02 Oct 2017

MENA Tour puts Ayla Golf Club on the Global Stage

The Middle East golf circuit received another pearl when the stunning Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba, Jordan’s first grass course, opened its doors to much fanfare just over a year ago.

The Greg Norman-designed seafront layout looked destined for big things from the outset and this month, after barely a year in operation it make its mark on the global stage by hosting a MENA Tour event for the first time.

Such rapid progress requires an experienced hand at the helm and who better than Director of Operations Chris White? The Englishman played a key role in the development of golf both in Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah during his time at Abu Dhabi and Al Hamra Golf Clubs respectively and he oversaw the launch and beyond of the world-renowned Yas Links in the UAE’s capital, host venue of the Abu Dhabi Invitational.

It’s an emphatic statement of the club’s ambitions that  Ayla is hosting a Tour event so soon after opening and Worldwide Golf caught up with White ahead of the tournament to discuss the club’s progress since he took charge in August 2015.

Worldwide Golf: How much of a big step forward for Ayla Golf Club is it to host a MENA Tour event and be able to spread the word further afield on how good the golf course is?

Chris White: Ayla development as a whole is absolutely world class with extremely engaged, supporting and active owners. We collectively sat and discussed the best ways to further showcase the golf course, project and the City of Aqaba and felt that a MENA Tour event was the right medium to initially create awareness and showcase ourselves to more of a regional market. For any project, particularly a country’s first, to host a professional golf tournament on literally its 367th day of opening is a statement to the quality of the course.

The eighth at Ayla Golf Club is a spectacular hole with the City of Aqaba as a back drop and the Red Sea Lagoons to the right.

WG: You’ve been personally instrumental in growing the game of golf in the Middle East at the highest level for many years, how does the Ayla GC rate among the top courses in the region?

CW: Ayla Golf Club can honestly compete with any other world class venue. Again from the owners and the senior management team there was a defined and conscious decision to use a ‘signature’ architect and to deliver a finished product that would become a ‘must play’ when visiting the country. Twenty seven holes of golf (nine fully floodlit), an amazing iconically designed clubhouse / academy complimented within a development of luxury water front housing, a 286 room Hyatt Regency hotel, marina, cable wake park, beach clubs and retail village really says it all.

WG: You were closely involved in the creation and running of Yas Links, regarded as arguably the most outstanding links courses in the Middle East – how do you think Ayla GC compares?

CW: It is imperative that the end objective is first thought of at the planning stage. Yas Links was entering a mature golf course market and there was a need for something different – parkland, desert and resort courses existed yet the most traditional form of the game ‘links’ didn’t (why would it in truth?). Kyle Phillips was thus given the task of moving a load of soil, shaping a coastline and designing a fast and running links layout – which no one can deny he did to an exceptional standard.

Ayla is obviously different. This property is the country’s first grass golf course, there is no immediate local competition, no need to be different. What is needed is a good fair test of golf that will support growing the game locally but also be an attractive and engaging experience for visitors. Greg Norman has created a fantastic resort course where the shaping feeds the ball back to playing surfaces. Whilst the Ayla development as a whole is set in the most majestic natural environment with spectacular views of the Shara mountain range that wrap around the course, the ‘fjord like’ start of the red sea is visible on several holes as are the three man-made lagoons of Ayla offering 17.1km of beach front.

WG: You were at Abu Dhabi Golf Club for many years and helped introduce world class golf events, such as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, which is still a major tournament in the UAE – is there scope to do something similar at Ayla GC, in terms of a European Tour event, and is hosting the MENA Tour the first step towards that? 

CW: You are going through the archives now, I started at Abu Dhabi GC in 1999! Ayla, internally, has an ‘events committee’ and collectively we all agree that events are required to both increase the awareness of the destination and drive footfall – others have built their success on such activity going back to the mid-eighties.

The second hole is a testing par 3 with a multitude of pin placements resulting in a two club swing in club selection.

The MENA Tour is the perfect event to ‘test the water’. We have received some wonderful support from private sector sponsorship who too want to engage in this growth. European Tour, Ladies European Tour, European Senior Tour and exhibitions are all on the table being discussed. I don’t doubt it will happen at some point – ‘The Middle East Quartet’ of Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Dubai and Jordan would be a nice winter series!

WG: With players such as Rayhan Thomas emerging from the Middle East and starting to make a name for himself on the world stage, how significant has the MENA Tour been in developing the game in the region? 

CW: I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t agree that the growth and development of the UAE in many many sectors is nothing other than a success story – the country has set the benchmark and others have followed.

Aligned with this has to be the vision of Muhammad Juma Buamain who, under the country’s leadership, has in a very short period of time established a development tour that feeds into other more globally established tours.

The fruits of this investment are already being harvested in just six years – players that have competed through the years on the MENA Tour are getting themselves opportunities both in the amateur and professional game to compete on the world stage.

If you increase the pool of opportunity, whether in education, sport or general life experiences you increase the opportunity of finding talent or handling situations – experience in life is key.

WG: Greg Norman has always said that the Ayla layout is one of the finest he has designed anywhere in the world with some outstanding features, including creating a ‘sea front’ residential community within the golf course – do you feel that golfers will be intrigued by the unique characteristics of Ayla?

CW: Visually it is breathtaking and must never be taken for granted but truthfully it is the hidden environmental sustainability that Ayla Golf Course needs to be revered for. Led by Ayla’s Managing Director Eng. Sahl Dudin and Director of Technical Services, Hala Araj, the team met and resolved every conceivable challenge. Water supplied by 19 wells from unusable brackish ground water, pumps, and reverse osmosis plant powered by solar energy (producing an excess of requirement and sending back to the grid), grass selection capable of taking a high salinity of treated water, minimised grass areas and a drainage system that feeds all back to source.

Yes it’s a great layout and a real test with wind but with low humidity and a dry heat it’s a great all year round golfing and holiday venue.

WG: With so many tourist attractions, such as Petra, within easy reach from Aqaba, it is a ‘must-stay and play’ destination for the golf tourist with something different to offer than the UAE and Qatar. Are you beginning to see more footfall in that regard and is the increase in airlines flying to Aqaba helping? 

CW: From the back of the fourth green at Ayla you can see Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Isreal whilst standing in Jordan. Already we are regularly receiving visitors and guests from these countries.

Petra is a 90 minute drive, the incredible and spectacular Wadi run 30 minutes away, the renowned diving of the Red Sea on our doorstep – Aqaba is a fantastic place for a long weekend visit and I urge all to experience a destination (as seen in the film The Martian) that’s out of this world!

Royal Wings (the charter division of Royal Jordanian) have introduced direct flights to Aqaba from Dubai, Cairo, Lebanon, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Brussels and Stockholm, whilst a number of other charters arrive from Russia. Easy Jet have visited and Turkish Airlines are in discussions to connect Aqaba to Istanbul and beyond – footfall will come.

Ayla’s Director of Operations Chris White has been at the forefrront of golf’s development in the Middle East for almost 20 years.

WG: Aqaba has a near-perfect year-round climate without extremes of weather – do you see Ayla GC offering an attractive summer destination for UAE-based golfers?

CW: We do. I spent 16 years in the UAE and no matter how acclimatised you become there are some summer days where the humidity is intense. Aqaba doesn’t suffer from such levels of humidity and I really believe the destination is a great short break during those oppressive summer months. From an investment perspective we are seeing GCC residents buying in Ayla and commuting back and forth whilst the family enjoy the less oppressive summer heat.

WG: With the only other golf club in Jordan being the sand course in Amman, is the number of Jordanians taking up the game starting to rise and will hosting the MENA Tour help with that process? 

CW: Bisharat Golf Club, Amman is where the game in Jordan began and they must be recognised for their continued efforts.

The Jordan Golf Federation has a new engaged and active board whom, with Ayla, have a remit of getting a 7 iron in as many under-15 year olds’ hands as possible – henceforth Ayla’s Head Professional Chris Dodd is taking golf to schools in Aqaba and schools to golf from Amman. It goes back to that statement above, “increase the pool of opportunity and you increase the opportunity of finding talent.”

During MENA Tour week we shall be hosting some 60 local kids and will be introducing them to golf whilst also working with the world-renowned David Edwards and his impressive trick show.

WG: Having seen the gradual progress of the Ayla GC since you’ve been at the club, are you pleased with the end product and are there any other facilities you would like to see introduced?

CW: Ayla Golf Club is in a great place, the Academy Clubhouse is nearing completion and will be fully operational in Q1 18 with some tremendous facilities. This iconic structure won two architecture awards at the Arabian Property Awards announced just prior to Cityscape in Dubai this year.

One of the current projects on the table is to establish an indoor golf centre in Amman where we can essentially introduce the game to a larger population during the week and feed them down to Aqaba at weekends.

WG: What do you feel are the outstanding holes on the golf course?

CW: Hole 1 is a strong and relatively gentle introduction. The par three holes 2, 6 and 16 are also very strong whilst the closing stretch of 17 and 18 really will, I believe, determine the champion during our MENA Tour event.

Hole 18 in particular at 465 yards into a prevailing wind with water down the right side essentially from tee to green is a daunting challenge – a bogey to win and the grip pressure tightens, a par for a play-off and the tempo increases and a birdie to lead in the clubhouse could lead to a make or break.

Honestly there are eighteen great holes with the course route resulting in the prevailing wind impacting in all directions.

The flowing wadi runs parallel to the length of the 15th with an intimidating pond nestled against the green side edge.

WG: What do you see as the future of Ayla GC? 

CW: Ayla Golf Course is one element of one of the finest master planned mixed use developments in the world and that is not exaggerated.

The investment in infrastructure is complete which essentially means we can pull the trigger on new individual plot developments almost instantly.

Quite sensibly, we grow in a phased and ‘as per demand’ way. Over time residential communities will increase, hotel occupancies will rise and visitor number will grow. This can only bode well for the introduction of golf to newcomers and the growth of the game in Jordan – the MENA Tour is a stepping stone to this journey.

 

For a limited time Ayla are doing an amazing offer of 18 holes for AED 250! You have to quote this code when booking: WWG1017

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