The Els Club

Sean Dudley
By Sean Dudley

Dubai is like nothing else on earth.

Forget the eye-popping statistics – the 25 per cent of all the world's cranes that are said to be currently in the Emirate, the soon-to-beworld's tallest building, perhaps shortly after to be eclipsed by one even higher, the map of the world dredged from the bed of the sea and now apparently mostly sold despite the US$25 million entry price. No, it is the totality of the place that is so overwhelming, the fact that wherever one looks there is another massive project either rising from the desert floor or zoned to do so. Not content with one (admittedly straining at the seams) major airport, the Dubai authorities are building another, which will, of course, be the world's largest.

Set against all this grandiosity, the newly-opened Els Club golf course seems, at first glance, to be a modest little thing, especially by comparison to the grand four course development in construction across the highway at Jumeirah Golf Estates. But that is a misnomer, because the club (whose new course, built by Ernie Els's design practice, will be the first actually to bear the South African's name) is an integral part of something much, much bigger.

Let's get the litany straight first. There is the Els Club, which is located inside a large masterplanned community that goes by the name of Victory Heights.

Victory Heights itself is part of the astonishing Dubai Sports City project, of which more later. And Dubai Sports City is only a subset of the huge development zone known as Dubailand, which also includes the five course Dubai Golf City and, just as icing on the cake, another large residential community going by the name of The Tiger Woods Dubai. Which will, of course, feature the world number one's own first signature design – for which, it is rumoured, his fee is well into eight figures.

Untold billions of dollars are being thrown into these projects with the aim of establishing Dubai as the world's centre for top-end living and recreation.

Take Dubai Sports City, to which I referred earlier. A 25,000-seat cricket stadium is now close to completion. A 60,000-seat stadium for football, rugby, other field sports and athletics is also under construction. A 10,000-seat indoor arena will soon be built, as will a facility for hockey, along with tennis courts (and a David Lloyd academy). A bid for the Olympics has been mooted, although the brutal summer climate of the Gulf surely rules it out. There will be thousands upon thousands of villas and apartments, the real financial reason for all this construction. And, among it all, sits the golf course.

Els and his chief architect, American Greg Letsche, have made some bold choices in designing the course. Chief among these is the decision to embrace the natural landforms of the desert that surrounds the course. It is this that has led the South African to refer to the course as a 'desert links', and it is true that there is a pleasing humpy-bumpy, rolling feel to the fairways, and the sand dunes that have been left (or built in some cases) do flow well into the course contours. This kind of tying-in of contours is a hallmark of high quality design work.

That said, the desert isn't seamlessly integrated. I know I was visiting a very new course, and it isn't fair to make judgements on how it will mature, but the transition between golfing turf and desert sand is very stark. There is, essentially, a sharp edge to the grass, and suddenly there is desert. It may well be that, given time, the turf edge will soften, perhaps by the use of rougher grasses, of which there was virtually no evidence, and this may reduce the starkness of the current look. Or it may be an aesthetic choice, in which case I'm not so keen.

Another question that cannot be answered is how these bare dunes will appear when the course is surrounded not by open desert, but by sports stadiums and manicured real estate.

The second hole, the first par three on the course, features a cleverly-positioned bunker behind the green. It's ironic that I thought this a good feature, because I wasn't a fan of the similarly positioned bunkers the Els team built behind the home green on Wentworth's West course.

In the latter case, though, the objection was that Harry Colt, whose principles the Wentworth work was claimed to be based upon, never used bunkers behind a green.

Here, it works. The eighth is a fine hole, with a terrific green complex that, to me at least, shows off architect Letsche's background in the Nicklaus organisation. Just as many recent Nicklaus courses have featured mean bunkers with carefully sculpted edges and some very well-done shaping around the greens, so this hole does. The green, tucked away and protected to front and right by desert, is reachable in two for bold players, but for most a lay-up will be the sensible option, and it's here that the clever design is on show. There is severe contouring in the approach to the green, so any golfer who either plays too aggressive a lay-up or goes for the green and is short will face a very difficult chip.

In Dubai, the wind changes direction during the day, so the course has been designed with this in mind. Hole nine, for example, will normally play with the wind in the morning, but will be a stiff challenge indeed – especially at 507 yards, par four, from the back markers – when the breeze swings round after lunch. The hole has two bunkers jutting into the left side of the fairway on a diagonal, teasing the golfer – can you make the carry, or is discretion the better part of valour? Windy courses need width, and the thirteenth hole, which features a broad fairway split by a niggling little central bunker, is a good example of how width can be used to provide interest.

There is another nicelyplaced central bunker to be found on the finishing hole, a strong par five.

Another thing I particularly appreciated was that water features only on two holes, the seventh and fifteenth. Clearly a course in the desert needs a decent reservoir for irrigation purposes, but large expanses of water in such an environment stick out like a sore thumb, and conflict with the desired links-like feel. Here, the water is confined to a small part of the course – and, even more happily, produced two strong holes.

At 7,538 yards from the back markers, the Els Club course will be a tough day's golf for pretty much all players. It is a shame too that there are some long gaps between holes that will make it a cart ride for almost everyone. It's the inevitable consequence of a course built to support so much real estate, but the topography of the site could easily have given forth an easier walk. But Ernie Els, Greg Letsche and their team have done good work here. See it before the houses go up and see it at its best.