By Robbie Greenfield
Bordering the sea and offering everything from floodlit golf to snooker, Al Hamra Golf Resort has opened its doors.
Before we even mention the latest addition to the UAE's growing collection of golf courses, it's first necessary to dispel a widespread myth about Ras Al Khaimah (and we're talking almost exclusively to Dubai residents here) that portrays the emirate as some remote outpost in the back of beyond.
Yes, RAK may have unveiled ambitious (some might say fanciful) plans to build a commercial space port, but that doesn't mean you need to charter a Shuttle Discovery to get there. We hopped on the Emirates Road near Festival City and before you can say ‘Sharjah traffic jam ahead', we were flying towards exit 119 and the turn-off to Al Hamra Golf Resort, past impressive red dunes and what seemed like an endless welcoming committee of stationary camels.
You can reach Al Hamra from Dubai in a shade under 45 minutes without breaking any speed limits, and let's face it, there are journeys in Dubai of near walking distance that can take longer than that.
The sad closure of Nad Al Sheba may be a cruel blow for all our domestic golf prospects, but Al Hamra is perfectly placed to offer a more than adequate alternative to those seeking (relatively) affordable golf with an option to play under floodlights.
With all the hubbub currently surrounding Dubai's and Abu Dhabi's frantic development, it's easy to overlook the fact that the UAE's most northerly emirate is also making rapid progress. Perhaps the most obvious barometer is the golf.
Al Hamra has joined Tower Links as RAK's second golf club, with a third in the pipeline. Considering the town's modest size and relative lack of major infrastructure, this is quite some going.
"There was a change of leadership here a few years ago, and the new ruler is very dynamic, but also generous," explains Al Hamra's general manager, Chris White, shortly after we arrive at the resort.
"He knows that RAK is arguably the most beautiful emirate in the UAE so he's keen to invest back into it."
Hence the reason why although the masterplan for Al Hamra has been in place for almost a decade, it's only now that the project has taken shape.
The opening nine holes of the course were unveiled in mid-April along with the Academy clubhouse, with the second nine and the main clubhouse due for completion by October. Already running at full tilt on the weekends, Al Hamra has wasted no time in organising a series of open tournaments, the first of their kind in the emirate.
"It was important that we were up and running before the summer kicks in and the season finishes," says Chris. "Having our opens in May makes us eligible to get on the UGA Order of Merit calendar for next season, because you have to hold at least one open independently before joining that circuit. Rather than wait until 2009 we put our necks on the line and staged them as quickly as possible, but luckily all three opens were massively oversubscribed."
It's not difficult to see why Al Hamra has already generated a buzz. Fringing the sea and four interlinking lagoons, it's a picturesque setting and the course looks set to be another Harradine classic - the most prolific regional designer who boasts layouts like Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Doha Golf Club and Jebel Ali Golf Resort in his Middle East portfolio.
So does Al Hamra bear the hallmarks of a typical Harradine course? "I think the great thing about his courses are they are designed in such a way that you can set them up for any given level. They can be a great test for a club championship, but off the front tees can also cater for the regular high handicapper tourist," says Chris.
With the possible exception of Jebel Ali, Al Hamra is the most coastal of all the UAE's golf courses, which has brought inevitable links-style connotations. "We've marketed this as a ‘taste of links golf', which Peter was happy to do, but we had to be careful about precisely how much we said this resembled links golf," Chris explains. "A links golf course has hard, dry running fairways. You can't create those kind of fairways over here - it's a lush links golf course because you have to irrigate the fairways. A links course has pot bunkers - partly because they have to be deep to prevent the wind blowing the sand out. But maintaining a pot bunker is an absolute nightmare. What we have here is a golf course that's as close to the sea as you can get in the emirates. It's built on sand, we've created as many humps and undulations as was feasible. It has limited vegetation, so I think the description as a taste of links golf is accurate enough."
Like almost every golf project in the region, the course is fully integrated within Al Hamra's residential development. "In terms of the real estate around the course, the good thing about this project is that the golf and the residential have been married in together," says Chris. "As we've been shaping the golf course they've been constructing the villas. By the time the golf course opened its front nine, most of the phases of the real estate had been completed. Once the masterplan has been drawn up you have to stick to it, because there is always the risk of developers getting greedy and cramping the golf course to fit in more property - but luckily that hasn't happened here." As well as the residential, the Al Hamra Fort Hotel will also be developing a dedicated golf service to cater to tourists, while the 600-room ‘six-star' Palace Hotel is scheduled for completion in 2009.
"The Nad Al Sheba situation has had a positive effect on us," says Chris. "There are around 1300 club golfers with nowhere to play, and within three days of opening we had 50 memberships. This uptake will help us build a good atmosphere as a members club on the weekends, while catering for tourists as well. People assume that Ras Al Khaimah is far out but in reality we're reachable in under an hour from Dubai." Traffic permitting, of course.
Al Hamra's front nine: walk the course
There are nine new quality holes of golf in the UAE, with the other nine scheduled for completion at the beginning of the new season. Al Hamra's general manager, Chris White, talks you through this Peter Harradine layout, which has been described as a ‘taste of links golf' in the Middle East.
Hole 1: Par 4 - 391 yards
This opener probably requires a long-iron or a 3-wood to lay up just short of the fairway bunker, which will then leave a shot of around 90 yards with a wedge into an elevated green. Everything falls away behind the green straight into the lagoon, so you can't afford to catch your approach shot thin.
Hole 2: Par 4 - 416 yards
This is a dogleg to the right, with out-ofbounds down the right hand side. The best play off the tee is to hit a draw with a driver off the right hand side, moving back into the fairway. A good drive will leave you about 130 yards to a slightly elevated double-tiered green with a large bunker on the left.
Hole 3: Par 5 - 576 yards
This long hole is another dogleg to the right, with water all along the right-hand side. It's a risk and reward hole. If you take on the carry of the lagoon at 270 yards, it will give you a second shot to the green of around 215 yards. Alternatively, you can aim for the left side off the tee, meaning a lay-up followed by a pitch over water to the narrow green.
Hole 4: Par 3 - 163 yards
Not very long, but the target area here is narrow with lots of trouble. There's real estate to the right and water to the left, meaning you have to hit a solid mid-iron to a long, narrow green.
Hole 5: Par 4 - 355 yards
You can hit driver here to leave yourself a short distance in, but that brings the big bunker into play. Alternatively you can hit an iron off the tee and have another midlength shot into the green. With the prevailing wind off the sea you don't want to lose it right because there's a bunch of coconut palms that can catch you out. There are two massive bunkers protecting the green.
Hole 6: Par 4 - 443 yards
There is a huge fairway bunker on the left hand side, which requires a carry of 280 yards to clear it, forcing the golfer to play to the right off the tee. Any tee shot that errs to the right will leave an approach of nearly 200 yards to the green.
Hole 7: Par 3 - 166 yards
This nice short hole features an elevated tee that plays to a green which is also elevated. There are lots of humps and hollows, as well as bunkers around the putting surface that will collect any inaccurate shots.
Hole 8: Par 4 - 453 yards
The current 8th hole will eventually be the 17th when both nines are complete. It's the start of a very tough end to your round, especially because the prevailing wind is against you. Even if you manage to get a good drive away, you'll still probably be left with a long iron to the green.
Hole 9: Par 5 - 584 yards
The 9th (18th) is our signature hole. On top of that length, it also plays into the sea breeze after midday so it really is a tough finisher. The more you head up the right side, the further you get up the fairway, but that also brings you towards the water. There's no way this hole is reachable in two into the wind.