Tracking Tiger, the Goose, and Wee-Mac
18.01.2013 - 21.01.2013 24 °C
Turkish Airlines (voted Europe's best airline for the last two years ... querying the strength of this form however) dangled the bait with cut-price fares to the Middle East, so with the blessing of the 'trouble & strife', I booked a return ticket to coincide with Abu Dhabi's annual pro golf tournament. Normal direct fares with Emirates, Qatar, or Etihad are around 650 euro return, but the TA ticket was 340 euro, the catch being a stopover in Istanbul each way. On the journey over the break was 6 hours, allowing a quick city visit, but only 2 hours on the way 'home'.
Upon arrival mid-afternoon, a very efficient metro train ride, followed by an equally efficient and interesting light-rail ride (I kid you not), deposited me right near the blue mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) in the city centre. It cost around $3 for these fairly lengthy rides ... can someone remind me again why this is so hard in Sydney and Melbourne? Anyway, the blue mosque is quite simply mind blowing - and that's just from the outside - so hopefully a return visit in the future will allow time for an internal tour.
A brisk walk (it was only about 8 degrees) takes you past the Topkapi Palace - home to the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years - and down to the Bosphorus. Ever since 007 cavorted with Tatiana Romanova on this famous strait of water in From Russia With Love, it has been an ambition of mine to visit, and what a frenetic, fascinating scene it presents. Cars, ferries, street vendors, fishermen, locals, tourists, mosques, neon signs, honking & tooting ... it has it all, and in the gloaming this evening was especially beautiful. A chicken shawarma and a local Efes beer provided an effective filler until the 8:30pm Abu Dhabi leg of the flight.
A 2:30am arrival time saw most passengers stagger off our flight, but a subsequent 130km/h taxi ride into town quickly blew away the dozy cobwebs. A prompt check-in at the Cristal Salam Hotel was followed by four fitful hours of sleep, and then it was off to the golf course (please see below).
Abu Dhabi fails to flatter on the city approach - the buildings, whilst modern, are uninspiring - and it is only when you get to the waterfront that you gain an appreciation of the development over the past ten years. The catalyst for the city's rapid ascent was the death of then ruler Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan in 2004, and the subsequent succession by his son Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahayan. Whilst not on the same scale as Dubai, it is still an incredibly impressive, albeit slightly surreal city, and has further ambitions with projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi expected to be completed in 2015 (the Frenchies apparently receiving 500 million for allowing the association!).
The Al Nahayan family are said to be worth 150 billion collectively, and were instrumental in bailing out Dubai a couple of years ago when the Maktoum family ran into some strife. Our Dubai friends - see next section - said that the previous trend of living in Abu Dhabi and commuting to work in Dubai has now reversed, with Abu Dhabi living costs rising so rapidly that it is now cheaper to live in glitzy Dubai. Funny old world ...
A painless 90 minute bus ride on a luxury coach - for the very reasonable price of $7 - deposited me into Dubai, and onto a much anticipated dinner with my old buddy from Hong Kong days Richard Gosling. I met 'The Goose' in 1993 when he was carving out an impressive career in hotel food & beverage with the Holiday Inn, and I was pretending to be a sports marketer at various HK sporting events. We had some raucous times together with fellow sports event workers Brad Winter and Charles Quelch, and have thankfully kept in touch over the years.
Goose met his lovely wife Soo Yuen in HK, but it would take another two years for the courtship to occur in Malaysia. His hotel management career has taken him all over the world, including the West Indies, Japan, China, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, and now Sharjah (although they have the good sense to live in non-dry Dubai). They are now comfortably ensconced in Dubai, and their son George has just moved to secondary school, and is already threatening to overtake his Dad's modest academic achievements!
Speaking of dry and non-dry, I attempted to purchase some wine before our dinner, but at the carefully hidden liquor store (in the otherwise garish shopping centre), was told I needed to be a citizen to make the purchase. The only alcohol consumption for tourists has to occur in (hotel) bars and clubs. Notwithstanding turning up empty-handed, we enjoyed a lovely meal, and it was fascinating to find out from Richard and Soo how they live their busy, but enjoyable ex-pat lives. A little worse for wear, we dropped George at school on Sunday morning (the UAE week is Sunday to Thursday), and I made my way back to Abu Dhabi for more golf, and Richard headed to his job as Manager at the Sharjah Hilton - usually around a 30 minute commute.
ABU DHABI HSBC GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
The Middle East is now a key part of the European golf tour, and always manages to attract strong fields with good prizemoney, beautiful weather for January (mid-20's), attractive golf courses, and well-run tournaments. Combine that with some serious appearance money dished out to the game's superstars, and you get a very attractive package for players and spectators alike.
What cannot be relied upon however, is for said superstars to play some decent golf on Thursday & Friday, and thus qualify for the weekend rounds. I was desperate to see both Tiger and Rory McIlroy (Wee-Mac, after compatriot Graeme McDowell was branded as G-Mac!), but fate intervened and sent them both packing on Friday night ... with their million plus appearance fees. Rory was not so surprising - he signed with Nike the week before for a reported 200 million - so had to contend with new equipment. Tiger actually made the 'cut', but was then later penalised 2 shots for an incorrect drop, so missed by one.
Five years ago this may have been a problem, but the Euro tour now has such depth that there was still plenty of good players to see. Without wishing to bore non-golf fans, I particularly enjoyed watching established stars Justin Rose, Jason Dufner, Peter Hanson, and Martin Kaymer, and was also excited to see rising stars Thorbjorn Olesen (from Denmark), and Bernd Wiesberger (Austria), who is built like a brick outhouse, and hits it into the next postcode.
Warm weather, attractive and tough golf course, not too many spectators, and good facilities made for a fun couple of days. In the end, the very likeable Jamie Donaldson from Wales triumphed, making it two wins in eight months after playing for 11 years and 255 tournaments without a victory ... dare I say there is hope for us all!