RIFFA, BAHRAIN | It represents one more test for Colin Montgomerie. Having come through the Ryder Cup with flying colours, he will now be fretting over what the professionals will make of his Montgomerie design at the Royal Golf Club, Bahrain, scene of the inaugural Volvo Champions from 27-30 January.
Since the first event is for past and present European Tour champions before it becomes the exclusive preserve of current champions, Montgomerie will be playing himself and cannot help but have his ear to the ground.
What the professionals will say is that the design is perfect for the player Montgomerie used to be. It is more about strategy than anything else; about catching fairways poised to shrug anything less than an accurate drive into desert waste or water.
There are plenty of features they will love, starting with the sitting of the first green in a cozy wadi or desert hollow. Rather less predictable is what they will make of some of the more fiercely undulating greens or of the lone tree on the 15th fairway. Others wanted it removed but, because Montgomerie insisted it stay put, those whose shots are deflected into the water will know where to direct their complaints.
One thing the professionals will not have to worry about is where the desert areas end and the bunkers begin. Following on from what happened to Dustin Johnson in the PGA Championship, officials doing duty in Bahrain and at the other desert venues plan to be more assiduous than ever before in spelling out what is what.
Moving on to the quirky, there are three halfway houses, all of which are enjoying an unexpected trade in breakfasts and coffees from residents in the new homes beside the course. And then there are the oil pipes and the odd, still-functioning little oil well. Though not necessarily the most attractive of features, they add character, largely because of the way in which oil and golf on the island are so inextricably interwoven.
People have been drilling irons across the desert for as long as they have been drilling for the black gold – namely, since the early 1930s when Bahrain became the first of the oil countries on that side of the Gulf. The American and European oil bosses all sent home for their clubs and, before too long, they had laid out the Awali sand course and were employing men and boys from the local village to caddie for them.
The caddies, in turn, made themselves clubs from strips of steel piping and were soon organising their own sand course, the Bahrain GC.
By the 1970s, four lads who had grown up living next to the Bahrain GC formed what was the first Bahraini team. They had shallow swings to sweep the ball from the sand and, as Montgomerie would discover on the day these veteran golf legends attended the opening of the Royal, they were out on their own when it came to recovering from the sand-packed rough. “These guys can really play,” marvelled a wide-eyed Monty.
Today, anyone who makes the Bahraini senior or junior team is given free membership of the Royal GC, with their fees paid by the government. Yet, where Bedouins and their sheep would once peer longingly over the fence, there are plenty of golfers who do not necessarily see the grass as greener. While laying out £4,500 for their annual membership at the Royal, they happily continue to pay their £370 at the neighboring Awali course.
In keeping with the wishes of King Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa, who has a grass course of his own, there are thriving junior programmes on the go at all the venues.
If countries were called upon to have a good grass-roots system in place before being allowed to pitch for a European Tour event, Bahrain would have been the first of the Arab lands to join the so-called “Desert Swing” rather than the most recent.
But as from 2012 they will enjoy a “first” of their own. Then, the date of the Volvo Champions will switch with Abu Dhabi and it will mirror Bahrain’s Formula 1 in marking the beginning of the new season. It should prove a popular starting point, not least because most of the players who enjoy Christmas at home are by then beginning to get itchy feet.
True, the tournament is bang in the middle of the Bahrain winter but a bad day on the island consists of little more than a light wind and temperatures of between 75 and 80 degrees.
Certainly, the Bahrain weather will be rather better received by the European Tour players than was the UK weather by those three young Bahrainis who came to St. Andrews for a junior team event of not too long ago. When the skies darkened and the heavens opened, the alarmed trio were about to make a dash for the clubhouse when they were spotted by a referee.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked
“We don’t play in rain in Bahrain,” explained the trio.
“Well,” replied the referee, “we do – and you’re going to have to get on with it.”