led to Phillips designing close-by Kingsbarns Links that was officially opened by Sir. Michael on the Monday of the 2000 Open Championship at St. Andrews.
And while Kingsbarns Links boasts six holes directly along the shoreline of the North Sea, Yas Links has nine holes – third, eighth, ninth, 13th, 14th, 16th, 17th and the 18th – laid out along the tidal shoreline. The third, 16th, 17th, and 18th holes play ‘upstream’ and towards the sea whereas the remainder face ‘downstream’.
In speaking with the media on that Saturday in January 2010, Phillips commented: “There was a nice mangrove area (pointing to the opposite side of the water) and we kept that and then started defining the coastline.
“If you didn’t know the whole story you would say: ‘Wow, where did you find this type of ground.’ There has been a nice integration in terms of what you see.
“The people at Aldar said they would like to do a links course. I responded: ‘OK, you have water and sand so now I have to stylistically make it look like a links course.’ You try to harness what things you have at your disposal to create something that looks and feels natural.
“At a lot of the sites we get today we can build courses in links-style at venues that are not really by the sea. I really think that something that has plain characteristics like this one has a genuine right to call itself a links course.”
With 144 bunkers strategically in place around the par-72 course and the obvious natural hazards presented by being so close to the water, Phillips said after the official full 18-holes opening: “When you have so many holes bordering the sea, they are bound to be holes that people will enjoy playing.
“Thirteen and 14 are fun because they are short holes – a par three and a par four. The 14th is potentially driveable if you move the tee forward a bit. I think it is good to have one of them in the mix.”
Though Phillips would not single out the “signature” hole on the course.
“I deal with that question with the response ‘they all are’,” he said smiling.
“But No 9 is a stunning hole and I reckon we have our own version of Amen Corner at Augusta National with our last three holes. That sequence of holes will make for a fantastic finish.”
Phillips had indicated in 2001 and shortly after Kingsbarns Links hosted a round of the inaugural Alfred Dunhill Links that it was never his intention in designing a course that it would one day be suitable for hosting a leading golf tournament.
“When we built Kingsbarns it wasn’t with the intention of hosting a tournament,” he said.
“Similarly at the Grove. They didn’t expect to get the top-50 in the world competing there in 2006 for the World Golf Championship. What you strive to do as a course designer is provide something that will provide a serious test for the professionals but something that the 15-25 handicappers will be able to navigate their way round. Offering five different lengths from the various tee boxes has enabled us to do that.”
Well, it took under a year when Graeme McDowell, as the then reigning 2010 U.S. Open, led a group of 52 professionals in first taking to Yas Links in January 2011 with the hosting of the Emirates Airline Invitational, a one-day charity event. Also in the field was Darren Clarke, rising Italian youngster Matteo Manassero along with the World No. 1 Lee Westwood, Ross Fisher, Stephen Gallacher, Peter Hanson and Thongchai Jaidee.
Scotland’s Richie Ramsay won the 2012 and now European Tour sanctioned event, then renamed the Abu Dhabi Invitational. In the 2015 event, Rory McIlroy, after finishing runner-up a week earlier for the fourth time in the 2015 Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, had five birdies in posting a two-under-par 70.
And with McIlroy’s regular caddy, J P Fitzgerald competing in the event, and in fact the only Tour caddy playing the course, McIlroy had Canadian-born Claudine Foong as his caddy. The Toronto-born caddy is a professional attached to the Els Club and her husband was caddying for McIlroy’s father, Gerry.
McIlroy finished T25th among the 58 professionals on the Monday of the 2015 Dubai Desert Classic where he would capture the Dubai title for a second time in a ninth showing on the Majlis course.
The 2017 Abu Dhabi Invitational at Yas Links was a change of format when a 19-player team led by Paul McGinley, including four other European Ryder Cup stars and each playing off +5, defeated Peter Schmeichel’s Celebrity All-Stars 13-6. The tournament saw 19 professionals and 19 celebrities each paired with a VIP guest.
In 2015, the biennial Nomura Cup, known also as the Asia-Pacific Amateur Golf Team Championship was held for the first time in 52-years in the UAE at Yas Links. A member of the Japanese winning team that year was Takumi Kanaya, who recently ended 2021 as World No. 50 to earn a second Masters invitation.
The MENA Tour first visited Yas Links in 2016 for the Abu Dhabi Open and returned in 2017 and 2019 before the Covid pandemic halted the Tour in early 2020.
Now, this week, an exciting new chapter is about to unfold in the history of the club and we wish all at Yas Links every success.