One of my earliest golf memories is watching my father hack his way around the sand course at Dubai Country Club. The year was 1986, and that was the extent of this tiny emirate's golf: nine holes crudely shaped out of the desert scrub. My father had to carry around an Astroturf mat to hit the ball off, and he had to be sure to sweep the "brown"—a peculiar mixture of compacted sand and oil that served as the putting surface—once he'd holed out. In those halcyon days, the club was just another expat hangout where mad dogs and Englishmen would play a quick round under a blazing noonday sun before retiring to the veranda for an afternoon spent in a lager-induced haze. Actually, it still is, although the reason why has changed. Very few travelers make it to Dubai Country Club these days because Dubai has evolved into the golf mecca of the Middle East, and tourists are now spoiled with choices of first-class courses to play.
Dubai's golf boom is a result of the city reinventing itself. Unlike Abu Dhabi down the highway to the south, Dubai is not the glitzy, skyscraper-crammed metropolis it is today solely because of oil. The emirate's reserves of black gold are set to run out soon, and over the past twenty years the city's rulers—the racehorse-loving Al Maktoum family—have had the foresight to transform this once insignificant trading port into a tourism hub. It was a risky endeavor, prompting critics to doubt whether the Al Maktoums' enormous investment would pay off. After all, who would want to vacation on a desert coastline where the summer heat reaches an unbearable 120 degrees?But as in that other outlandish desert town in Nevada, the plan has worked—Dubai is now one of the world's fastest growing cities, attracting nearly six million tourists a year, a number that is projected to double by 2010. The Dubai Desert Classic has become one of the European Tour's most popular events (Tiger won the latest edition), and there are 260,000 rounds of golf played in the city each year. This figure too is expected to rise, thanks to a raft of new courses—designed by the likes of Greg Norman, Ernie Els and David Leadbetter—now under construction in the area.