Golf in the Arab world dates back over 50 years to the World War I period when the British introduced the game in Egypt. Today there are some 50 courses in the Arab nations. They range from the sparse sand courses of Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Gulf, through a variety of so-so grass and sand courses along the Mediterranean littoral, to the verdant new 45-hole complex in Morocco at the Royal Golf Club Dar-es-Salam, near Rabat on the Atlantic coast.
Morocco, primarily because of King Hassan's enthusiasm for the game, leads with 13 courses, five of them 18 holes, all of them grass, nine of them public (open to tourists), in nine different cities. These include the new championship 18-hole Red Course at Dar-es-Salam and an additional 27 holes now under construction which will complete the 45 holes designed by American Robert Trent Jones, considered one of the world's leading golf course architects.
Saudi Arabia, with nine, is, deceptively, next in number, but eight are private courses built for oil company employees and eight are sand courses. Egypt has five; Lebanon and Libya have four each; and the rest are scattered among Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, South Yemen (Little Aden), Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia and Algeria.
Until Gamal Nasser's accession to power in the 1950's, Egypt, mostly because of strong British presence, was the fountainhead of golf in the Middle East. After the revolutionary government came to power (and failed to place financial support for the Egyptian Golf Federation on its list of priorities, this being before tourism was recognized as an important foreign exchange earner), golf began to wither. Until then, two famous clubs, the Gezira Sporting Club, founded in Cairo in 1882, and the Alexandria Sporting Club, which dates from 1880, constituted the heart of golf in the area. Both were established as horse racing and social clubs, with golf introduced at Gezira about the time of World War I and at Alexandria about 1920. Rough in the beginning, with little if any grass, they were refined and grassed progressively and eventually became respectable 18-hole courses.
In the early 1930's a second 18-hole course was built in Alexandria as part of the development of suburban Smouha City, named after the British entrepreneur who planned it. The golf course, built on reclaimed swampland used for many years as a garbage dump, was part of the Smouha Sports Club. And, like the Gezira and Alexandria Sporting Club courses, it was located in the racetrack infield. The reclaimed swampland nurtured lush turf which remains today the best of all golf grass in the Arab world with the possible exception of that on the new Dar-es-Salam course in Rabat. Walking on the Smouha fairways is like walking on deep-pile carpet.
Several other courses contributed to the development of golf in Egypt. These were the 18-hole course at the old Heliopolis Golf Club, in that "City of Sun" suburb of Cairo, the picturesque nine-hole grass course at the Mena House in the shadow of the pyramids of Giza and several sand courses, now abandoned. These last included the Maadi Sporting Club course outside Cairo where the famous Desert Open was played.
The Egyptian Open Championship, played for the first time in 1921 in Cairo, became an important stop on the annual international professional tournament schedule by 1954 when the great Bobby Locke of South Africa was the winner over a stellar field from home and abroad. The Open, together with the Egyptian Match-Play Championship and other special events, was organized by John Plant, a former British army officer who, as a Cairo resident married to the daughter of a wealthy Egyptian family, was dominant in Egyptian golf affairs for years.
Plant, 1946 Egyptian Open winner and nine times Egyptian amateur champion, drew an outstanding array of established and budding international tournament stars to Egypt, whose presence lent glamour and class to the Egyptian golfing scene. Until 1956, that is, when Bernard Hunt of England won the Open the last time it was an open championship in fact as well as name. After that came the war, the British exodus, and a general decline.
The decline began at the Gezira course, located on government property on Gezira Island in the Nile near downtown Cairo, when the government abruptly cropped the course to nine holes and turned the other nine over to a public sports club for athletics, gymnastics and related youth activities. From a golfer's point of view that well-intended but hasty action constituted a costly waste of well-turfed golf ground which had taken years to develop. The Alexandria Sporting Club and Smouha Sports Club courses have also suffered in recent years, and today, although Egypt has five courses, they range from mediocre to poor.
Morocco, meanwhile, with a golf history stimulated by American military personnel stationed there after World War II, has forged strongly ahead following young King Hassan's accession to the throne in 1961. His Majesty, who now plays nearly every day on one or another of four invitation-only courses within palace walls at Rabat, Skhirat, Fez and Meknes, has fathered and financed the development of first-class golf facilities.
One of them is the well-known 18-hole seaside links course of the Royal Mohammedia Golf Club on the Atlantic. Another, also 18 holes, is located just outside the colorful city of Marrakesh, 1,300 feet high, where the snowcapped Atlas Mountains overlook the city.
After Morocco comes little Lebanon. This country, smallest of the Arab states except for the shaikhdoms of the Arabian Gulf, is developing as the new golfing center of the Middle East. And this despite the fact there is not yet an 18-hole course in the country.
Before 1966 there was hardly any indigenous interest in golf. Nor, with due respect to the then-existent courses, three in number, and the dedicated handful of enthusiasts who devoted time, money and effort to their creation, was there very much in the way of golfing real estate. There was the infamous old sand course at the Beirut Sporting Club and, for employees, the Zahrani Country Club course near Sidon, operated by the Trans-Arabian Pipe Line Company (Tapline), and the Iraq Petroleum Company's private Ras El-Lados course near Tripoli. These two, though only nine holes each, had the basic attractions of grass and greens. The Zahrani course was built informally during 1956-59 near the terminus of the 1100-mile pipeline which originates in Saudi Arabia. Employees based at Sidon and Beirut, including Tapline President Bill Chandler, joined in the manual labor required to develop the course, a labor of love. Similarly, the Ras El-Lados course was built by I.P.C. in the late 1940's at the Mediterranean end of the pipeline which begins in northern Iraq.
Then, in the 1966-68 period, two new all-grass nine-hole courses were built and opened. One is operated by the Golf Club of Lebanon, successor to the Beirut Sporting Club. This course is located in Ouzai, just outside Beirut. The other is at the Delhamyeh Country Club near Damour, halfway between Beirut and Sidon. Each is open to residents and tourists on a membership or green-fee basis. Of the two, Ouzai, opened in late 1966, a year before DelhaDelhamyeh, is more refined, more easily playable, largely because the terrain is more accommodating. Delhamyeh, on the other hand, while more difficult because of the rocky hillside from which the course is carved, is more spectacular, and its clubhouse arid related facilities would do credit to Westchester County.
Developed on rolling coastal dunes a few hundred yards from the Mediterranean, the Ouzai course is on land owned by the Lebanese Government and under control of the Department of Civil Aviation because of the nearness of the airport and the low glidepath of approaching aircraft. This setting provides two distinctive features: a network of tall communications towers scattered over the course, which, under the Rules of Golf, play as immovable obstructions, and the sporadic noise of jet aircraft descending on final approach. The basic nine-hole configuration measures 3204 yards and includes a standard assortment of five par-4 holes, two par-3's and two par-5's. Alternate tees and greens provide second-nine variety and bring the 18-hole yardage to 6289, Standard Scratch Score 70, par 36-36-72.
The Delhamyeh course, designed by Hamilton Stutt of England, is 3265 yards, par-36. It is characterized by sharply-slanting Bermuda grass fairways, rockstrewn rough, and Zosia Japonica greens which break so sharply toward the sea that on some the ball turns uphill. It begins and ends at an elevation of 1000 feet, with the Mediterranean shimmering below in the distance.
Saudi Arabia has a special place in Arab world golf as the locale of the largest number of sand courses. Of the nine courses in the kingdom, eight are sand. Of these, three are 18 holes each, and one is six. Except for the six-hole course, which lies within the U.S. Embassy compound in Jiddah, all the courses in the country were built by Aramco, Tapline and the Arabian Oil Company (Japanese) for use by employees. The ninth course is the 9-hole Bedouin Hills course at Rafha, the only green course on the Arabian Peninsula. Designed by John Arnold, Tapline resident station manager, the course measures 2650 yards, par-33. With alternate tees, it is set up to play to 5700 yards, par-65, for 18 holes. Though relatively short, with the longest hole 395 yards, the existence of a grass course in this remote desert location is a tribute to Arnold and his colleagues who planned and built it. This same golfing enthusiast, incidentally, assisted in developing the Zahrani course back when he was stationed with Tapline in Lebanon.
Bahrain, with the Bahrain Petroleum Company's 18-hole Awali Golf Club course, and a 9-hole course at the Rifa'a Golf Club, and Kuwait, with the Kuwait Oil Company's 18-hole Ahmadi Golf Club course and others, add to the complex of unique desert courses in that part of the world. (See box.) So too, do Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, each with one 9-hole course. Elsewhere in the Arab Middle East, there are no courses which merit particular attention. Nor, between Egypt and Morocco, are there many worthy of note in North Africa.
The four courses in Libya are all sand, two 18 holes, two nine. The longer ones are at the Tripoli Golf Club (6224 yards) and Tajura Golf Club (5500 yards) near the former Wheelus Air Force Base at Tripoli. There is a nine-hole course at the Benghazi Golf Club, and another, built by Esso, at Brega on the Mediterranean coast halfway between Tripoli and Benghazi. Neither Tunisia nor Algeria has much to offer golfers today, but Tunisia is interested in developing golf as a tourist attraction along the pattern established by Spain and followed by Morocco.
In summary, golf facilities in the Arab countries are still scant, but generally speaking, the game is definitely on the move. Progress, though slow and uneven, is being stimulated by two groups: the local golfers, who desire better courses, and government tourist organizations, which want to attract international golfers. When properly promoted and coordinated, these interests can reap happy rewards: local golfers spur the tourist department to help build and, when new facilities become available, they not only attract the tourists, but stimulate young people in the country to learn the game.
Government agencies? International jet-setters? It's a far cry from the time when Scottish shepherds knocked stones about with a stick.