This article first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.
Dubai may no longer be home to a quarter of the world’s cranes – as was famously, albeit inaccurately, reported around the boom of the mid-noughties – but there is still plenty of evidence of construction in the emirate.
The lure of hot weather, impressive architecture, shopping and entertainment means tourism is booming. Dubai is also the business and financial hub of the Middle East, and in 2020 it will host a World Expo.
And as the city’s growth continues – Dubai’s population is expected to double in the next ten years – so too does its infrastructure.
One example of this infrastructure growth is the Dubai Hills Estate, a series of neighbourhoods – including homes, hotels, shops, parks, hospitals and more – set within the new Mohammad Bin Rashid City area of Dubai. The estate is being developed by Emaar, the property company whose portfolio includes the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.
The centrepiece of Dubai Hills Estate – as a primary attraction for potential home buyers – is its golf course, which opened in November 2018.
Emaar already has two golf courses in Dubai: Arabian Ranches, by Nicklaus Design and Ian Baker-Finch, set within a residential community; and The Montgomerie, a co-design with Desmond Muirhead that is attached to a hotel in the firm’s Address brand.
For Dubai Hills Golf Club, they turned to golf course architect Gary Johnston of European Golf Design and construction supervisor Kyle Taggart, who was based on site throughout the project. “Emaar had a fairly clear vision of what they were looking for,” says Johnston. “Our brief was to design a course that would emulate the best features of their current courses, but with an extra ‘wow’ factor.”
Read more: Rory Hutchison of Desert Group provides an insight into the challenges of construction.
In Dubai, the usual method of wowing is to create something bigger, taller, more opulent or expensive. But at Dubai Hills, the wows aren’t brash, they come in the form of a delightfully varied and playable golf experience.
One attribute of most very good golf courses is memorable holes with a very strong individual identity. At Dubai Hills, the foundation for this is the routing. Johnston explains: “The fact that much of the golf course would be described as a corridor-style layout and changed direction frequently provided us the opportunity to make the golf hole you are currently playing the sole focal point and create that big reveal as you move from hole to hole.”
Those corridors were created on what was originally a relatively bland site. “It was gently rolling desert and had previously been home to a camel stable,” says Johnston. “Most of the golf course had to be lowered to generate material for the residential component of the development so virtually all of the landforms and landscape features that can be seen now have been created.”
This lowering of the golf course means that most holes play in valleys beneath the level of the surrounding housing, in relative isolation from each other. Upon that foundation, the real success of the course is its thoughtfully-designed holes and the constant change of pace that delivers interest throughout.
The round gets off to a quick start, with the opening seven holes including a par three, two mid-length and three short par fours, and a reachable par five, the fifth. The latter’s ‘wow’ moment is a dramatic reveal of the Dubai skyline, and the hole is oriented so that the Burj Khalifa provides the ideal aim line. At 485 yards from the back tees it is, even playing slightly uphill, very reachable in two, but only if you successfully negotiate the central bunker with your tee shot.
The fifth might be Dubai Hills’ poster child, but from a golfing perspective, the two holes that follow are equally impressive.
“I’m a big fan of short par fours and was pleasantly surprised with how the sixth hole turned out,” says Johnston. “At 330 yards from the back tee and with a helping slope on the right, I would imagine there will be plenty of golfers who try to drive the green, but the bunkers and slopes on and around the green will still make it interesting.”
The seventh is a bite-off-as-much-as-you-can carry over a sandy ravine to an angled fairway. Play too safe and you’ll have a longer approach over a large bunker that protects the front-left of the green.
The last two holes of each nine were constructed first, and all feature water and a vibrant palette of desert planting, giving them a lushness that is in contrast with the raw desert feel of the rest of the course, and in particular holes twelve to fifteen, where construction of housing is not yet under way.
The highlight of that stretch is the thirteenth, which, according to the club’s general manager Elliot Gray, evokes a feel of Cypress Point. It’s a short par three, maybe an eight iron if there’s no wind and you’re playing from the appropriate tee, fronted by a cluster of bunkers. A ridge runs through the green making the back-right pin position a very tough par.
Most of the greens are large and have plenty of movement, with waves and swales that extend into the surrounds creating plateaus within the greens; small, tough targets to hit to avoid the risk of three-putting. The course has plenty of width and is playable and enjoyable for average golfers, while pin placements can be set to ensure a stern challenge for better players.
From the very first hole and on multiple occasions throughout the round, central hazards force players to consider their strategy from the tee. The boldest of these is on the massively wide par-four sixteenth, where a cluster of palm trees sit in an island of sand in the centre of the fairway. A drive up the right side gives the best line into the green, but also brings water into play.
On the scorecard, the variety offered by Dubai Hills is clear to see. There are only two occasions in the round with consecutive holes of the same par, each of those cases being a short par four followed by a mid-length par four. The four par threes are at yardages that are likely to require four different clubs.
But there is variety in hole design and character too. “In response to the site conditions and requirements, the golf course design evolved to create three subtly different landscape characters,” says Johnston. “The front nine has some dramatic elevation changes with wadi-style features. The holes leading back to the clubhouse (the eighth, ninth, seventeenth and eighteenth) are built around a series of lakes, which double as irrigation storage, and are lusher in their planting style, and the back nine is more desert-like in the shaping and planting.”
Read more: John Holmes of Atlas Turf International explains turf choices at Dubai Hills.
As would be expected for a desert course, water management is a priority. “Like most of the golf courses in the region, Dubai Hills is irrigated with treated wastewater. Whilst the planting is quite lush along the residential edges, native desert planting that requires less water was used closer to the golf course edges. State-of-the-art software keeps the system as efficient as possible, although one of the biggest water management challenges was actually the drainage system and future-proofing the golf course to ensure that rising groundwater does not become an issue.”
Johnston now moves onto another project for the same client, the ‘Emaar South’ course being developed near the new Al Maktoum airport. “The plan is for it to be just as playable as Dubai Hills but with a very different landscape character,” he says. “It will have a more desert style with large native sand areas that need to be negotiated.”
With Dubai Hills having set such a high bar, we’ll be eagerly awaiting Johnston’s follow-up design.