The Els Club was the first completed venue within a multi billion dollar development at Dubai’s Sports City that now includes the world’s first purpose-built Manchester United Soccer School facility, the ICC's own Global Cricket Academy, the first ever World Hockey Academy and a David Lloyd Tennis Academy. They've certainly not stinted here at Dubai Sports City.
Laid out in two returning loops of nine holes within the exclusive “golf course villa community” of Victory Heights, this 18-hole championship course has been designed for golfers of every handicap, with a choice of four tees at every hole.
A fair amount of sand was shifted when forming this “desert links,” adding definition to a relatively flat landscape that now features sizeable water hazards at holes 7 and 15.
No doubt golfing purists will groan when they first see the highly contrasting, snowy white sand that lines the fairway and greenside bunker complexes here but then global golfers who play in Dubailand® would hardly expect anything else…
"The Els Club combines the best of all the great clubs that I have played worldwide. The golf challenge is second to none. I am really proud of what we have achieved here. Whether you are an 18 handicap or a scratch golfer, it will be a great test of golf. This course is something very special. I think you can make a course challenging for the best players in the world but at the same time enjoyable for the rest of the world's golfers. We've done that here." Ernie Els 2008.
Dubai Sports City is also the base for the first Butch Harmon School of Golf outside the United States. Run by son of legendary golf coach Butch Harmon, Claude Harmon III has coached the 2008 US Masters Champion, Trevor Immelman and other tour pros including Darren Clarke and Adam Scott. The facility houses a state-of-the-art performance institute which includes physical screening and three dimensional video analysis for the students. If you’ve failed to conquer Ernie’s course due to a hook or slice, head over to the Golf School for a tune-up.
I played Els a number of times while in Dubai, and always enjoyed it. It's a classy place, and you realise that the moment you pull up at the clubhouse.
The range (doublesided with the Butch Harmon school on one end) is excellent however sometimes they make you hit from mats (which at this price point and in this location shouldn't be the case). There is a nice short game area too and a few putting greens, one right outside the club house terrace. The putting greens are representative of the course as well.
The course itself is a strong offering but it is a 'resort' course and by that I mean that you have houses left and right of it. I'm not the biggest fan of that but the golf course itself is strong enough to get away with it. The fairways and greens are excellently maintained. However, Els seems to have a penchant for raised greens and difficult run off areas which sometimes make the course a bit unfair I'd say. The 9th hole is a case in point, it's a long par 4 with a green that is quite severely sloped and raised up from the fairway. With a long iron in as your second shot, you probably won't hold the green unless you're a low low handicapper and the up and down is very difficult. A layup is a better strategy but even then it's not guaranteed that you can stop the ball on the green with your third shot. The same happens on the 10th hole and I just don't enjoy such green complexes that much and find them a bit unfair.
One word on the Butch Harmon School - this is just an awesome place and if you're looking for a few lessons I highly recommend the guys led by Jamie. Many Tour pros come here to tune up their game ahead of the Middle East swing so you can find yourself practising next to Tommy Fleetwood for example. It's a really great place.
Els is a fine course but I prefer the simplicity of Abu Dhabi National or the scenery of Yas Links. But if you're in Dubai, you should play here.
As I arrived, it turned out that everyone from bag drop, the Course Butler who escorted us to the first tee down to the cart guy could address me by name - I still don't know how they do this - on a busy day they must have over 140 golfers on site. They are currently operating out of a temporary club house (which would put many other permanent club houses to shame) it was perfectly adequate, airconditional, usual high standard of changing rooms, stocked pro shop etc., but in November 2009 the new 60,000 sq ft Mediterranean style permanent clubhouse will be ready. I can quite imagine sitting on the terrace with an ice cold beer watching people coming in to the 9th and 18th greens with the sun setting behind them.
The Els Club is a key component of Dubai Sports City which looks like a bit of a building site at the moment, but Victory Heights the residential development that surrounds it is nearing completion and families are starting to move in this month. This is the way of things in Dubai, they'll build the golf courses, then carry on building the houses, hotels, malls and infrastructure around it. On the upside, this does mean that after a few years you'll get a nicely maturing golf course with lots of brand new buildings around it. The course is definitely a thinkers course so don't just get your driver out at every tee box, The Big Easy has put a few nuances into the layout to make that a rash call that you'll regret. Having said that - one of my big hitting playing companions did cut the corner on the 5th almost over some houses, taking the tree and all the bunkers out of play - and went on to score well - fortune favours the brave - I can only dream of hitting it that far. But generally there's an emphasis on accuracy rather than distance - the 8th where the desert snakes in almost all the way across the fairway being another good example of this design principle.
As is commonplace here in Dubai the 'rough' is sandy waste ground with native desert plants that don't need watering, saving on water and reducing the environmental impact. It has the added benefit of usually being easier to find your ball - unless of courses it's in spiky desert bush! Having this sandy rough defend the green by isolating it from the fairway on the 12th was a nice touch, it will make you consider your club choice carefully for your second shot, no bump and run on this hole. Water - in the form of a large lake - comes into play on the left of the 7th and on most of the right of the 15th a par 4, I skilfully managed to avoid the lake by veering off left in to the sandy rough! Luckily I had a fortunate lie, recovered well, and was rather pleased to score well on the toughest hole on the course. I also rather enjoyed the 9th, a charming par four with a mature tree in the middle at the end of the first loop back to the clubhouse, but the inverted saucer green gave me a swift lessen in humility, thankfully the new clubhouse terrace wasn't yet full of golfers having a beer and watching me four putt. Did I mention the greens were quick?
A few weeks before I arrived the whole area had a massive spike in temperature and all of the grass suffered, all the clubs I played that week seemed to have recovered OK from this and I thought the Els Club course was in pretty good condition all things considered - not perfect, but very acceptable for the time of year, this being their low season when they do their maintenance - they were starting to plant more flora to increase the overall level of greenery and claimed to be spending $1.5m USD on planting - this being Dubai where nothing is done by halves - I can believe it! Extra marks to the Els Club cart guy who came round with ice cold towels and cold water at every other hole, he was a very welcome sight as I was playing in August in 41 degree heat.
On the 18th hole I was presented with a personally engraved metal name tag with the Els Club logo on for my golf bag, a nice touch which was a perfect souvenir to complete my day. As I had a bit of time on my hands, I was given a brief tour of the renowned Butch Harmon school by one of the other guys I played with that day - they'd helped him lower his handicap from 10 to 4 in six months. Oh, to live in Dubai and go back to school!
All in all it's a great course that will only get better with time - the team at The Els Club are a class act who are raising the bar for all the other golf clubs in the UAE in terms of service - I can't wait to return in the cooler weather and walk the course when it's in peak condition. They pull out all the stops to make you feel like a member for a day. Play it if you can.