Tim Southwell visits Qatar to experience its original sand courses as well as Education City GC and Doha GC, host of the European Tour's Qatar Masters

Golf In Qatar: From Sandy Beginnings To World Class Championship Layouts

I’m standing on the first tee at Qatar’s oldest golf club. And when I say ‘tee’, I mean a concrete block on which there is a temporary mat. In front of me, the first fairway stretches out some 400 yards. And when I say ’fairway’ I mean concrete runway strewn with sand and rocks. To hit from the fairway you have to place a portable astroturf mat onto the concrete. At least you’re assured of a decent lie. When I arrive at the ‘green’ I will find a large platform covered in sand. It’s actually called a brown. Welcome to bona fide desert golf – Qatar style.

The Dukhan Golf Club consists of an 18-hole, 7,050 yards, 72 par, golf course, decent practice facilities, and a homely clubhouse. Created in the late 1940s and located inside the Dukhan Township, the course is a mixture of sand and oil. Originally a 9-holer, it was expanded to 18 in 1997.

But what’s it doing here in the first place? Simple, to give the oil worker ex-pats (a good hour’s drive from the bright lights of Doha) something to do after their shifts.

In the late 1940s, following the end of the Second World War, the oil boom occurred in what is now the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (GCC) that drew oil industry specialists from all over the world. During this period golf was introduced to Qatar and the Arabian Gulf states, mostly as a means of recreation for the American and British expatriates working on the onshore facilities in the petroleum sector. Over the years golf became a very popular sport in Qatar, initially for small groups of dedicated players but in recent years as a part of the growing tourism industry.

As I look around the bleak, oil-stinking surroundings, I am reminded of golf’s sheer resilience. If golf can survive here, it can survive anywhere.

My adversary is my pal, Pogo. That and the golf course. Both first drives go high. And then higher and then higher still. The ball really sails in this heat (it’s a breezy 27 degrees). When my drive hit the fairway it took an expected big jump into the air and then, less expected, the ball settled quickly. There is a bit of give in the concrete, most likely due to the constant film of oil which pervades everything here. After a couple of chops (I hadn’t played for a while, please have mercy) I am on the brown.

A had a 25-foot putt and really didn’t know what to expect. The sand is compacted down but still kind of fluffy, making you think the ball will meander all over the place and probably be very slow. I was delighted to see that the ball travels 100% true on its line. And they’re not that slow, pretty much the same pace as your local course just prior to being cut for competition.

The scores aren’t important. Well, they were in the clubhouse where I had to buy the cokes and sandwiches. Yes, cokes. Qatar is a dry country. No alcohol. Which makes golf’s survival out here even more astonishing.

Dukhan GC has about 137 members. In the past when there were no alternatives, the fairways would be packed from September-May (it’s too hot to play in Qatari summer when temperatures rise over 50 degrees). Now the fairways are mostly empty until the weekend. In 2020, there are alternatives to desert golf. Well, there are two grass alternatives and one more desert classic.

Mesaieed GC is the other sand course. The club was established in 1951 as a 9-hole course, again built with a pungent sand and oil mixture. The golf course was expanded in 1959 into an 18-hole brown golf course to host the Middle East Oil Industry Golf Association (MEOIGA) Trophy Championships. Today, the golf club hosts competitions and championships such as the QP Challenge Trophy and provides facilities such as cafeteria, banquet hall and tennis court for QP staff and visitors.

In contrast to Dukhan, Mesaieed has some water features. Well, there are some scruffy lakes here and there. Mesaieed also lays claim to the Longest (Unofficial) Drive Of All Time. On the 13th of January, 1978, during the Wimpey Trophy Stableford, Mr. A. Brooks stood on the 485-yard, par 5 12th hole. 569yards later, he was reunited with his 35 MPH tailwind assisted golf ball. Boom.

When you’ve putted out on the browns, you have to sweep the area with a specially designed wide broom. The sand may be compacted but your golf shoes leave big prints every step you make. It’s part of the ritual of desert golf. You might not have any pitch marks to repair but you do have to cover your tracks.

The club has a pleasant, modest clubhouse, lounge area, changing rooms, kitchen, barbeque area, and children’s playground. Golf in the desert, it’s an experience that any self-respecting GolfPunk should make a b-line to play at some point.

We’re out here as guests of the Qatar Foundation which has somewhat loftier ambitions than simple desert golf. Education City covers 12 square kilometres and features educational and research facilities.

It also features the very impressive Al Shaqab Equestrian Centre. Long before Qatar discovered natural gas and petroleum, turning it into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Qatar was best known for its Arabian horses.

In fact, horses played a key part in the founding of the country. No more so than in 1893 when Bedouin tribesmen and their horses defeated the Ottomans in a  battle that lead to Qatar’s independence. Subsequently, the horses are treated like royalty. No stone is left unturned in their quest to produce show jumping horses of the highest order and maximum value. They’re worth millions. They even have their own jacuzzis.

Smack bang in the middle of Education City is the Education City Golf Club which is hosting the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters during our stay. Designed by Jose Maria Olazabal, ECGC, the 7,777-yard course is part of a vast complex that also features a 6-hole introduction course, a floodlit par-3 course and what they claim is the world’s most technologically advanced, state-of-the-art golf trainman facility, the Centre Of Excellence.

Education City Golf Club is a landmark project for Qatar. The course was designed in line with USGA standards with all green areas of the golf course including the fairways, greens, tees and rough being USGA Specification. When the wind gets up, as it often does in Doha, the course becomes treacherous. We bumped into Nicolas Colsaerts on the range on Pro-Am day. It was quite windy. “You could see people shooting in the 80s if it stays like this,” he says with a genuine sense of trepidation.

As it turned out the wind behaved itself and Jorge Campillo won a playoff after scoring -13.

ECGC is an impressive golf course. Immaculately groomed and conditioned, it winds around the desert offering up challenge after challenge with its gnarly rough and undulating greens. Olazábal purposely led the first few holes of the golf course alongside an ancient wadi wall, allowing its charm and heritage to set the tone for your round. “Along several holes on both the front and back nine, we continue the reoccurring riverbed theme feature – which, on occasion, comes strategically into play”, Olazábal says.

The Education City Golf Club Centre Of Excellence is every self-respecting golf pro’s ultimate wet dream. As with everything else in Qatar, there is literally no expense spared and the facilities are mind-blowing. The six, eight-metre swing studios open out onto a meticulously cared for driving range, including sloping lie facilities. Here you can get wired up and have every single aspect of your golf swing, posture, and weight transference analysed and played back to you in glorious technicolour. They’ve even catered specifically for lefties with a bespoke left-handed studio which features a left-handed entrance door.

Related: The best golf courses in the Middle East

On top of that, there is a putting lab (with hydraulic shape-shifting greens), TrackMan, gym, and a Ladies-only area. Apparently, the guys here traveled extensively throughout the world talking to people at other similar facilities asking one key question: ‘What one thing would you do differently?’ The result speaks for itself.

“I’ve been in golf for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Mike Braidwood General Manager of the club since 2017. “Under one roof you have all the latest tech you could possibly need to enhance performance. We don’t yet have many elite players here yet so we’re targeting international national teams to come here and use it as a training camp. Some of the tour pros here this week have been down to look at the facility and they use Qatar Airlines a lot so they’ll be stopping off here on route to Europe to and from Australia etc and be using it.

“Accelerated learning has been very evident. People who are taking the game up from scratch and using this technology are finding it easier to learn because they’re getting all this visual land kinaesthetic learning from the technology. Then our members who take lessons with our pros are the ones winning all the prizes in competitions. You’re just seeing people’s handicaps tumbling down.”

The facility nestles in the shadow of the 45,350-seat Education City Stadium, one of eight stunning creations that have popped in no-time for the 2020 World Cup. As with all the recent developments in Qatar, the powers that be are at pains to point out the sustainability of the new builds with 20% of the build materials identified as green. After the world cup, 25,000 seats will remain for use by University athletics teams. Personally I’m most impressed by the fact that the stadium looks like a giant, jagged diamond, glittering by day and glowing by night. Nice.

This is part of a concerted effort to grow golf in Qatar. It’s not going to be easy. Golf isn’t part of their culture and women have only just started playing any sport at all after generations of cultural oppression. There are some 350,000 actual Qataris in Doha to target.

“Golf is certainly not a sport in their culture,” says Mike. “Football is the main sport but the current generation coming through are more active, a lot of guys goers, tennis is becoming more popular. The route in is the youth which is great but you’re competing against a lot of other sports. Having said that we had a retired Qatari wander in last December and said ‘I want to join’. He hadn’t played golf so we said don’t join, just let us teach you. He’s in his 70s and he’s loving it, playing every day. You have to hit both ends of the spectrum. We donate SNAG sets to schools, we teach the school teachers how to teach SNAG and it becomes part of the school curriculum. Then the kids that show an interest come here after school and do golf classes for real.

“Ladies sport here is growing but culturally for years and years, they didn’t play any sport at all. When you go into the offices etc and ask the ladies if they want to try golf their faces light up and they’re like “yes, I’d love to give it a go. Catriona Mathews is working with us and the R&As Women & Golf Charter. The R&A have actually given us a grant of £5,000 to push the ladies game here so when you go to the Centre of Excellence, you’ll see a totally private area for women and we’re using the £5k to go out to Qatari businesses and make sure they know that all Qatari women are welcome here to have private lessons with Rachel our female pro.”

You can’t say that Qatar isn’t making an effort. It’s the only country in the world that has a national holiday for Sport, National Sports Day. Every second Tuesday in February is a public holiday and companies are encouraged to get their employees outside and active. While Qatar is making all the right noises, it’s not been without controversy, with criticism reigning down on the Universities based at Education City (which include Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon) for setting up a campus in a country with alleged links to state-sponsored terrorism and historic human rights abuses. Putting hypocrisy aside for a minute, we’re here to discover the golf. Which brings us to Doha Golf Club, Qatar’s first grass-based golf course and host to the Qatar Masters for the last 17 years prior to Education City GC taking up the reigns this year.

Did I say that Qatar is dry? I may have been a bit previous there. You can drink in the hotel bars. And you can drink at Doha Golf Club. In fact, it’s pretty much a pre-requisite here. Which is one of the reasons it’s become a vibrant social hub every Friday and Saturday (weekend). When Pogo and I rock up to the golf club on Friday morning we suddenly realise we have come to the right place. The place is buzzing. Golfers are chatting and laughing as they get ready to hit the course and the sun-drenched terrace area is alive with Qataris and ex-pats toasting a great round of golf and the fact that they’re basking in one of the world’s most luxurious hot spots.

Be warned though, Qatar is a very expensive place to lubricate with alcohol. They may have acquiesced in terms of allowing westerners to drink in certain places, but they know how to charge: €14 for a beer anyone? Ouch.

The golf course itself is a pleasure. Designed by Peter Harradine (Abu Dhabi GC, Golf Cortina, Jebel Sifah, etc) Doha GC is one of the longest par 72 tracks on the tour, coming in at 7,374-yards. Eight strategically positioned lakes await mis-hits, 65 giant cacti imported from Arizona frame fairways and there are numerous imposing limestone rock formations. The stunning Doha skyline frames much of the course. It must look crazy from above. All this greenery and drama right in the middle of a giant desert.

The ninth hole is a staggering 639-yards of the tips and even off the whites measures up to 597-yards. There are some really nice features on the course including a plethora of water hazards, many of which creep up on you without too much warning. The fairways are quite narrow in places but you can usually find your ball in the light rough. It might be light but it can get very sticky in places. And fluffy in others. Meaning when we were off target we were sometimes whiffing the ball not very far or getting the club tangled in the thicker stuff. So we decided not to go in the rough. Much…

Gentle dog-legs abound and the course sets out in front of you in a very pleasing way to the eye. The par-3 eighth hole is a favourite, played almost entirely over 160-yards of water. The ninth was our 18th, having started on the 10th. Up to this point, I was rather pleased with myself that I still had the same ProV that I started with (word of warning, bring your own golf balls, a dozen ProVs cost us nearly €100…), but that all came to an end when I tried to finish my good work after getting to within 200 yards of the green in two shots. The less said about my rescue club shot the better. Suffice to say it got wet.

It has to be mentioned that the greens are a bit messed up due to the fact that local regulations changed a couple if years ago meaning the course had to take on recycled sewage water in which the saline content is very high. They’ve been unable to tackle to the green situation here until now. Before ECGC was established, Doha GC was the only ‘proper’ golfing option so shutting the course for renovation wasn’t really an option. Rest assured, they are putting in their own water polishing plant soon and the greens are going to be replaced with paspalum grass.

Golf, although very slowly, has come a long way since the late 1940s. There will be more and more fancy golf courses created out here in the next few years and it may well become something of a golfer’s paradise. But when it does, don’t forget to check out Qatar’s desert golf roots. It’s an experience. Let’s also hope that FIFA’s insistence on setting alcohol prices during the World Cup will have a long term effect on Qatar.

There’s no doubt about it if Qatar wants to become a true golfing destination and fill all the hotels that will quickly empty after the World Cup, they are going to have to build more golf courses. And that is the plan. Qatar Airways flies to 180 destinations and about 12-14million people go through Hamad International Airport. So the footfall is there. And so is the cash. Not only does the Qatari government have virtually unlimited funds, but they also know that the golf tourist is the highest spending tourist of them all. There is talk of a links course (step up, Pete Dye please!) and there are some amazing mangrove areas that could be superb for a golf course.

From the modest, haphazard fairways on the dusty desert oil fields to the opulence of Education City Golf Club, golf in Qatar is starting to take off.