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1972Sports in the Arab World

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Golf In The Arab World

The Hole Story

Although it still has a high handicap, golf in the Arab world is definitely out of  the rough.

Written by Dick Severino
Photographed by Nik Wheeler
Additional photographs by Robert Azzi

The exact origin of golf is shrouded in the gray reaches of history. Some historians believe it was founded in the Scottish shepherds' habit of hitting stones along the ground with their staffs to pass the time while the flocks grazed. Others think it was a sophisticated version of various stick-and-ball games played in medieval. North­ern Europe. One such game, Het Kolven, was brought from the Netherlands to Scotland by Dutch traders who crossed the North Sea in the 12th century for the Senzie Fair of St. Andrews, some 300 years before the earliest recorded mention of golf in the mid-1400s.

However it began, golf as we know it today unquestionably was developed in Scotland by Scotsmen on seaside links land, including that which eventually be­came the most famous golf course in the world, The Old Course at St. Andrews.

Traditionally, golf is played on grass courses comprised of 18 separate and dif­ferent holes; but the addictive nature of the game is so compelling that golfers construct or contrive courses wherever they find themselves: from sand courses in the desert areas of the Middle East and North Africa, to courses roughed out on ice and snow in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Where 18 holes are beyond reasonable attainment, courses are usually a standard nine holes, really 'half-courses.' It should be noted, however, that with golf courses, nine plus nine does not automatically equal 18: two separate sets of nine holes do not comprise a regulation 18-hole course.

"Gowff," as it once was called, has come a long way in the 400-odd years since Mary Queen of Scots gamboled at the pastoral pastime back around 1570, contributing royally and fashionably, if controversially, to the promotion of the game. Until about 1850, when James VI brought it to England as a "royal and ancient game," it was played mainly by Scots in Scotland. The British later carried it to the Continent and the colonies, and even to the penal settlements in Australia; wherever the British went, golf went. And so, eventually, it came to the Arab world.

The Barefoot Caddy
Written by Dick Severino
Photographed by Nik Wheeler
Additional photographs by Robert Azzi

Hassan Hassanein was born in 1916 in Cairo, where he began golf as a barefoot caddy at the old Heliopolis sand course. From that unlikely beginning, he developed into a topflight international professional, successful in tournaments in Great Britain, Europe and the United States. On home ground in Egypt he was equally adept on grass or sand. A likeable man, known affectionately to many as "Doc," he was a splendid ambassador of good will for Egypt and Egyptian golf.

He won his country's Open four times in a row, 1949 through 1952, beating Britain's Max Faulkner, Alf Padgham, Jimmy Adams and John Jacobs, Australia's Norman Von Nida, Belgium's Flory Van Donck, and other world-famous pros. He also defeated the great Von Nida, then in his prime, in the final of the 1951 Egyptian Match Play Championship.

Hassanein won the Italian Open at Villa d'Este in 1949 and the French Open at St. Cloud in 1951, and qualified three times for the final round of the British Open. His best showing in that blue-ribbon event was when Ben Hogan won at Carnoustie in 1953 and he tied for 17th among 196 entries. He played for Egypt in the Canada Cup tournament in 1955 at Washington and 1956 at Wentworth, and three times in George May's World Championship at Tarn O'Shanter in Chicago. On the sand front, he won the Desert Open in Egypt every year from 1946 through 1956, except 1955, when he was second by one stroke in that famous 72-hole event played annually at Maadi, near Cairo.

Hassanein died suddenly at 40, when a kerosene cook stove exploded as he primed it. His tragic death deprived Egypt and the golf world of a truly great sports personality. The eminent English golf writer Henry Longhurst wrote of him in the Sunday Times: "His playing record must make him unchallengeably the best Oriental golfer in the game's history." That, coming from Longhurst, stands as a fitting epitaph. —D.S.

Swinging In The Sands
Written by Dick Severino

Golf courses in the Arabian Gulf are something else. The balls are red, the greens are brown and the fairways are more like runways. Only the rough lives up to its name.

The balls are red because in the glare of the desert sun you can't always see a white ball against the sand and rocks. The greens are brown, or sometimes black, because they are made of oil-treated sand. The fairways are hard because they are made of sand or marl sprayed with oil and compacted to preserve them from the desert wind. As for the rough, one golfer put it this way: "There just ain't nothing else out there."

"Out there," to be sure, embraces an impressive piece of real estate—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai—but the description still fits. With little or no grass or shrubbery or trees, most desert courses do seem to be all "rough." Nevertheless, to the people of Aramco, Tapline, and other companies in the area, the courses, while neither green nor great, are a formidable challenge to the golfer's ingrained determination to play and to score well. And if, to do so, they tend to stretch the basic Rules of Golf, their innovations don't seem unreasonable, considering the course conditions.

Among the 18-hole desert courses the Awali Golf Club course in Bahrain, 6,286 yards, par-71, is generally considered the best. The greens are better, it has trees which help define the course, and the ball can be played as it lies in the rough (on some courses a local rule free move is permitted, to avoid rocks and buried lies in soft sand).

The other four, Aramco's three courses in Saudi Arabia and the Ahmadi Golf Club course in Kuwait, vary in character. Of the Aramco courses, Surfside at Ras Tanura, 61 75 yards, par-71, part of which borders the Gulf, is the most picturesque; Rolling Hills at Dhahran, formerly 27 holes, now 6018 yards, par-72, has the most rugged terrain; and Ain Nakhl (Palm Springs) at Abqaiq, 6145 yards, par-71, has the best fairways. Ahmadi in Kuwait, 6,100 yards, par-69, has a number of open greens which invite run-up shots. Tapline has 9-hole sand courses at Qaisumah, Badanah and Turaif, all in Saudi Arabia.

In general, all of these courses are more primitive than the old sand courses of Egypt, like the Maadi Sporting Club course near Cairo. There, with Nile River water readily available, the sand fairways and greens were watered and rolled, with no oil used. Though hard, the fairways were smoother, more playable; the rough was not nearly so rocky; and the ball, wherever it might lie, was played without move.

In the Gulf area, once off the tees—usually rubber mats on elevated platforms—getting the ball the rest of the way to the greens in anything like par figures requires a different striking technique. On grass the proper way is to hit down onto the ball with the irons, taking a divot from the turf, impossible on desert courses. Local rules permit you to place the ball in the fairway; and, to hit it well you have to pick it cleanly from the surface. Otherwise, the clubhead either plows into the sand or bounces off compacted fairway material, killing the shot.

Playing from portable artificial-turf mats, with the ball placed on the mat for every shot, is a special innovation. Mats are controversial, however, and are prohibited on some courses, probably in response to the axiom that if you want to play well on these courses, you must sacrifice your clubs on the altar of success. If you worry about damaging them, your score will suffer and the clubs won't fare any better.

Where local rules do not permit moving the ball in the rough, fairway limits are indicated by wires, cables, lines or stakes, without which it is difficult to determine where the rough begins. The greens are usually bounded by white-limed lines, and local rules permit them to be swept or dragged to eliminate footprints on the sand surface. Spiked shoes are not permitted.

The courses have bunkers (as if the rest of the sand wasn't enough), a limited number of artificial water hazards, and other local features. They sometimes also have moving diversions: camels, donkeys, goats, sheep and their keepers, wandering at will across the line of play. One of the better lady golfers of Aramco, in search of a birdie, drove a ball soundly down the middle and felled a sheep. It was an expensive shot. She was obliged to buy the sheep, and the negotiated price came to something like $40 in Saudi riyals. Such is the way of golf in the Gulf. —D.S.

This article appeared on pages 16-17 of the Sports in the Arab World print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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