Despite making a bogey-bogey start on his own design, Ernie Els is sure The Els Club, his first golf course design in the region, will be a pleasurable experience for Dubai golfers.
The South African world No 5, one of the most loved and admired golfers playing the game, officially launched his par-72, 7,538-yard course, which forms the heart of the $3.8 billion (Dh13.9bn) Dubai Sports City, this week.
The stunning course features several long and challenging holes, including the mammoth 620-yard par-5 18th. But what really stand out are the shapely bunkers, some of them cut right to the edge of the greens, and some of the widest landing areas for your tee shots.
Els, who said he hopes to make progress on his much talked about three-year time frame attempt to catch up with the world No1 Tiger Woods, would not have been too happy with his bogeys on the first two holes during the round that launched the course. However, he was delighted with the way the course was looking, and the effort put in by his team.
“This is a big day for me and my company. I have been visiting Dubai since 1993, and so much has changed since then. I remember staying in a hotel next to the airport and taking the shuttle to the golf course. And today, we are sitting at The Els Club. I could have never imagined such a thing happening 15 years ago. It’s just wonderful to see the whole vision that we had come true,” said Els.
“I have made seven visits to the project and the development in these past three years, just to look at the various stadiums and everything else coming up here, it’s just amazing. And it is a special privilege that our golf course is the first sporting facility to start this unique concept.”
Els has at least stolen a march over Woods in one aspect – his golf course has been built before the American’s debut project. The Tiger Woods Dubai, located in the Dubailand area and in close proximity to Dubai Sports City, is expected to be inaugurated sometime in 2009.
“Dubai is the heart of the Middle East,” Els said. “I think it is the biggest emerging market for golf, and the city has really shown the way forward. There are many cities in the region that are coming up rapidly, but Dubai paved the way and sets the pace. There are several world-class courses coming up, including ones by Tiger, [Greg] Norman and Sergio [Garcia], so it feels good that we are the first ones to open.”
The Els Club, which incorporates the golf course and the sprawling clubhouse, which is under construction, is a first for Els, and he hopes to have several more such facilities all over the world in future.
“Dubai is the first of a select number of chosen projects that will bear my name and the formula will be the best of all the clubs I have played over the past 20 years. They will have at least one 18-hole signature Els design and I’ll have a great deal of input into the type of hospitality on offer in the clubhouse,” said Els.
“Basically, it’ll be everything you want in a great day of golf. I want it to be the best of everything… great food, great bars, a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, and great service from the moment you arrive at the club.
“I have been asked how many Els Clubs there will be and the honest answer is, we don’t know. Time will tell on that one. We have no specific plans.
“The important thing is that we are looking for the right opportunities in the right locations around the world. Places likes South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States are obvious potential locations given my links with all three. But I am keen to explore the potential in some of golf’s emerging markets such as China, India and the
The Els Club course will bring out some of the finest playing experiences Els has had over the years, and he has incorporated several features that impressed him as a player.
“I have kept the landing areas very wide, which we never seem to get on the Tours. I like players getting off the tee, and then start penalising them as they come closer to the greens. The second shot starts playing on your mind a bit.
“Most greens are elevated and have a collection area and errant shots are going to trickle down there. But the grass is cut in such a way that we have kept the option of maybe putting from there, if you are not feeling too good about chipping.
“I am a big fan of the Australian sand-built courses and I have always been a fan of Alistair McKenzie’s designs. So the idea came from there – wide fairways and strategically placed bunkers. The crowned greens are inspired from Pinehurst. And of course, the entire golf course has a links feel to it, because I just love playing on links courses.”
Designing a golf course in the desert had its own share of fun and challenges.
“This is our first desert site for a golf course design, and that itself brings in so many challenges. The good thing is when you are working on a desert, you can pretty much replicate your entire vision on the course, mainly because it is desert and you really do not have to do any heavy earth moving. In other places, the site dictates what you can do. But here, you can do almost anything you want to do,” said Els.
“But then, the big challenge was that the sand kept moving. We would decide on putting a bunker somewhere, or a mound, and by the time we came to the project the next day, the whole thing had moved because of the wind. So, we really had to work very quickly on each holes – basically finish quickly what we started.
“The fun part was coming out here on the project and working with the guys. I came here in the summer last year and it was 47 degrees outside. I decided to be brave and walk the course. I think I lasted less than half an hour.”
And Els is also putting his money where his mouth is. He said: “I have personally taken up a place in Dubai Sports City. It will have our corporate office for the region, as well as a residential place to stay. And, of course, I am looking forward to bringing my family, staying here and spending time in Dubai.”
It’s not easy but it’s worth it