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Bunker Mentality

The joys of playing golf in a course-size sand trap

Author Richard Whitehead

ILLUSTRATION BY PETER OUMANSKI

ABU DHABI—”There’s a lot of give on that brown,” says Rob Jennings. “You’ll want to aim at the area around the broomstick.” The terminology might sound a little odd, but then the Al Ghazal Golf Club is an odd place.

One of the world’s few sand golf courses, this Abu Dhabi institution has its origins in the early 1960s, during the onset of the United Arab Emirates oil boom. In recent years, Al Ghazal has been overshadowed by the plush grass courses that have sprung up around the country, and there are rumors that it will close this year to make way for a new property development.

There was little danger of falling victim to urban sprawl 50 years ago, when a handful of expat golfing enthusiasts first carved 18 holes out of the desert sand here. “The place was empty,” says club manager Angela Scurr. “It was the people who put it all together. They were the pioneers.”

In the early days, club members would bring their own strips of Astroturf to use as portable fairways. Over time, though, these were abandoned as the golfers— like the desert lark and the sand boa before them—adapted to the conditions. In place of greens, for instance, they created “browns”: sand mixed with oil and tamped down. After every putt, players must walk off single file, the last man dragging a broom behind him to smooth the surface.

Al Ghazal also has a host of unusual hazards, many of which are unique to the course. Among these are dhub burrows, named for the large, spiny-tailed desert lizards that call them home; if your ball trickles down one of the burrows, it’s best to take a drop. Then there’s the fact that the front nine holes surround an archaeological site, which contains scattered pottery shards and stone tools alongside stray golf balls.

Asked whether Al Ghazal itself will soon become a historical footnote, Scurr says absolutely not—though she allows that certain people have “plans” for the land it occupies. For Jennings, a Jamaican national who’s been a member of the club for eight years and who is considered by some to be its best player, the only concern right now is the tricky putt facing him on the final hole.

Jennings sinks it and does a little fist pump, then reaches for a broomstick, with which he brushes away the footprints he’s left behind.

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