24 Aug 2022

Golf in Dubai in the 70s – Sand, browns and ‘great big lizards’

In the year 2022, we are blessed with some of the finest golf courses in the world right here in the UAE.

The green oasis that is Emirates Golf Club, the serene beauty of Yas Links, Abu Dhabi and the majestic Els Club, Dubai to name a few, but that wasn’t the case when the UAE first started making a name for itself on the global stage some 50 years ago.

The first ever golf course in the Middle East came in the form of Dubai Country Club, a nine-hole sand course that officially opened in 1971 – two years after 150 ‘members’ contributed 500AED each to build a clubhouse. The members themselves built the the golf course with borrowed equipment, but access to the club remained a major problem with members driving across the desert to reach the clubhouse until Sheikh Rashid ordered a road to be built to the the famed club, which also featured a swimming pool and a watering hole – Dubai’s first.

So what was it like playing on a sand course back then, rather than the well-kept greens and manicured fairways we are spoilt with today?

“Everybody, I mean in those days everybody, there were no grass of course, so everybody played on sand,” said David Burns, who first came to the UAE in 1967.

“The Country Club in particular, you had quite clear fairways that had been sort of raked and brushed, and then dunes and just stand and scrub for the rough areas. And what we would call greens were actually browns, and the putting surface was just sand mixed with crude oil.

“On a Friday, the club would employ the green-keeping staff and after every everybody had been round or when somebody had finished putting, they would go on the green or on the brown with a big brush, and cut out the previous markings from the balls.

“Before you reached the brown, if you landed on the fairway, you would place a nine-inch square of astro turf down to play your ball. You would always carry this around with you and placed it behind the ball, then you were allowed to pick up the ball and put it anywhere on the astro turf. All of the tee boxes had astro turf as the surface from which you could drive from.

“And if you played in the rough, in a lot of cases you hit stone. So you never used good clubs to play there, because your clubs got battered very quickly. The same rules applied. There were people that would go back to the club after a game and analyse every stroke and every shot, something I could never do. You played a normal game of golf, but you played it on sand.”

David in Qatar during the 90s

Dubai Country Club’s membership trebled by end of the first year and continued growing, which helped generate the funding for nine extra holes, but the small clubhouse became a problem with the growing numbers. The club’s golfers soon solved this issue by installing a separate golf clubhouse using a redundant prefabricated staff accommodation unit donated by a construction company – the ‘temporary’ building continued in use for 35 years from the early 80s.

But there was one problem that couldn’t be solved – giant lizards on the course!

“It was hot during the summer; it would get up to 50 degrees,” said Burns. “I played golf on many occasions in temperatures of more than 50 and that gets difficult out in the middle of a desert, which it was back then.

“Because you were out there with sand all around, there used to be iguanas living on the course. You could walk down the fairway and there’d be bloody great lizards running all over the place – it was a sight to behold!”

The club continued to be a roaring success with the vast number of expatriates that came to the UAE, with tournaments held every Friday for members and the introduction of the Dubai Open Golf Tournament in 1979, which attracted players from across the globe. But as Dubai’s ambition grew, along with the first grass courses introduced to the Emirate, the club was outgrown and closed 30 plus years after its opening to make way for new developments leaving Dubai.

Check out the September edition of Worldwide Golf for the full article

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