By JOE PASSOV, Golf Magazine Senior Editor
Tiger Woods is competing in the wrong desert this week. I say that practically every year. I really wish he would play in my hometown event, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he’s been absent since 2001. That said, after a recent trip to Dubai, I now at least understand Tiger’s attraction to the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. Sure the appeal of appearance money is undeniable, but Dubai’s enticements go well beyond the cash.
To be fair, coin of the realm is indeed what has shaped and elevated Dubai. Oil money and tourism has transformed a poker table-flat, sleepy fishing village on the Arabian Gulf into a staggering collection of skyscrapers, resort hotels, golf courses and shopping meccas. The most famous dwelling in Dubai these days is Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, 2,722 feet, with 163 floors. You might remember Tom Cruise hanging off its side in 2011’s “Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol.” The elevator ascent to the top is alarmingly swift; the dizzying view from the top will buckle your knees.
The legendary Burj Al Arab hotel is worth a tour, even if you’re not holed up there for the night. That’s the joint with the helicopter landing pad from which Tiger has launched golf balls and Roger Federer and Andre Agassi have swatted tennis balls. The Burj Al Arab’s lavish, grin-inducing excesses, including an aquarium and suites fit for sultans are colorful tributes to the joys of spending—much like the Dubai Mall, a mind-boggling monument to conspicuous consumption. No less opulent is the brand new JW Marriott Marquis Dubai, the world’s tallest hotel. Kudos to the superb service, convenient central business location, and especially to two of the greatest hotel restaurants in existence, Prime 68 Steakhouse (on the 68th floor) and especially the Rang Mahal by Atul Kochhar, for Indian cuisine nonpareil.
Still, I braved the 14-hour flight to Dubai not so much to eat and sleep, but to tee it up. The golf didn’t disappoint. Although Tiger’s first design went fallow before completion, recent arrivals from Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie and Ian Baker-Finch—and one on the way via Donald Trump and Gil Hanse—complement the region’s two classics, Emirates Golf Club and Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club. Both are worth the journey.
Now 26 years old, the Emirates Golf Club is the undisputed anchor tenant in the Dubai golf mall. Its original layout, the Majlis, a 1988 Karl Litten creation, is where Tiger is plying his trade this week. Tabbed the “desert miracle,” owing to its nothing-to-something special rise, Majlis (Arabic for “meeting place”) is a superb test that embraces a nearly unique aesthetic. The 7,301-yard layout sports mature (25-year-old) trees, scrub-covered open desert areas and an ever-changing backdrop of skyscrapers new and old. Most memorable is the 459-yard, par-4 eighth, a slight uphill dogleg right that demands a bite-off-as-much-as-you-dare drive over desert scrub, followed by an approach straight at the kind of high-rises that would challenge Superman to leap over in a single bound.
What stands out if you’re a longtime European Tour viewer is the par-5 18th. A 564-yard, risk/reward temptress, this sharp dogleg left dishes out a nervy call on the second shot: whether or not to go for the shallow, hourglass-shaped green on the other side of a massive lake. When the shadows of the television tower lengthen in the late afternoon, it can be nerve-wracking putting down the green toward the water on Sunday of the Dubai Desert Classic. The unique Bedouin tent-style clubhouse beckons after the round.
Emirates’ second course, once known as Wadi (“Valley”), was reworked in 2006 by Nick Faldo and now bears his name. The Faldo is near-equal in challenge to the Majlis, if not in character, but it is lit for night play, a huge plus when the mercury soars.
Dubai Golf, the management and marketing entity that operates the Emirates Golf Club, also runs another excellent facility, Dubai Creek. Adjacent to the Park Hyatt Dubai (a luxury hotel that perfectly blends Western and Moorish influences and which sports handsome views of the marina), DubaI Creek furnishes a superior par-3 course—Rory McIlroy has sampled it—and a totally fun championship 18, more resort-y than Emirates Majlis, but no less fascinating. The finish is world-class, with the 354-yard 17th and the 421-yard 18th a pair of riveting par-4s that skirt the wide, boat-filled Dubai Creek. The daunting home hole features a backdrop of one of golf’s most distinctive clubhouses, which resembles the sails of an Arabic dhow.
Tiger, Rory, Henrik—I wish you were playing in Scottsdale this week. However, at long last, I understand why Dubai is so compelling.