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Asian Games Golf Venue Desert Oasis No More

DOHA, Qatar -- When Doha Golf Club opened in early 1996 as one of the few green patches in any Persian Gulf country, the cactus-lined fairways, finely manicured greens and ornate white buildings brought up the inevitable comment: an oasis in the desert.
Ten years later, as Qatar's booming economy radiates Doha's suburban sprawl out from downtown, the oasis label hardly fits. The area around the club these days is surrounded by condominiums, small office buildings and hotels, most of them under construction.

And course manager Ranald McNeill even debunks the desert part: The site of the original golf course was hardly a classic desert -- for a start, there wasn't any sand.
'Nothing but rocks,' says McNeill, smiling at the anomaly. 'It used to be a popular picnic spot for the locals with a few palm trees. Back then, it was a fair way out of town.'
In fact, McNeill had to import sand from as far as 60 miles away to help grow grass on the fairways and fill the bunkers.
In 1998, the course hosted its first Qatar Masters, now a regular stop on the European and Asian tours. Ernie Els, who won the tournament in 2004, will be back on Jan. 25-28, along with Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen and Stuart Appleby.
On Sunday, the best amateur golfers from Asia competed at Doha Golf Club in team and individual events at the Asian Games. The third round started with an unusual condition -- the wind wasn't blowing strongly off Doha Bay. The sun was shining, and scores were low. Mika Miyazato and H.Y. Choi were among the leaders in the women's tournament that concludes Monday.
Officials shortened the men's course from its usual pro tournament length of 7,374 yards to 7,122 for the Asian Games, and 5,751 yards for the women.
Still, the only grass course in Qatar has its challenges. Visitors to Doha pay $275 to see if they can keep their ball on the fairways and not in the desert scrub and the natural rock formations that architect Peter Harradine incorporated into the 18-hole layout.
If the limestone rock outcrops don't punish you, watch out for several holes that incorporate man-made lakes, including the par-3 17th. More than 60 imported cacti run along the 18th fairway.
The 16th hole has been reduced by about 45 yards to 306 yards for the men at the Asian Games, but accuracy remains important.
'If it hits the rocks not far from the front of the green, it's a lottery -- it could go anywhere,' says McNeill, an Australian. 'Often, the ball will land on the green and roll off the back into trouble. The course is like that -- low scores are there for the asking, particularly if the wind's not blowing. But there's also a lot of places where you can get into trouble.'
Wendy Stewart, from Aberdeen, Scotland, who was following a group of Asian Games golfers Sunday, agreed the course could be challenging.
'You can see on a day like today when the wind's light, there could be some good scores,' said Stewart, who regularly plays at Carnoustie, where the British Open will be held next year. 'But you can see a number of places where even the pros will be tested.'
Asian Games golfers this week got one break -- the course's winter grass program had summer Bermuda grass switched over to Kentucky blue for the cooler season. To do that, McNeill and his staff had to 'overseed' the greens with the Kentucky variation.
Bermuda grass grows horizontally, making putting more difficult. Kentucky blue grass grows vertically, allowing for a softer lift as the grass wraps around the club face on the fairways.
'And it makes the putting easier,' adds McNeill. 'The green is pretty true and smooth.'
The golf club has grown in the past several years. Recently, it opened a golf academy for up-and-coming golfers in Qatar. To try to tap into the local market, there's a nine-hole academy course fully floodlit for night play.
'With the traditions here of having people take from about 1 to 4 o'clock off in the afternoon, particularly in the heat of summer, it has become very popular,' says McNeill. 'Our last tee time is about 10 p.m., and we're getting as many people through there now as we are our championship course.'
As the only major grower of grass anywhere in Qatar, the club has started a subsidiary -- basically, a turf farm. The eight artificial lakes can handle the course's irrigation and also provide water to an area near the 17th green and 18th fairway where the turf is grown.
It came in handy for Asian Games organizers two weeks ago. After 10,000 athletes trooped through the main Khalifa Stadium for the opening ceremony, McNeill and his staff transferred a football stadium worth of turf from the golf course to the games' soccer venue.
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