Middle East deserts bloom with golf

The oil-rich desert nations of the Middle East are rolling out fairway after fairway and they're sponsoring competitions to draw top touring professionals from all over the world.

"There's a tremendous amount of building, including in Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia," Sartori said. "And now we see the European Tour expanding into Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar."

Huge media coverage of these tournaments has helped fuel interest in the area.

Even more amazing: In the Mideast, they're making golf work financially even though the number of golfers residing in the entire region wouldn't even fill half of Yankee Stadium.

Dubai, for example, has average revenues for courses four or five times higher than such countries as Portugal, Spain, England and Germany, according to a 2007 report by KPMG.

The 17,000 players living in the Middle East, KPMG also says, represent a golf participation rate of 0.026 percent, "much lower than in most European countries and reflecting the relatively infant stage of golf 's development in the region."

Among the high-profile projects in the works:

* The site of the 18-hole Riffa Golf Club in Bahrain, built in 1999, is being redesigned by Colin Montgomerie and will be surrounded by luxury villas. Another nine holes are being added as well. The course is being renamed Riffa Views.

* Tiger Woods is designing his first signature course at Al Ruwaya in Dubai that will be part of a very private, very pricey golfing community and resort called Tiger Woods Dubai. It will include 22 palaces, 75 mansions, 100 large villas, an 80-suite boutique hotel and spa, golf academy and clubhouse.

* Saadiyat Island off Abu Dhabi will eventually be home to 150,000 residents and will have business, leisure and cultural developments, including a Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Gehry. As with most of these giant Middle Eastern projects there will be golf-one course on the beach by Gary Player, another in a wetlands area by Robert Trent Jones II. But there are other plans as well: Kyle Phillips is designing a links style course for another giant development off Abu Dhabi called Yas Island.

* Oman is planning at least three or four, including one by Greg Norman. Gary Player has also designed golf here.

But the project causing the biggest stir has been the Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, a project of Dubai World, a government-created holding company.

The Estates will have four courses designed by big names, but it also will house an international headquarters for the European Tour. It will include a giant winter-season fitness and practice facility for European Tour players.

In 2009 the Dubai World Championship will be held at Jumeirah for the first time and hand out a prize fund of $10 million. It's part of a brand-new seasonlong EuropeanTour competition called the Race to Dubai, sort of like the Fed- Ex Cup on steroids. The European Tour and Leisurecorp, a subsidiary of Dubai World, have partnered to create the landmark deal.

Most of the well-known golf industry names cashing in by attaching their brands to courses in the Mideast are not Americans, though some of the design firms such as those of Greg Norman and Gary Player are based in the U.S.

"They seem generally to be looking for names that will appeal to Europeans or the others living and working there," said Steve Forrest of Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest & Associates. His firm was originally hired to do the Riffa Views, but after it did the construction drawings, the project was turned over to Colin Montgomerie's design team.

"They wanted a European name, but I think they're essentially building the project as we designed it," Forrest said.

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