February 2nd, 2011
06:09 PM ET

The growth of golf in the Gulf

The Dubai Desert Classic was held for the first time in 1989 but is now just one of top class European Tour events in the Gulf region.
The Dubai Desert Classic was held for the first time in 1989 but is now just one of top class European Tour events in the Gulf region.

As the finishing touches are put to this month’s Living Golf, I can only reflect on a fascinating journey to the Middle East.

Spread over nine days, we were there to look into the growth of the game in the Gulf, on the back of an ever-increasing commitment to host top-class European Tour events.

It seems like only yesterday but I was getting ready to leave school in Tipperary, when the Dubai Desert Classic was held for the first time in 1989.

The top players like Ballesteros, Faldo and Norman were still using persimmon woods and metal was still a novelty.

That first event was won by the former Ryder Cup captain Mark James and 22 years on, it goes from strength to strength, as testified by the winners’ list, which is a veritable who’s who of golf greatest names during that period.

Fast forward 22 years and the Desert Swing is well and truly a reality, given that the Tour now spends four successive weeks at the beginning of the season in this arid, oil-rich region, chasing not only the sun but some serious purses provided by a steady stream of top-class sponsors.

There are now five tournaments in the Middle East, including the Dubai World Championship which concludes each season.

Our trip brought us to Kuwait and Bahrain. Two countries that have been slower than their near-neighbors to develop golf as a tourist attraction.

Kuwait, for obvious reasons, has been lagging somewhat behind the likes of Qatar and the UAE, but its expansion since the first Gulf War in 1990 has been impressive and very encouraging.

Golf has been a factor here since the late 1940s, catering mainly for the extra-curricular needs of the multitude of ex-pat oil workers.

While sand courses have been the norm, grass courses like the Sahara Golf Club have shown what is possible in terms of developing the game and tourism, in this small nation known as the Gate to Iraq.

The feeling amongst those passionate about its prospects, see the Iraqi re-development as the catalyst for further progress and also the elevation of Kuwait to resort status in tandem with its rich oil reserves.

In the short-term however, it will have two 18-hole grass courses, with plans to add about four more depending on government support.

With that, comes the understandable ambition to field an Olympic golfing team for the Rio Games in Brazil in five years time, but only time will tell.

Bahrain meanwhile, has now been added to the mix and given the success of their amateur teams over the last 20 years in Gulf State competition, it would be no surprise if a native Bahraini were to make their presence felt in the coming years on Tour.

The Royal course is the crown jewel, and expensive to boot, but there is a commitment to hone the skills of locals along with the extensive ex-pat population.

Youth programmes are helping to make the game accessible to more of the country’s youngsters, and the arrival of a top class event like the Volvo Champions event should certainly shine a light on Bahrain as a golfing destination.

Shane O’Donoghue is the new Host of Living Golf on CNN. Twitter: @shaneodonoghue

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Filed under:  Golf
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. paul ward

    nice work shane...still hard to beat royal dublin on a fine spring day.

    February 2, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  2. Brendan fennessey

    Congratulations and very best wishes from Clonmel.......it's a long way to Tipperary !!!.

    February 2, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  3. deego

    well shane, keep the irish flag flying

    February 3, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Reply
  4. peter hayes

    the best to you in your new role....CNNs gain is the others loss. Just remember your golfing roots ....lyreanearla will be looking splendid in the summer

    February 14, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Reply

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