Stark but Sublime: Golf in Arabia

23 January 2020

I’m standing, driver in hand, on the 18th hole at Al Mouj Golf. But while I’m here in body, my mind is darting in various directions: none of them advisable. Focus is vital at this grandstand finale, which is played along the shores of the Gulf of Oman into the teeth of a prevailing breeze. I’m struggling, though, to center my thoughts amid the visual stimulus that surrounds me.

To the left, the stark, rugged wall of the Hajar Mountains pours down to the coastal plain. Of more immediate concern is the ocean, which cuts into the foreground to present an intimidating carry before switching back to fringe the fairway to the putting surface.

“Just swing nice and easy,” says Marcus Casey, the head golf pro at the Sultanate’s top club. “Don’t let the water intimidate you.” Inhaling deeply for composure, I make the stroke. My ball sails unerringly through the cobalt blue sky and achieves touchdown safely in the middle of the fairway.

Golf, a game that I have played since childhood, but never perfected, is always a risky bet – as likely to induce a headache as is to instill a glow of satisfaction.

Al Mouj is home to the Oman Open, one of six European Tour events played on the Arabian Peninsula.

So, it’s a reflection of the experience at Al Mouj Golf – and in Oman in general — that the feel good factor is present throughout a golfing odyssey that takes in Al Mouj and two other clubs, Muscat Hills Golf and Country Club and Ghala Golf Club.

If, a mere 25 years ago, you had predicted that the Gulf states would be one of the world’s prime golfing destinations you probably would have attracted the kind of incredulity reserved for crazies, cranks, and weirdoes.

At that time, the collection of sunbaked nations nestled along the western shores of the Persian Gulf were a far cry from the global powerhouses they are today and the only courses to be found were grass-free affairs where golfers used Astroturf mats to hit shots onto ‘browns’ made from heavily oiled sand.

Fast-forward to today and it’s a different matter entirely. Since the opening of the first grass course in the region – the Majlis at the Emirates Golf Club in Dubai – back in 1987, the climate has proved no barrier to the creation of a plethora of layouts that can justifiably lay claim to being among the best on the planet.

I’ve been fortunate enough to play a few of these over the years. During a year-long stint as an editor in Dubai back in 2008, I took on Dubai Creek Golf Club, Abu Dhabi Golf Club and The Els Club among others. While I’ve missed out on the chance to play some of the more significant additions since then, I’d like to think I’m up to speed with the all-round quality of the golf product in the region.

Dubai Creek was home to the first golf academy in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, as I putt-out for a closing par at Al Mouj Golf and head towards the clubhouse for a beer, I’m determined to raise a toast to the course’s designer, Aussie legend Greg Norman, for the masterpiece he has bequeathed to Oman.

The man known as “The Shark” struck gold when he was handed a four-mile stretch of virgin coastline near Muscat on which to work his magic.

Norman has performed design alchemy at coastal locations worldwide. His efforts at Doonbeg in Northern Ireland (now the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel) and The Bluffs Ho Tram Strip and The Dunes course at BRG Danang Golf Resort in Vietnam are all examples of his aptitude at creating contemporary yet classic links courses. Yet many would argue that his crowning achievement is the one that I am tackling this glorious winter’s morning.

Indeed, the course has earned ample acclaim in important places. Golf Digest currently rates it as #2 in the Middle East, just behind the Majlis course. Luminaries such as Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington have sung its praises. Its lofty reputation, meanwhile, is reflected in its status as the regular host of the Oman Open, a European Tour event that made its debut in 2018.

After playing the course, I find myself buying into all the hullabaloo. The entire course is a pleasure to play, but I’m blown away by holes such as the closing hole and the 11th, a truly stunning par three that’s played towards the azure ocean.

“Of course, I’m biased, but I think this is Greg Norman’s best-designed golf course,” says Casey as we complete that clubhouse salutation to the designer. “It doesn’t kill you, so you are going to enjoy the course whatever your ability. But after a fairly gentle start, it steps things up.”

As well as succeeding as a standalone test, Al Mouj Golf has done much to establish Oman as a viable destination in its own right for a golf vacation.

“It can’t compete with the UAE in terms of course numbers,” admits Casey. “But golfers can play on layouts that range from good to great and also discover a destination that is as rich in heritage and natural beauty as any in the world.”

Floodlit night golf is one way to beat the heat.

The next day I strike out from my palatial digs at The Chedi Muscat for the second round of my trip at Muscat Hills, which opened for play as Oman’s first grassed golf course in 2009.

Situated in the shadow of the imposing Hajars, the course enjoys a dramatic location and is an exacting test for even the best golfer. Natural wadis (dried-up river beds) come into play on many holes.

While the coastal location and true links nature of Al Mouj Golf makes it a hard act to follow, there are numerous stand-out holes at Muscat Hills with highlights including the perilous 6th, an uphill monster that is played to a shallow green perched on a high brow.

With time running low, there’s time for one last golf outing on my final day. This time I’m taking on Ghala Golf Club, the oldest club in Oman and one I played on a previous visit to Muscat in 2008.

At Muscat Hills, its 18 holes constituted the first “grassed” golf course in Oman. Before that, golf was played on ‘browns,’ not ‘greens.’

Last time I was here, I set out from clubhouse equipped with a square of Astroturf from which to play my shots on the rare occasions I hit the gravel-strewn fairways. Now fully grassed, the layout presents a lush, but still formidable, challenge.

After floundering (enjoyably) around the course, I’ve got time for a bite and a last drink in the clubhouse. From the terrace, the course unfolds through a giant dried-up wadi towards the mountains beyond. The view, again, is sublime. I reflect that it seems indicative of the growth of golf tourism in Oman — an outlook that is as widescreen as any in the Middle East.

Between now and April of this year, Tee Off In Style pairs a two-night stay at The Chedi Muscat with two rounds of golf at Al Mouj Golf, as well as a 60-minute Ancient Balinese Massage. For more information, contact [email protected].

Chedi Club Suite

Text by Duncan Forgan for GHM Journeys.
Featured image: The writer John Updike once called a golf course a “consecrated meadow.” In Arabia, we might hazard reference to consecrated sand dunes.

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