Of all the golf courses hosting championships, Craig Haldane and his maintenance team at Emirates Golf Club are faced with the toughest challenge. Unlike his counterparts, he has to prepare the Majlis course for two major tournaments – Omega Dubai Desert Classic and the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters – in the gap of two months.
And yet, the 42-year-old South African, who joined the Emirates Golf Club the same year when the inaugural Ladies Masters was played (2006), has never failed to deliver.
Year after year, Haldane and his team have been showered lavish praise by the battle-hardened professionals for producing mint-condition playing surface.
Expect more of the same when world No2 Rory McIlroy, 14-time major champion Tiger Woods and some of the finest names on the European Tour descend on the Majlis course for the Desert Classic from February 2-5.
Haldane is a firm believer that birdies are good, and he’d do everything to create the most conducive environment to facilitate low scoring.
Speaking about his philosophy for setting up the golf course for tournament play, Haldane said: “The tour really have the final say on set-up. For my team and I, it’s to present a well-polished golf course that is good on the eye and to prepare surfaces that are pure.
“We see little value in watching the pros hacking out of rough all week…us amateurs do a good enough job of that already. Let’s see birdies and exciting finishes instead!”
The set-up, Haldane said, will not differ much from previous years.
“Rough will be tough but fair. We believe players need to have the option of going for a green knowing that the rough will do enough to prevent that shot from being held on the green as against having to hack out sideways as their only option,” said Haldane.
“We typically have three cuts of rough. A width of semi rough at 32mm, intermediate rough at 64 and our main rough at 75mm. The 32mm and 64mm are maintained daily, while the 75mm will have the final cut early on during the week of the tournament then left as it is.
“Greens here are quite flat so we have the ability to get the speeds up as desired. However, our aim as always is firmness and trueness. We have managed our surfaces well throughout the season and I believe we will be in a position to present firm surfaces this year if the weather behaves and keeps the rain away.”
Haldane said there will be a couple of minor changes on the golf course for the championship.
“We have extended the 12th tee by some eight yards and also expanded it to the left for a potential angle change on this hole, while simultaneously doubling up as an alternative tee for the 18th. Using it as the 18th tee, however, will only be decided post practice round and after some player feedback,” he revealed.
“We have further enhanced some of the mowing lines on fairways and brought the 18th in slightly at the landing area of the drive, as well as the lay-up.”
When asked if it is a challenge to present the course in championship condition twice in a gap of two months, Haldane said the key really is in keeping the course in good condition all the time, and in timing the overseeding process.
“It really depends on when we overseed and how well that takes. If we present a Bermuda course for the ladies (as we did in 2012), and then overseed after that, it’s challenging as we are doing some disruptive works between play,” he explained.
“If the overseeding is done around late October or early November and takes well, we are pretty much set for the remainder of the season.
“We aim to keep the course in great condition year round, so between events it ticks over nicely. For each event you certainly push the boundaries a bit and I believe this is the key to it all.
“You just can’t go too far too early or it potentially has a knock-on and negative effect on the events, particularly the men’s if things go south on us during the Ladies.
“Growth rates decline rapidly (on greens surfaces) from late December onwards so recovery is slow should you have any issues.”
Even though Rayhan Thomas was extremely disappointed on missing the cut at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, his coach Justin Parsons could not have been more proud of what his 17-year-old ward achieved playing only his second European Tour event.
The Dubai-based teenager, now the highest ranked amateur in India, shot rounds of 72 and 75, with three late bogeys in Friday’s second round meaning he missed the cut by five shots.
Thomas has now started preparing for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, for which he qualified by winning the MENA Golf Tour Amateur Order of Merit, and Parsons exuded confidence that he will put up an even better show on the Majlis course.
“I thought the most admirable part of what Rayhan did in Abu Dhabi was how he handled the attention and pressure with his usual level-headedness,” said Parsons, who heads the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Dubai Sports City.
“He was very excited about the tournament and he was excited about playing the practice round with Rickie Fowler and meeting Dustin Johnson. But he was not in awe of the situation and the way he played made us all very proud.
“Obviously, he was disappointed he could not make the cut. But he has shown that while he may not have the game yet to win a tournament like this, he definitely has the game to make the cut.
“When we spoke that evening, I impressed upon him that his outing in Abu Dhabi was by no means a failure. I made him understand that he was very close to making the cut, and this was like the first step.
“This is like his first few events on the MENA Tour. He was nervous back then. And look how comfortable he is there now. The same process will happen in these bigger tournaments. He is just 17 and the potential to improve over the next two-three years is immense.”
Parsons was happy with the technical aspects of Thomas’ game, but he felt the youngster will have to work a lot more on his walking.
“I think Rayhan has done a terrific job on his fitness, but he needs to become a better walker. Some of the mistakes he made coming in on Friday could be attributed to a couple of things – he was getting a bit tired, and perhaps because he felt that he wouldn’t be able to make the cut at that point,” added Parsons.
“Professional golfers today are like professional walkers. Rayhan has improved a lot, but more needs to be done there.”
With the Desert Classic scheduled for next week, Parsons doesn’t feel the need to change anything technically with Thomas’ game.
“I was very happy with all aspects of his game, especially his iron play. He was able to find the greens with his long as well as short irons, which was pleasing, and I thought he drove the ball well,” said Parsons.
“We will perhaps work a bit on his putting routine, but I am happy with his game technically.”
World No2 Rory McIlroy will not tee it up at next week’s Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
The two-time champion was named as the star attraction of the tournament along with 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, but hasn’t yet recovered from the stress fracture of ribs suffered during the first round of the BMW South African Open.
McIlroy completed the tournament, where he finished second, and had a MRI done when he returned to Dubai from Johannesburg. He later pulled out of last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The Omega Dubai Desert Classic has a special place in McIlroy’s heart, it being his first professional win back in 2009. He later won the tournament again in 2015.
Mohamed Juma Buamaim, vice-chairman and CEO of ‘golf in DUBAi’, promoters of the tournament, said:
“Obviously, we are disappointed, but we fully understand the situation. Our greatest concern is Rory’s health and while we will miss a great friend of the tournament and out city, we want him back on the golf course fit and playing the kind of golf only he is capable of.”
McIlroy is now expected to make his comeback at The Honda Classic on the PGA Tour, to be played at Palm Beach in Florida from February 23-26.