Grand sand designs

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    Golf in Saudi Arabia is poised for huge growth with 13-16 new courses to be built in the country by 2030

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    Bettmann/ via Getty Images

    Rudimentary golf holes fashioned among dunes to attract expatriate workers and their families were the first foray in the sport

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    The golf course at Aramco’s Dhahran headquarters became the Rolling Hills Golf Club, hosting its first tournament in 1949

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    Golfers at Ras Tanura, the site of Aramco's first refinery, played over ‘browns’ of sand and oil

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    Bloomberg/ Getty Images

    The Rolling Hills club in Dhahran was converted to grass from sand in 2002

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    Kevin Murray

    In 2017, the country's first European Tour host course was built alongside the Red Sea at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club

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    Diriyah Gate Development Authority

    Plans for a new residential district close to the 18th centry city of Diriyah include a 27-hole course designed by Greg Norman's firm

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    Golf Saudi

    A visualisation of the new Nicklaus Design course planned for the massive Qiddiya development

Toby Ingleton
By Toby Ingleton

The birth of golf in Saudi Arabia can be traced back to the geologist Max Steineke. It was his 1937 order to ‘keep on drilling’ that convinced executives of the Standard Oil Company of California to continue what had been a fruitless search. A year later, in the desert of the Eastern Province, a few miles from the Gulf coast, workers finally struck oil.

Within a decade the oil firm – by then named Arabia American Oil Company, or Aramco – had discovered new fields, built a refinery and was exporting tanker loads across the world. To support this burgeoning industry, people were needed.

At the same time, golf was surging in popularity among Americans. So it made sense for Aramco executives to shape golf holes from the sand at its Dhahran complex, providing an amenity to attract expatriates to its rapidly growing workforce.

One of the earliest accounts of golf at Aramco was detailed in a July 1942 letter from chief petroleum engineer Philip McConnell to friends in the United States, written as British and German tank divisions were manoeuvring in the desert west of Cairo. An extract was published in the 2011 book about the history of Saudi Aramco, Energy to the World.

“Midway between camp and the seashore lies a barren blazing waste, distinguished from other barren blazing wastes by a faint hint of soil caught in a great depression among the brown mushroom hills and sheltered there from the claws of the shemaal,” wrote McConnell. “It is within this garden spot that our golf course has been spread, a course consisting of nine tees, stakes to mark the limits of the otherwise undistinguishable fairways, nine oil-sanded greens and a great amount of otherwise idle desert. Occasionally, a herd of camels ambles over our greens, leaving deep pits in the carefully smoothed sand; or a pair of donkeys may patter across, distributing smaller but sharper pockets for the trapping of a perfect approach shot. The terms ‘fairway’ and ‘rough’ imply a distinction that is theoretical only. Fairways lie between two rows of stakes but possess nearly the same number of rocky outcrops, sand dunes and gravel banks as the rough. However, we meet that emergency promptly by creating local ground rules that permit the use of artificial tees for all shots except putts — and that means from even two feet off the green.”

The end of this passage also reveals that this wasn’t even Aramco’s first layout: “And remember, this is our new course,” wrote McConnell, while also confirming the modest nature of these facilities: “We grew discouraged with the one farther south. Now we play on what undoubtedly is only the second worst golf course in the world.”

Golf was clearly a welcome diversion for the oilmen and their families, because as Aramco continued to expand, more of these courses were shaped at other campuses: Abqaiq, Udhailiyah and Ras Tanura – the location of the Kingdom’s first refinery.

At the main Dhahran campus, where the earliest of these courses emerged, the Rolling Hills Golf Club was created. In 1949 it hosted its first challenge tournament, where all four main camps came to the club for the beginnings of what would become known as the Aramcoama Golf Tournament. Dhahran won the 1949 event, edging out Ras Tanura by just 2.5 points.

When Aramco completed its Trans-Arabian Pipeline to the Mediterranean Sea in 1950, more sand-and-oil courses could be found at ‘Tapline towns’ like Qaisumah, Badanah and Turaif – communities that were emerging into the northwest of Saudi Arabia, along the route of the pipeline and where its main pumping stations were located.

A passage from a 1972 issue of Aramco World magazine describes what the game was like in those early days: “The balls are red because in the glare of the desert sun you can’t always see a white ball against the sand and rocks. The greens are brown, or sometimes black, because they are made of oil-treated sand. The fairways are hard because they are made of sand or marl sprayed with oil and compacted to preserve them from the desert wind. As for the rough, one golfer put it this way: ‘There just ain’t nothing else out there’.”

A generation of Aramco golfers honed a different technique to those who played on turf, learning to pick the ball off the compacted sand, because driving through the ball into the ground could bring an early demise to their clubs.

It would be a half century until Saudi golfers would need to learn a new technique. In the 1990s the Kingdom’s first grass layout was built at Dirab Golf & Country Club, in the shadow of the Tuwaiq escarpment southwest of the capital, Riyadh.

While the new course was well received, it didn’t yet signal an opening of the floodgates. Since the turn of the millennium, just a few more grass courses have followed.

In 2002, thanks to the efforts of Saudi Aramco’s Community Services, the Rolling Hills club was transformed from sand to grass. In order to properly utilise the space it was decided to convert the 27-hole layout to an 18-hole course of 6,649 yards. The remaining nine was decommissioned, but if you stroll the jebels on either side of the current course, which is now open public land, you can still find old tee boxes, benches and ball washers.

There are two more 18-hole grass courses close to Riyadh. North of the city, Riyadh Golf Courses started life in 1986 as a sand course, and in 2005 was converted to grass. Each hole is an oasis of green on the desert landscape, with waste areas to be carried from the tee. There are a few lakes, the largest of which includes an island green for the par-three eighth.

Nofa Resorts, around 60 miles southwest of the capital, is a contrast, with wall-to-wall grass. Barrie Gregson – formerly the golf operations manager for DeVere Hotels in the UK – replaced the resort’s original nine-hole course with an eighteen-hole layout in 2013. The back nine lies entirely within the interior of the Nofa horse racing track.

Nine-hole grass courses in Saudi Arabia include the par-34 grass layout at the Arizona Golf Resort residential community close to the centre of Riyadh, and the par-36 Safaa Golf Club layout at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology near Jeddah, which was designed by Dave Sampson of European Golf Design and opened in 2010.

In recent years, as Saudi Arabia has developed its Vision 2030 to diversify the economy and develop public services, golf has climbed the agenda. With the establishment of the Saudi Golf Federation, the organisation of the sport in the country has been formalised and ambitious plans created for the game’s future development.

The task of driving this change has fallen to Majed Al Sorour, the CEO of Golf Saudi, a subsidiary of the Saudi Golf Federation. A former professional footballer, playing for Saudi Premier League side Al Nassr FC, Al Sorour went on to study and work in the United States, during which time he also carved out a successful amateur golf career and found a passion for the game that would draw him back to the Kingdom.

Having first been recruited by the Saudi Golf Federation in 2010 as chairman of its Technical Committee, Al Sorour’s focus shifted to driving golf participation in the country. “My goal was to develop and create one of the most sought-after national team programmes,” he says. Working with public golf courses, primarily around Riyadh, Al Sorour’s initiative offered complimentary golf club memberships for young players, the best of whom would go on to represent Saudi Arabia in national team events around the Middle East region. Collaboration with the Ministry of Education and schools has already seen over 18,000 children participate in the game. The fuse has been lit for a new generation of Saudi golfers.

By the middle of the decade, alongside the chairman of the Saudi Golf Federation – Yasir Al Rumayyan, who is now also the governor of the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and chairman of Saudi Aramco – the conversation turned to the creation of new golf facilities and a drive towards mass participation. “When we started building the strategy, we looked at pillars,” says Al Sorour. “In order to get people to play golf we have to build the golf courses. To turn the rest of the world’s minds towards the Kingdom we have to host events. And to sustain golf, we have to create mass participation. It was a puzzle we put together.”

The first of a new generation of courses in the Kingdom was completed in 2018, with the opening of Royal Greens Golf & Country Club.

Royal Greens is located in the King Abdullah Economic City, one of the Kingdom’s ‘megaprojects’, on the Red Sea coast north of Jeddah. The course saw Dave Sampson, designer of Safaa Golf Club’s nine holes, return to the Kingdom to lay out an 18-hole course that would provide environmental benefit to the new Emaar Properties community built around it.

The 80-hectare site has just 40 hectares of maintained turf, the rest being the native desert landscape of exposed sand and wadis (valleys). The golf course also provides storm drainage capabilities for the development. “The network of wadis and streams carry water away from the housing and into four large saltwater lakes on the course,” said Sampson, in the July 2018 issue of Golf Course Architecture.

The opening of Royal Greens also gave Saudi Arabia a course of the quality and with the surrounding infrastructure required to host the European Tour. A deal was signed and the Saudi Invitational was born, with the first event of a three-year agreement being played in February 2019. That event also gave rise to the first Saudi golf professional, with Othman Almulla, a Saudi Aramco worker, being the first golfer in the Kingdom to compete internationally.

Royal Greens has now also hosted the Ladies European Tour, with the inaugural Aramco Saudi Ladies International taking place in November 2020. Speaking at the opening, Al Rumayyan emphasised the Kingdom’s focus for golf developments: “The central tenet of our national golf strategy is sustainability. The ambition is for golf in Saudi Arabia to be recognised for taking a highly advanced approach to establishing the most socially beneficial, economically productive and environmentally responsible sector possible.”

Golf Saudi has turned to golf industry experts for best environmental practices, entering into a partnership with GEO Foundation and the Sports Turf Research Institute of the UK.

“Golf Saudi’s strategic planning has rapidly accelerated its position as a leader in golf and sustainability,” says Jonathan Smith, CEO of GEO Foundation. “Their foresight, to develop such a comprehensive and robust framework, now provides the clarity and direction for all involved in golf in Saudi Arabia to advance the sport in a way that delivers many positive outcomes, whilst considering closely the critical issues of environmental sustainability encapsulated in The Green Agenda. The underpinning goals around carbon and climate, ecosystem restoration, circular economy and water stewardship are particularly important.”

Ground has been broken on Golf Saudi’s first accredited Amenity Turf and Landscaping Centre at Dirab Golf & Country Club and a partnership has been established with Atlas Turf in the development and distribution of the most climatically adapted turf species.

Training schemes have been established for club and turf managers too. “We have sought to create an educational framework that can accommodate the formulation of a skilled localised workforce, creating the pathway for members of the Saudi community to embark on a range of careers in and around golf, ultimately creating an abundance of new job opportunities,” says Al Sorour.

The national golf strategy is the foundation for the development of new courses in the Kingdom. There could be many, as the sport has a core place in the Kingdom’s place for future development. “Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has planted the seed of making golf an integral part of the lifestyle of Saudi Arabia,” says Al Sorour. “He has said we have to improve the life of Saudi people. And seeing greens around you will improve your life.”

Al Sorour currently expects 13-16 new courses to be built in the Kingdom by 2030. To date, details of just two of these have been announced. Greg Norman’s firm has signed an agreement to create a 27-hole golf course as part of a new residential district developed by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, in a valley northwest of Riyadh.

Speaking about the project at the Golf Saudi Summit in 2020, Norman said: “I have never designed anything on this scale before, the site is massive, and the cliffs are magnificent. There will not be a lot of blowing up or moving around which fits into my mantra of the ‘least disturbance approach’. Once I walked the site and understood the corridors and the land plan, I was mesmerised by it.”

And in early 2021, Golf Saudi announced that Nicklaus Design will create a new golf course as part of the massive Qiddiya development, supported by the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, that is already in construction southwest of Riyadh.

Qiddiya is expected to become the capital for sports, entertainment and the arts in Saudi Arabia, with residential, retail, hospitality and industrial components that will stretch over a 100 square kilometre area. The first phase, scheduled to open in 2023, will feature a Six Flags theme park.

The new golf course will be framed by the Tuwaiq mountain range. Jack Nicklaus says: “I’ve already spent time looking at the topography of the land, images of the backdrop and terrain, and discussing with our design team a strategy for the course. The design will fully integrate the natural environment and the beautiful Qiddiya landscape, bringing together green spaces and mountainous terrain to form a picturesque canvas for both a beautiful and challenging golf course.”

There are plans for another course at Qiddiya, but the designer is yet to be announced.

The choices of Norman and Nicklaus fit with Al Sorour’s desire for “branded” courses. Gary Player has become an ambassador for Golf Saudi and was a keynote speaker at the Golf Saudi Summit, where other firms headed by signature designers – including Nick Faldo, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson – were also represented. But that brand needn’t necessarily be a former pro golfer – big-name architecture firms including Golfplan, Robert Trent Jones II and Dye Designs were present too and will be keeping a close eye on the developments that unfold.

It may not be too long before we see courses designed by a Saudi national, too. Landscape designer Abdullah Kamakhi has been accepted into the European Institute of Golf Course Architects (EIGCA), positioning him to become Saudi Arabia’s first golf course architect.

Al-Sorour says: “This is one of the most rewarding parts of the job, seeing Abdullah thrive in a career path that, only a few years ago, didn’t exist within Saudi Arabia.”

The latest radical infrastructure project to be revealed in Saudi Arabia is the extraordinary ‘The Line’ in the northwest of the country. A zero-carbon city built over 100 miles in a straight line, there will be no streets or transport above ground, with the entire metropolis accessible by a five-minute walk to an underground metro, capable of transporting people from one end to the other in just 20 minutes. It is easy to see how golf could complement an emission-free green vision for the future.

Al Sorour says: “The clean, high-tech environment that The Line will create will no doubt allow golf courses to flourish due to their aesthetics, environmental development and consideration for health and nature in conjunction with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, turning the Red Sea coastline into a hub for golf.”

While their eyes are firmly fixed on the future, those running the game in Saudi Arabia have a deep respect for the game’s past over the desert sand. Al Sorour’s dream is for a really great desert tournament over four rounds, that alternate between desert and grass. “Seeing these golf courses built with sand and oil is heart-warming,” he says. “It’s surreal, you visit them, and you can feel it – those old souls taking a break from going out to discover oil.”

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Golf Course Architecture. For a printed subscription or free digital edition, please visit our subscriptions page.