Robbie Greenfield’s Oman Adventure

<p>For a day that had begun at the ungodly hour of 3.30am, it had all been going rather well. Passport control at Hatta had been painlessly negotiated en route to a weekend of golfing exploration in Muscat, and we had reached the final border checkpoint.</p><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Thirty-six holes of gritty match play on the far side of the Arabian Peninsula would crown an inaugural Sultan of Swing, the unofficial and somewhat generous accolade we had bestowed on this contest, bearing in mind that I comprised half of the field.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>With only one man standing between me and glory I would normally have been confident of bringing home the (turkey) bacon, were it not for the fact that Barry Cotter was that guy. Ever since our junior days this seemingly innocuous Irishman has been my personal golfing nemesis, bringing equal measures of bulldog-like determination and smug superiority to the role. He had already had the temerity to christen his new counter-weighted putter the ‘Scourge of Oman’ and had probably memorised his token offer of commiseration.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>But before I could attempt to buck this lifetime negative trend we had to get into the country, and this was not without difficulty. As we pulled up to the last border gate, we were accosted by a bearded blockade who demanded car insurance, sending the usually unflappable Cotter into a state of panic. While I wondered whether this loss of composure could infect his golf game, we were forced to employ the unreliable method of begging to gain access to the sultanate. It worked on this occasion, but a valid insurance document is probably a safer long-term bet.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>With some sound planning, a trip to Oman should be spared this arbitrary brush with authority, and from a golfing perspective, whether you choose the one-hour flight or the five-hour drive from the UAE, the sultanate’s appeal is growing rapidly. As recently as 2009 Oman didn’t even have a grass course, but over the past 12 months it has gone from being a destination where golf is a side option, to somewhere that you would actively go to play.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>This is principally down to the opening of the stunning Greg Norman design at Almouj at the beginning of last year, which coupled with the four-year-old course at Muscat Hills, now makes for 36 holes of varied and challenging play. The Ghala Valley Golf Club, a former sand course built on the bed of a dried up river wadi that cuts through an arid gorge at the foot of the Hajar mountains, is the country’s third and final grass course, and will play host to a MENA Tour event later this year.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Although there are still less than 1,000 registered domestic golfers, Muscat is starting to make its presence felt in the professional game. Just a few weeks before the MENA Tour rolls into town, Almouj will host the National Bank of Oman Golf Classic, an official Challenge Tour event. Strong rumours indicate that these tournaments are precursors for the arrival of the European Tour, which may stage its limited field Volvo Golf Champions event at Almouj as early as next year.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Either way, Greg Norman’s championship layout has radically altered the country’s golfing prospects and a fourth course has been tabled that will bring even more diversity. Golf in Oman is indeed going places, which after our promising start was more than could be said for us, thanks to several major roads that failed to make an appearance on SatNav, and a set of directions to Ghala Valley that read like an IQ test.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>After a few unplanned detours through some derelict housing estates we arrived at the club, where we were greeted by resident pro Jay Townsend, a laid back Australian who is looking forward to taking on the best of the Challenge Tour on his home turf. Jay told us that several new tees had been installed ahead of the MENA Tour’s visit. “It can be a little short out there,” he warned us. “If you get your driver going, you’re hitting a bunch of sand wedge second shots.” I am still wondering what course Jay was referring to, because the only flicks I had were those to ward off the local hornets that followed me dutifully around the front nine.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>It’s probably worth putting Ghala Valley into context, because it does not match the calibre of its closest comparable rival, Muscat Hills, and Almouj is on another level entirely. But converting a sand course to a grass layout is no mean feat, and GV’s playability is testament to a job well done. Flat fairways and the uniform, basic style of bunkering offer clues as to the course’s previous incarnation, but leaving the inconsistent putting surfaces aside, this should make for an interesting venue when the MENA Tour players visit Oman for the first time. In places it is very tight off the tee, notably on the par 5 fourth hole and the eighth, where the fairway is largely obscured by a tree just 80 yards or so from the markers.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Having warmed to our task (to the tune of about 44 degrees) it was time to head to Almouj, the jewel in Oman’s golfing crown and a Greg Norman layout unique to the Middle East. ‘Modern links’ is an overused term that has become a fashionable marketing tool for new golf courses built within a vague proximity to the coast, but while Norman’s course doesn’t play like a true links, its outstanding aesthetic beauty and run of terrific seafront holes more than justifies the hype.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Only a year old, the playing surfaces are still maturing, but the impressive artificial dunes that overlook many of the holes give the impression of an well-worn track. Almouj is also by some distance the windiest course I have played in the Middle East, backed by head professional Jamie Wood’s observation that it gets ‘a bit fresh out there’. By that he meant a five-club crosswind that devastated my scorecard and left my hopes of a sultanhood in jeopardy.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Barry, on the other hand, was going about his business with the self-assurance of a man who is convinced beyond doubt that the result was a formality.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Such is the strength of the prevailing wind at Almouj that it can radically alter the character and difficulty of each separate hole. While our 165-yard tee shots on the par 3 fourth required the best of strikes with a 4-iron, the downwind 5th called for distance control with a well-placed tee shot and a sand wedge approach. It's hard to complain about a golf experience as exhilarating as this, but both of us found the greens to be a let down. In fairness to the course, this was probably in large part due to the time of year and the imminent visit of the Challenge Tour, but the putting surfaces were notably slow when compared with the top venues in the UAE. Maybe we were nitpicking, but such was the quality of the rest of the experience that with good greens, I am sure this golf course would be challenging the very best in the region at the head of the Golf Digest Middle East rankings. In the second, fourth and 14th, it has some of the most dramatic par 3s in the region, not to mention coastline par 4 closers nine and 18 that will examine every facet of your game.</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Somewhat unexpectedly after my dreadful start, I had fought my way back into the match to close the opening 18 just one down, but the omens weren't good at Muscat Hills the following day, when my very first shot sailed majestically out of bounds. It was to be a long afternoon, battling the twin demons of a malfunctioning swing and an opponent who seemed to have his ball on a string. As the cheerful conversation in our cart began to dry up like one of the crusty riverbeds that bisects the course, Cotter's clinical birdie on the ninth hole saw him out in level par and left a little reclaimed pride as my only realistic back nine target.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Muscat Hills lacks the grandeur and the wow-factor of Almouj, but it's nevertheless well worth its place in this one-two combination. There isn't a course in the UAE that can match MH in terms of the natural surrounding terrain that comes into play on so many of the holes. In a region that lacks changes in elevation, the dips, slopes and rock quarries on this course ensure that no two holes play the same.&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>Operating out of a temporary clubhouse since its launch in 2009, plans for a plush new facility have finally been signed off and should result in a late-2014 opening date. It's yet another example of a golf destination on the upswing, and one that now offers a strong alternative to UAE golfers in search of a change in scene. My only advice would be that if you plan on adding a competitive element to your visit, don't invite the kind of guy who would leave the following message on his facebook feed:</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>"Sadly it was another embarrassing episode for the BBC as, not the first time, they chose the less prestigious golf event to concentrate on. You will all be pleased to hear that the people's champion prevailed at Muscat Hills and is now also the Sultan of the Swing. You should all get the event in the diary for next year."&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;</div><div>&nbsp;For the record, I am still refusing to call him Sultan.</div>