Sitting at the crossroads of Asia, Africa and Europe, Jordan is a country steeped in history and culture. Greg Norman’s new 18-holer adds an unforgettable, contemporary tourism lure
By Kent Gray
The eastern approaches into King Hussein International Airport afford otherworldly vistas.
Jordan may be famed for the 2000-year-old archaeological wonder that is Petra but the jaw-dropping natural beauty on the descent into the Red Sea port city of Aqaba is no less impressive.
At the heart of the protected desert wilderness is Wadi Rum where an increasingly dramatic collection of red sandstone mountains has served as the backdrop to films such as Lawrence of Arabia and more recently scenes from The Martian and the latest Star Wars blockbuster, Rogue One. What Chris White would give for even a fraction of those cinema going eyeballs to be refocused inland a smidgeon to the man-made wonder that is Ayla Golf Club.
The former Yas Links Abu Dhabi GM is now Director of Operations at Ayla, a 4.3 million square metre oasis in the Sinai Desert which has Jordan’s first 18-hole championship course at its epicentre and those majestic sandstone behemoths as one half of an equally dramatic backdrop. Once complete, the development will comprise five residential districts with everything from beach bars to luxury shopping and accommodation spread across marina, creek, lagoon and avenue settings. Aqaba’s ambitious project also boasts “Golf Hills” residences currently in build around the operational Greg Norman-designed 18-holer and the wee (and testy) gem that is the club’s adjacent, nine-hole academy course.
Alas, the game, much less golf tourism, is in its infancy in Jordan. It means White oversees the conundrum of what is undoubtedly the best-kept secret in Middle East golf.
There is a 9-hole sand course (Bisharat) with 20-odd years on the clock 3.5 hours up the road in Amman, but enticing Jordanians to the game is a long-term project that must be built up from the junior level up. A schools initiative entrusted to Walid Abu Elsamid, who has just become Jordan’s first PGA trainee, is a start.
In the meantime, White and his able deputy, Chris Dodd, who followed White from Yas Links to become head pro, are tasked with spreading the extraordinary golf secret to markets such as the UAE and Scandinavia.
The encouraging news is that Norman’s fifth Middle East creation is slowly selling itself via word of mouth. The inaugural ‘Jordan’s Ayla Golf Championship’, won by eventual MENA Tour champion Jamie Elson, was a major boost in early October. Elson flooded social media with pics and praise of the pristine layout and will be delighted to hear the club likewise plan to up the ante in 2018.
Indeed, such is the quality of golf on offer, not to mention the breath-taking backdrops (did we mention Israel is clearly visible from many of the front nine holes?), White and Dodd would barely have enough daylight hours to meet demand if Ayla was located just about anywhere else in the golf playing region.
Great White Touch
A lot of what there is to like about Norman’s other Middle East designs – Earth and Fire at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, Al Mouj Golf in Muscat and Allegria in Cairo – are prevalent at Ayla, including a commitment to the Great White Shark’s known environment philosophies.
Think generous fairways, deep, aesthetically pleasing fairway and greenside bunkering and fairway hugging lagoons that challenge the eye, and your nerve, off the tee. If the undulating greens are not protected by snaking streams with their ball ricocheting rocks, there is a predominance of table-top greens to test your depth perception and ball striking. Throw in the almost constant northerly breezes – undoubtedly Ayla’s key defence – and a high premium is placed on strategic tee ball placement and pure iron play. In fact, it was a two and sometimes three club wind during two of the three rounds the author savoured and no easier played downwind where a number of short approaches must be confronted to elevated greens. With the putting surface hidden, distance control and spin were required to prevent shots scooting through the back of greens. Needless to say, a tidy wedge game is a prerequisite to good scoring. Even in relatively benign conditions, Elson’s winning score in the MENA Tour event was just -7, highlighting the challenge.
“It was an interesting puzzle in my head where I was trying to challenge the beginner but also trying to challenge the professional,” Norman told Golfing World in a recent interview.
Throw in the almost constant northerly breezes and a high premium is placed on tee ball placement and pure iron play.
“I wanted to make it fairly user-friendly because of the windy conditions there, but also broad enough where you have to be very strategic where you put your tee shot because of the way the greens are built and the contouring of the greens and the way they are protected. You better be in the right place on the fairway to be able to access [many of] the hole locations.”
On the outward nine, the 446-yard 4th showcases Norman’s eye for bunkering with four traps down the left of the fairway and two more protecting the green of the par 4 which is backdropped by the Red Sea. The 6th, 219 yards from the tips but a more than ample challenge from the blue (195 yards) and even the white (168 yards) tees given that pesky northerly, is the best of the four par 3s with water left and a sandy waste area right ready to gobble wayward strikes.
The 8th is stroke hole one but don’t be fooled if you do escape the 469-yarder with par; the 9th would be a testing par 5 with its bunkers right, water left and mound guarded green even if it didn’t play into the teeth of that relentless northerly. And if you thought the 9th was brutal, wait till you get to the adjacent 18th. In fact, the closing hole is best blanked from your mind for now.
The homeward stretch slightly edges the two nines in terms of the strategic shot making required and for apples-for-apples aesthetics. The par 4 11th presents an approach that plays longer than it looks and is fronted by a stream that snakes and weaves its way around the back nine. Two holes later you are met by a 549-yard par 5 that is a genuine three-shooter. Norman had originally pegged the 13th to be a 600-yard hole until he spent a few days in the wind that was.
You swing around 180 degrees to play two short par 4s, the 14th requiring no more than a hybrid from the tee to open up the green which is slanted left-to-right and plays uphill and generally downwind; keep those grooves on your wedges clean. There is no more stunning hole visually (notwithstanding those majestic mountains or surreal Israel backdrops) than the 15th. The par 4 may tempt the big hitter but beware the stream that sucks in the slicer and feeds a pond protecting the front right of the green. There’s also a fairway bunker down the left just about where you’d want to land your drive and two more beyond that frame this thinking player’s hole beautifully.
There’s another rocky water feature for the slicer to avoid on 17 by which time you’ll be starting to think about surviving the impending 18th. Even if you’ve never played Ayla before, the slog down the 9th is ample warning of what is to come.
The lagoon that splits the 9th and 18th and a huge five-fingered bunker that sits just beyond the wet stuff is the first obstacles to be overcome, no cinch in the wind (yes, it’s still blowing and pretty much always is apparently). The closing hole’s other defence, it’s length (465 yards from the championship tees), will leave a lusty blow to a green guarded by yet more water. Our advice? Play down the left the whole way, play it as a par 5 and walk away happy with anything other than a blob on your card. Don’t get us wrong, there is nothing unfair about the hole, it’s just an almighty challenge, a snakes and ladder’s hole where par will propel you many places up any weekend Stableford or buddies trip leaderboard.
Ayla GC is not unlike a forbidden young love – the more you play it, the more infatuated you become with the challenge. Fortunately, charter flights with Royal Wings depart Dubai’s new Al Maktoum International depart every Thursday and Sunday, making Aqaba an alluring prospect for a long weekend with your pals or perhaps a more relaxed escape for golfing couples if you stay a week.
White is working on packages that take in a day trip to Petra, 125km to the north. Even if you go for the long weekend option, you’ll still have time for nine holes on the academy course on the evening of your arrival, 18 holes on Friday and 18 more on Sunday before you fly out. If you stay longer, snorkelling on the Red Sea and a Wadi Rum adventure are just two of the many side options to be considered.
The Middle East is blessed with truly world-class courses and Ayla doesn’t let the side down. It’s 7152 yards off the tips but there are five teeing grounds to choose from. Pick the one matching your ability rather than your ego and you’ll enjoy a memorable experience even before you mix in Jordan’s famed culture.
Norman sums up the challenge best: “The variety of this golf course, from uphill to downhill to long holes, short holes, into the wind, downwind, integrating those design characteristics into a project where it’s can be very windy was the great challenge,” the Australian said. “But it’s so diverse and such a fun golf course to play. We did it.”
Indeed, Norman has built it and they will come. It’s special, like all his Middle East designs, and tough to leave. At least you’ll have those breath-taking Wadi Rum views to sooth away any late scorecard mishaps.