Golfing in Saudi Arabia? In spite of its arid climate, the country offers a variety of golf courses and numerous tournaments to challenge both beginners and competitive players.

Until recently, only a few desert golf courses beckoned to the hardiest of golfers in the Kingdom. There were no grass courses — not even a ‘‘green” that was green — and golfers carried a piece of artificial turf to place under the ball on the tees and on fairways.

Today a variety of first-class golf courses are available. In addition to a growing number of desert courses, Jeddah and Riyadh offer lush courses that look as if they belong in Florida.

Three grassy 9-hole golf courses, one 27-hole desert course and about ten 18-hole desert courses exist in the Kingdom. And more than half of them have been developed in the past eight years, indicating that golf is on the up- swing in Saudi Arabia. By mid-summer of 1998, Riyadh will have another 9-hole grass course and its first 18-hole grass course. In the Eastern Province, plans are underway to develop that region’s first 9-hole grass course.

Americans introduced golf to the Kingdom when expatriates working at Aramco scooped out an 18-hole course in the sand near Dhahran in the late 1940s. The oil company is believed to have pioneered the method for mixing oil with Saudi Arabia’s ultra-fine, indigent sand to keep the winds from blowing it away. Most of the desert courses developed since then have adopted this method, and golfers still refer to the greens as ‘‘browns.”

The Dhahran course was moved to its present site a few years after its inauguration, and this year the course celebrates its 50th anniversary. Besides being the country’s oldest golf course, it became the largest when the back 9 holes were added in the late 1970s.

Surprisingly, maintaining desert courses is quite costly, club managers say. Aramco employs a staff of 35, including one man per hole, at the Dhahran course.

While Aramco was building four other 18-hole desert courses at Abqaiq, Ras Tanura, Uthalaya and Yanbu, and a handful of other courses for employees in the Eastern Province, American diplomats in Jeddah laid out a rudimentary 9-hole course, with mostly par three holes. Its ‘‘greens” were 100 percent sand. Regardless of where the ball landed on the ‘‘green”, players would place their ball on a path that had been scraped in the sand and proceed to putt. Some 20 years ago, the course was disbanded when the consulate and the city required other uses for the property.

In the late 1960s, a couple of British expat golfers in Jeddah spearheaded the development of a 9-hole public desert course next to the airport. Though relatively flat, its closely placed, large “browns” constituted a challenge, says Don Pinto, who has been playing golf ever since he began working in Jeddah some 20 years ago.

The popular Jeddah course expanded to 18 holes in the 1980s, but was closed near the end of the decade. Golfers approached Saudi authorities for an alternative site and the 9-hole Jeddah Desert Lakes Golf Course was born. In 1994, this course was redesigned as an 18-hole course with several ‘‘lakes”, which are actually large, strategically located depressions marked by blue stakes to indicate that they are water hazards. The new course also has a canopy-covered, 20-slot driving range. About 350 members regularly play the par 72 course.

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This past year, the lush, green 9-hole Durrah Golf Club and Academy opened about 40 miles from Jeddah at Durrat Al-Arus. Set in a plush resort on the Red Sea coast, the Durrah club is reportedly the first all-grass course in the Kingdom to meet U.S. Golf Association specifications.

Manager and pro Geoff Robertshaw describes the par 70 course, which was designed by British architect Bob Knott, as ‘‘no easy test,” due to the ever present ocean breezes that switch directions throughout the day. ‘‘This is true links-type golf and, after four months, the best score is 73,” Robertshaw says.

Most golfers play Durrah and the other 9-hole green facilities as 18-hole courses by placing their balls on different sets of tees when they play their second round of 9 holes. Robertshaw says the Durrah course offers five tees per hole, giving golfers several options and degrees of difficulty. The course also features putting and pitching greens, a practice bunker and a 300-meter long grass driving range complete with distance markers and targets.

Durrah’s classy clubhouse includes gyms, Jacuzzis, steam rooms, locker rooms and a pro shop. Meals and snacks are served in the main restaurant and on the terrace overlooking the practice area. A top-floor lounge provides panoramic views of the course and the Red Sea.

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Developed by the Dallah Real Estate and Tourism Co., part of the Dallah Al-Baraka group, Durrat Al-Arus resort also includes residential villas and apartments, a sailing club, deep water diving and equestrian centers. The company has begun planning a similar resort and golf club for Half Moon Bay near Al-Khobar.

Golf came to Riyadh in 1980 after Americans working for Saudi Bechtel Company on construction of King Khalid Airport received the government’s permission to lay out an 18-hole course on land nearby. The flat, uncompromising Riyadh Desert Golf Course and driving range remains a popular choice for golfers living in the capital.

In 1987, Saudi businessman Abdul Aziz Al-Naim developed the Riyadh Green Golf Course on part of his family’s farm about 13 miles north of the city. Manager and Golf Pro V.T. Mohammed Rafi recalls that 40 members joined the club initially. By 1990, membership had swelled to 700.

Two wadis (river beds) bisect the course, giving Riyadh Green real water hazards after fall and winter rains. Though it is also a sand course, the desert vegetation is more prolific on the fairways and roughs, due to the region’s shallow water table.

The Kingdom saw its first completely grassy course in the early 1990s. Created near Riyadh by Ibrahim Abunayyan Sons Co., the Dirab Golf and Recreation Center is spread over a 5,000-acre farm beyond the Tuwaiq escarpment southwest of the city.

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A private, verdant green 9-hole golf course, Dirab plans to inaugurate its back nine holes this summer, giving the Kingdom its first 18-hole grass course. Dirab also offers tennis, swimming, horseback riding in the surrounding canyons, private camping and a recreation room with gym and sauna as well as a full-service clubhouse.

When it comes to lush settings and convenience, the 9-hole, par 28 course at Riyadh’s Intercontinental Hotel attracts an average of 250 golfers each weekend. The hotel’s owner reportedly sketched the course to transform land in back of the hotel that he considered to be an eyesore.

To build the course, the hotel imported 6,000 cubic meters of top soil, 17,000 cubic meters of soil and rocks, 497 trees, 871 shrubs, 165 pounds of creeping bent grass seed for the greens, a half ton of Cheyenne Bermuda seed and nearly two tons of Danny rye grass for the tees and fairways and, surprisingly, nearly 12,000 cubic meters of sand.

Opened in 1994, the hotel course looks like a scene in the tropics. Three fountain-spewing lakes occupy 7,000 square meters in the center, offering a refreshing ambience and daunting water hazards. Keeping the course green requires about 277 cubic meters of water, pumped every evening via a computerized irrigation system.

The Intercontinental’s course —which is open to drop-ins as well as members and hotel guests — is par 28 for 9 holes. It offers challenges and a convenient location, golfers say. It is especially popular during the cool season, when golfers whose offices are closed from one to four o’clock can hit the links. The full-service clubhouse provides a comfortably casual restaurant facing the glassed-in entry to the course.

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Riyadh’s newest golf course comprises the first one in the Kingdom to be built in a housing development. The new compound for expatriates, which is owned by Mohammed Saud Al-Bawardy, recently changed its name from Arizona Ranch Resort to Arizona Golf Resort. The name change highlights the scheduled opening in July of the compound’s all-grass, 9-hole course.

The resort’s driving range, which opened last year, and now its golf course distinguish it from other residential developments in Riyadh. A rolling course of about 2,150 yards, it offers mostly par-4 holes, with a few 3’s and 5’s, according to Golf Pro Marty Cowal. Numerous trees around and on the course, two lakes and several sandtraps spice up the play. Like the Intercontinental’s, the Arizona club will be open to non-resident members and drop-ins.

Arizona’s golf course cements the community’s image of fitness and recreation. Looking like an upscale southwestern adobe residential development, Arizona Golf Resort also has a baseball field, equestrian center, inline skating park, roller hockey court and a spacious recreation center with a four-lane bowling alley. About two-thirds of the site is dedicated to recreational facilities and green space.

Whether set in a compound, oasis or desert, it appears that golf has taken root in Saudi Arabia. Yet another example of the various — and, often surprising — recreational options in the Kingdom. {short description of image}

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