Karl Whitehead has spent his whole life consumed by golf. Either playing it, watching it, studying it, competing in it or working in it.

Having a career encompassing five countries throughout the last two decades, the Englishman has recently been appointed as the new Cluster Club Manager of Viya Golf in Abu Dhabi. No stranger to the Middle East, since February, Karl now covers Yas Links Golf Club, Yas Acres Golf and Country Club and Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.

Golf Digest Middle East sat down with Karl at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club during the week of the Challenge Tour’s UAE Challenge, as he discussed his “trip” around the world.

Welcome back to the UAE Karl, and congratulations on your new role as Cluster Club Manager, Can you explain what the role entails?

Sure, so Viya Golf is basically an extension of Dubai Golf, which I think everyone within golf in the UAE is familiar with. Dubai Golf manage Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club and Emirates Golf Club. At Viya Golf in Abu Dhabi, here we manage three golf courses, Yas Links Golf Club, Yas Acres Golf and Country Club and Saadiyat Beach Golf Club where we are today.

Ultimately we are responsible for managing all three courses independently and try to work together as three in a cluster to obviously maximise our experience, our commercial performance and the quality of asset that we have.

Jumeirah Golf Estates. Image supplied

It’s been quite a voyage that you have been on over the past two decades which has come full circle. What’s your journey been like to this point?

It’s been quite the journey! I’ll try and make it quick, as it’s been an interesting one. It started in the UK as a graduate at the University of Birmingham. My career then started at The Belfry in England in 2005 as a Golf Professional, before moving onto the Marriot Forest of Arden as a Golf Co-ordinator. It was then a hop across to Celtic Manor in Wales in 2010 for a stint as a Golf and Membership Executive before going back to Forest of Arden as Golf Operations Manager. Those early years were very good for grounding me in terms of starting my career.

My first role internationally was actually here at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in 2012 as Operations Manager – that was an amazing opportunity to be able to work at a beautiful club like this. From here I went to Montgomerie in Dubai as their Director of Golf for a couple of years and then I went to The Els Club Dubai to be their General Manager until June 2020. So it was about eight and a half years in the UAE total.

Yas Acres Golf Club. Image Supplied

I then went across to Cambodia and the Vattanac Golf Resort in Phnom Penh for a couple of years as General Manager, before then becoming Director of Operations for Golf Saudi in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Now I’m back here in the UAE and in Abu Dhabi looking after these three clubs for VIYA Golf.

So it’s been an amazing adventure. A lot of opportunity, a lot of growth, and a lot of learning. I think that’s the beauty of the golf industry, it gives you a chance to travel and grow.

Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club. Image Supplied

How have the preparations been going for this week’s UAE Challenge on the Challenge Tour at Saadiyat Beach? A bit tricky with the weather we have recently had?

So this has been a bit unique, with the weather conditions we had last week! But usually with these events preparation starts over 12 months in advance. When you’re doing your business plans and your budgets, these events are in the calendar. Everything you do is built around it. The UAE Challenge is an iconic milestone event.

Whether it’s the operation of the agronomy plan, it’s all work towards these types of big, professional events so that you can complete it and obviously deliver something special. Everything you do in the lead up to that is part of it.

Saadiyat Beach Golf Club. Image supplied

Then 12 weeks out, you start to really ramp it up and peak for this week. Last week we had incredible storms and rain, which completely challenged and derailed us so we had to do some special things to recover and get the course back to where it is. That included bringing in our resources from the other two clubs.

We had about 120 people in agronomy at one stage working at the same time, and we had operational departments supporting them. So the team worked incredibly hard. They went above and beyond. You’re talking 18 hour days. The level of commitment was very special and thankfully a week later, here we are with something that’s looking very special. So a slightly “unique” challenge this time around. But we made it!

It’s the, the second time the Challenge Tour has been here. That must be a testament to the conditions, and the course itself.

It is, Corey Finn and the team have done an amazing job. This is a world class golf course. I think it’s fit to host an event of any stature. But Corey and his team are as good as any team in the world. They’re so committed, so dedicated, so good at what they do. This course is hard to beat, to be honest. They’ve done an amazing job.

Yas Links Golf Club. Image supplied

How excited are you for the rescheduled DP World Tour season now having the Rolex Series Abu Dhabi Championship again at Yas Links but now in November?

It’s amazing for us, the higher the profile of the event that we can host, the better. It’s something that inspires us. It’s why we do what we do. The team love having the opportunity to be around that and to deliver it. Yas Links deserves an event of that stature and Abu Dhabi as a destination, deserves an event of that stature. So for us, we’re privileged, we’re proud, we’re excited.

Going back to here at Saadiyat Beach, sustainability and care for the environment are huge for the club which isn’t an easy task these days.

Exactly, Saadiyat Beach Golf Club was the first Audubon Internationally certified venue in the UAE, and it’s now even been re-certified. So it’s leading the way. The sustainability and environment care here is essential to everything we do. We have the turtle preservation and we have 194 different species of birds that are local and migratory birds as well. Obviously we have the gazelles roaming around naturally which just adds something a little bit more special to Saadiyat. With Corey’s help last year, we’ve changed to TSE water, we’ve changed the grass type as well, which uses less water, less pesticide, herbicide, and insecticide. So every decision is all about sustainability of the environment. We are trying to create something very special. So Saadiyat is definitely one of the leaders in the region.

Emirates Golf Club. Image supplied

How important is it for events like this one to happen at a Viya cluster venue, and to be able to bring international golfers to the UAE.

It’s essential. I think it’s great for the UAE. The UAE is an amazing destination. So anything that can put it on a global awareness pedestal is a good thing. To give opportunity to the local golfers to compete against the best is amazing. That’s something we always need to do. We always need to give back and give opportunity.

For us as a business, we’re privileged, proud and honoured to host these kind of events. It’s what you strive for and having that in the calendar is a milestone to work towards to deliver something special, with hopefully many more to come.

Main Image: Supplied