In Abu Dhabi, turning the desert into a world-class golf course

Yas Links Abu Dhabi, which is hosting the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship starting this week, is no mirage. Like other courses in the Middle East, it is a testament to man overtaking nature in harsh conditions.

What players and fans will see is a course, ranked among the top 50 in the world by Golf Digest, that appears to have been unearthed from the desert sand, but, in fact, was the handiwork of architect Kyle Phillips. The course was built on land bordering the Persian Gulf, and Phillips worked to make that coastline look like, well, a coastline.

“The idea was to protect the large mangrove area by dredging away from it and maintaining it,” Phillips said. That was accomplished by making the channel (by the course) wider and more open between the mangroves and the ocean, then building land forms that echo those of the original links courses in Scotland.

But the biggest challenge, Phillips said, was working in the heat. Summer temperatures regularly hit more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius), but the humidity can reach about 86%. Sandstorms, like something from a movie, also appear he said. He also noted that the golf course was a speck in the total development of Yas Island.

“This went from a barren island to seven hotels, the marina, the Ferrari theme park and the Formula One track, too,” Phillips said of the development that began in 2006 and finished in 2018.

Clinton Southorn, director of construction and agronomy of Troon International, which manages the course, said it was a “literal oasis.”

But that oasis takes maintenance, and the high salinity of the water used to help the grass grow, Southorn said, makes the impossible happen.

“From an agronomy point of view, you can’t grow grass here,” he said. “But this tells you about Mother Nature and how it can adapt and how with technology and tools, and the right skills in place, you can sort of change that.”

Southorn also said the consistency of the weather helped.

“We can put an application down, such as an herbicide, we don’t need to worry about a storm coming through and washing it all away. On the flip side, there’s no rain.”

In that climate and environment, taking care of the turf is complicated by the use of water in Abu Dhabi, said Corey Finn, the course manager. He said the potable water of the United Arab Emirates was acquired through desalination, but the golf course uses the recycled water of the nearby hotels and buildings.

This poorer-quality water poses challenges for Finn, but the entire process relies on six specialists who ensure that pipes are not leaking, that sprinklers are not blocked and that the system shuts off as asked by its computer system.

That system also allows Finn and his team to measure the amount of water the course receives. Measurements are taken each morning, and the data is sent to a cloud server that overlays the usage on a map of each green, allowing them to adjust the usage.

To aid in this endeavor, the course uses paspalum, a type of grass that thrives in salty water. Because of how Yas Links must take care of its turf, its strain of paspalum suffers when it rains.

To maintain high-quality turf, Finn said, they often have to add more water to flush the salt and minerals from the soil, and this sometimes allows them to wait a week before watering again.

The challenge for the tournament, which moved across town from Abu Dhabi Golf Club after 16 years there, is twofold. Southorn said paspalum was a sticky grass that could grab the ball and posed a challenge to golfers who did not often play on this type of surface. And for the club, while the greens and fairways are all paspalum, making mowing easier, the tournament arrives during winter and at the height of tourist season, when the course receives its most play, putting added stress on the grass.

“So we’re doing 150 to 200 rounds a day, which is 100 golf carts rolling over the grass,” Southorn said.

Courses that hold professional tournaments must balance a one-week showcase event versus the 51 weeks they host guests, but it’s not often those courses hold tournaments when their grass is its most vulnerable. But Finn said the grass would be where it needed to be for the tournament.

“Everywhere you turn on a golf course there is a challenge one way or another. What our team goes through every summer is pretty amazing,” he said about working in the heat, “and we have to manage, and not just the grass. We have to manage ourselves as well.”

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