When it comes to witnessing the evolution of the Dubai Desert Classic over the past 35 years, few can have more first-hand experience than Dubai Golf Chief Executive Officer Chris May, who oversees the smooth running of events at Emirates Golf Club for this famous event which traditionally signals that the new DP World Tour season is truly up and running.
“I think I have lost count,” May chuckles when asked how many Desert Classics he has been a part of. “I was just trying to work out how many myself, because when I first came to the UAE, I was at Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, and my first week of work was the Desert Classic when it was held there in 1999.
“That was such a great first experience to see just how big the tournament was even back then.
“It has obviously grown hugely since then and now we have the elevation to a Rolex Series event for the past two years and with our new sponsor, Hero, this year has again made a huge difference to the strength of the field, the prize money and the general feel around the whole tournament and the week.”
May has followed the evolution of the tournament since his early days.
“I have been at every Desert Classic since the nineties and the real years of growth were when Tiger Woods first came out to play in 2001 — the crowds were like I have never seen before and the event sold out for the first time.
“We were very lucky to see Tiger play here in his prime and also win here twice in 2006 and 2008, all while doing some amazing things on the golf course.
“There have been many, many other special occasions here such as Rory McIlroy’s first professional win in 2009 — it is all the more special when you look at what he has achieved now and now he returns to Emirates Golf Club as the world No. 1.
“I recall Rory even coming across here as a kid with some friends — he is a great example to the kids of today — and he was out at 6.30am on the par-3 course playing over and over, showing such dedication from an early age and he is a great example to many, many people and it is great to see him back here.”
As the competition has grown, it has become sewn into the fabric of Dubai’s community.
“The Classic is a great event in its own right as a tournament, but it has become so much more,” May explained. “It is a social event, a meeting point and a major occasion on the UAE calendar, not just for the local community but also for the global golfing world, which comes here each year — travelling thousands of miles from the US, from Asia, from Europe, from Australia just to play 18 holes in the Pro-Am, for example. That tells you it is special.
“It is a privilege to be involved in this event in any form. It is pretty special. We sometimes get spoilt in this part of the world with the number of golf and sporting events and opportunities, but when you hear from people who are experiencing it for the first time and they say: ‘Wow. What an event,’ with the condition of the course and the way they are looked after with the Arabian welcome and the hospitality is second to none.
“Along with the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Golf Estates and the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at Yas Links, we are very lucky to have three Rolex Series events here in the UAE, and I really enjoy seeing people experience it for the first time and see their reaction.”
With such experience and high-standards comes the challenge of improving that experience for visitors at the Dubai Desert Classic — from near and far — year on year, and May knows that you need to stay ahead of the game.
“We work across the board with [tournament organisers Falcon & Associates] and the DP World Tour year on year, looking to improve all the time and benchmarking ourselves against the best tournaments globally — and in other sports too, not just golf.
“With the Dubai Desert Classic in particular, since its elevation to the Rolex Series, we have seen vast improvements, not just from the player perspective, but also for the media, the stakeholders and, of course, the spectators.
“Our responsibility first is the golf course and making sure that is in the best possible condition. The team work really hard year-round to get the course to peak for this event, but also to have the world-class standards for the other 51 weeks of the year. Along with the weather and the accessibility to play the same courses as the best players in the world, that is what makes the UAE so popular year-round for visitors from around the world, and this week is the pinnacle of all the effort that goes in.”