ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — The first nine holes at Yas Acres, the latest original work from Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, will open here in September, the opening course in what stands to be a decade-long smorgasbord of Middle Eastern golf course development.
A sister property to the renowned Yas Links, Yas Acres was developed by Aldar Properties as yet another entertainment attraction on this man-made island in the Persian Gulf. The clubhouse will also open this Fall, according Fry/Straka partner Dana Fry. The second nine is planned but construction has not yet begun.
“I have not set foot on the Yas Acres site since March of 2020, due to Covid, but this is why we, as a firm, insist on creating the most detailed construction and grading documents in the business,” Fry says. “We prefer to be on site, of course. However, a skilled contractor can look at our plans and effectively build a golf course to specifications.
“Additionally, we had talented shapers on-site who would use live video to walk us though construction progress. That’s the whole point of construction documents and having a strong on-site team in place — something that can get lost if too much emphasis is placed on freelancing. I’m hoping to travel to Abu Dhabi in time for the opening this Fall.”
Yas Island had been a naturally formed peninsula, until the UAE government separated the sandy expanse from the mainland — by constructing a man-made, salt-water channel. It was planned as an “entertainment” island, and so it has become.
Today it’s home to a dozen hotels and beach resorts, Ferrari World, a Warner Brothers Studio theme park, Yas Waterworld, Sea World (opening 2022) and Yas Links, opened in 2010 and ranked by Golf Digest #48 among its Top 100 Courses in the World.
“Yas Links is clearly the best golf course in the Middle East. We’re confident that Yas Acres, when completed, will represent a truly worthy companion track,” Fry says. “The entire island is pure sand, and that is catnip to any architect. First thing we did at Yas Acres was build a man-made ridge that runs right through the property that reaches heights of 30 feet. But before that, the entire site, which is 156 acres, was filled about 5 feet — to make sure all the turf and vegetation would not be affected by groundwater levels, which fluctuate because of the proximity to the sea.
“All the holes interact directly with this ridge, via tee boxes, fairways or green sites. That sort of elevation also allows for lots of running water and streams. Naturally, our design called for a substantial desert vegetation of the entire course, but especially the ridge. Without that, it’s difficult to make a landform that big look natural.”
Fry and partner Jason Straka are some of the boldest and most innovative practitioners of what they call “The Big Dirt” — namely, the creation of man-made landforms that give strategic drama and aesthetics to otherwise flat properties.
Examples include Calusa Pines, the 1999 Naples, Florida design ranked #98 on GOLF Magazine’s U.S. Top 100, and The Union League National Golf Club, a 27-hole project now nearing completion in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey.
“I used to work for Tom Fazio, during the 1980s, and I’ve always believe that his longtime associate, Andy Banfield, was the best Big Dirt-moving guy — but now I believe we can do it just as well,” Fry says. “Using Big Dirt to make great golf holes is only half the battle. The other half is tying the Big Dirt into the surrounding landscape to make it look like it’s always been there. That’s a grading exercise and a vegetative exercise. And when it comes to revegetation, I’ll take Jason Straka over anyone.
“Yas Links is an excellent golf course but it does not feature the elevation we have at Yas Acres. The other factor that makes Yas Acres so special is the size of our property. We had 156 acres to work with there — for just the first 9 holes alone! Merion Golf Club has 18 holes on 108 acres, just to put that in perspective. So we have incredibly wide corridors of pure sand. We’ve been able to create some really compelling contours and hole environments because of the unique space we have.”
Yas Links is the first Middle Eastern commission from Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, which also has projects underway in Vietnam, Brazil, Mexico, Canada and several states across the U.S. Before the Chinese government effectively banned all new course construction, in 2014, Fry/Straka designed and built seven highly regarded projects there, including Qizhong Garden GC in Shanghai, host of an LPGA Tour stop from 2016-19.
More than 20 different golf projects have taken shape in the United Arab Emirates since 1995, but much of the golf industry is firmly fixated these days on the Kingdom next door. Saudi Arabia’s “Vision 2030” initiative calls for the development of multiple “resort cities”, in strategic areas of the country, all of which include golf course components.
“I attended the Saudi Golf Summit in January 2020, just before the pandemic hit,” Fry says. “It’s not yet clear exactly how many golf course are being proposed, and how many will be built. It’s going to be a very interesting few years, watching the process take shape. The UAE population is 90 percent expatriates. The market for golf and other entertainments is already there. Next door, everything is still to be built and much of that resort clientele will arrive from outside the Kingdom. How much gets built? Nobody knows just yet.”