A couple of months after its high-profile launch during the Desert Classic, the world’s first Els Club golf course at Dubai Sports City, opened up for public play last Friday.
The 7,538 yard course – the first offering of the many world-class sporting facilities promised by Dubai Sports City – is a delightful layout. Ernie Els likes to call it a ‘desert links’ course, and it promises to be very different from the other courses in the city, thus adding to the overall appeal of Dubai as a leading golf destination of the world.
We caught up with Thomas Rubi, General Manager, The Els Club, and asked him what makes his course unique.
THE ARCHITECT: The Els Club course is the popular Ernie Els’s first design for his numerous fans in the Middle East. At more than 7,500 yards, it is not exactly the Big Easy for the amateurs, but the course portrays each and every aspect of his design philosophy – make it easy off the tee, test them with their approach shots, and disturb what nature has given you in the least possible manner. Each and every hole has a wide landing area off the tee, thus making it a driver’s paradise.
But the key is to place your ball properly with the tee shot, so that the approach becomes easier towards greens, which are almost always upturned, with plenty of subtle borrows, and offering various options for the short game.
Rubi says: “Some of the greatest golf course designers have learnt the tricks of the trade from past masters. Jack Nicklaus, who must be the most prolific designer at the moment, worked with Pete Dye. And Ernie worked with Nicklaus, thus getting the best of both Nicklaus and Dye.
“After his decision to become more autonomous with the design business, Ernie then took on Greg Letsche, who worked with Nicklaus in various high-profile designs including the redesign of Muirfield, Bears Club in Florida and Pearl Valley in South Africa. Letsche is vastly experienced and he is Ernie’s right-hand man.
“Not only has Ernie a very hands-on approach to designing, but the best thing about him is that he has got a great bunch of young, imaginative, creative, dedicated and talented guys as part of his team.”
THE GOLF COURSE: One of the worst feelings on a golf course, apart from making a three-putt from 10 feet, is when you lose your ball off the tee. Can’t promise you about the three-putts, but it would take extraordinarily special talent to lose a golf ball at the Els Club. There are fairways here which are wider at certain parts than the lengths of some of the par-3s.
But while you can go wild with your driver, you need to put your thinking cap on from the second shot onwards. The greens have several feed off areas, and call for ingenuity in tackling them if you miss them. The rough, never more than 15 or 20mm, is not penal at all, but watch out for Ernie’s special bunkers. They are beautifully shaped, with crisp linings, but only stunning to look at. Some are cavernous, and some are pot bunkers, again a rarity in Middle East.
Ernie said the Els Club greens are inspired by Pinehurst No2, and the bunkers by the ones at Royal Melbourne.
Rubi says: “There are so many options you have – to pitch, to putt, to chip with a 7-iron, or chip with a driver – if your ball falls off the greens. We have had many European Tour players like Henrik Stenson, Paul McGinley and Marten Lafeber who played on our course and they had one thing to say – a course like this, which lets you use the driver so much, is rare in modern days. And they also appreciate how imaginative you need to be on or near the greens.”
THE CLUBHOUSE: When complete in summer of 2009, it will be a lavish 50,000 sq ft Mediterranean style building. But more than the architecture itself, it will be what goes on inside that will make it unique in the region.
Rubi says: “We have the privilege, and the burden, of being the first Els Club in the world. We will be setting the benchmark for others. Service will be the keyword for us and the Club will reflect Ernie’s style – it will have laid-back elegance and the environment will not be stuffy.
“We are working on the restaurant concept with Ernie and his team and it will be somewhat like the one he is building in his Ernie Els Estate in South Africa’s Western Cape region. The F&B will be chosen by him and will surely mirror his well-travelled lifestyle. But you can certainly expect South African braai for sure.”
THE ACADEMY: The Els Club already has an active lesson programme under Director of Golf, Chris Brown, but come October, golf teaching in the region will take a whole new meaning with the inauguration of the first-ever Butch Harmon School of Golf outside the United States.
Rubi says: “It’s just perfect. Only last week, Ernie Els decided to switch to Butch Harmon as his swing coach. And both of them are integral part of Dubai Sports City. With Els joining him, Harmon now coaches the world No2 (Phil Mickelson) and No3 players, and helped craft the swing that won world No1 Tiger Woods seven Majors.
“Both Butch and his son, Claude, are directly involved, and are extremely excited at the way the project is shaping up. The academy will definitely be one of the most technologically advanced in this part of the world. It will be consistent with the quality of all the other academies coming up here.”
THE GLOBAL POSITIONING SYSTEM: Almost every club in Dubai has the GPS loaded on its cart, but what the Els Club offers takes the whole technology to its cutting edge. It’s a GPS Informer System, model HDX – a tablet PC mounted on the cart steering.
Apart from the stunning high-definition graphics, and the loads of information that the GPS provides regarding the course layout, it also gives an exact yardage to the pin, a two-way communication between the clubhouse and the cart, live leaderboard function, as well as exact position of the group ahead so that you do not bomb them with your shots.
TEE TIMES: One feature of the Els Club which definitely will be different from all the other clubs in Dubai is a deliberate setting of much longer tee time intervals. The interval will be more than 10 minutes for certain, and closer to 12 minutes.
Rubi says: “We want to make the round of golf an exclusive experience. We want the players to enjoy their round and enjoy the surroundings. We don’t want them to be rushed along.”
And there will be much more than the above, promises Rubi.
To start with, the new hand-crafted furniture at the temporary clubhouse, imported from Wisconsin. But forget the luxury. Where Els Club wants to stand apart is in paying attention to the small details.
Rubi summarises: “We have a very limited number of membership, but we want to take personalised care of each and every player who tees off at the Els Club. We want it to be an unforgettable experience for the players.”