Standing behind the 18th green of a course that he designed in Orlando, Fla., Greg Norman was holding court on a variety of golf-related topics, including reigning in the golf ball, Tiger Woods’ surgical history and whether a clearly dominant player is good for the sport’s health.
But when the subject of a links-style course built in an obscure, isolated and faraway land was broached, Norman’s eyes fairly sparkled and his trademark toothy grin emerged.
Six years ago, an eye-popping Norman design called Al Mouj Golf, carved in northeast Oman along the edge of the Gulf of Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, opened amid stiff onshore breezes, insanely interesting promotional photography and impressively strong reviews.
Golf Digest Middle East, which ranked the so-called modern links as the No. 2 track in the region, two years ago described it as “an absolute belter of a golf course,” and the venue’s reputation has only strengthened since.
After hosting an event on the developmental Challenge Tour from 2015 to ’17, the course this week has graduated into a stop on the parent European Tour as the newly minted NBO Oman Open.
In other words, the audition is over.
One of the first things course architects ask owner-operators of new designs is about their ultimate aspirations for the venue. Backed by a developer and the Omani government, the instructions for Norman were clear.
“Right from the beginning, their criteria was to have tournament golf there,” Norman said.
The venue represents one of the initial components of capital city Muscat’s broad Al Mouj project, which is earmarked to become a sprawling development featuring seaside hotels, boardwalks and other tourist and residential inducements. Oman is intent on siphoning from holiday hotspot Dubai, which is located about 260 miles northwest, just across the border in the United Arab Emirates, and the course is a rollicking first step.
Norman is confident that Al Mouj, which translates to The Wave, will create some ripples once the international TV exposure begins Thursday. Situated along a narrow band of beach adjoining a seaside highway, the minimalist design features a traditional out-and-back links routing and five holes with direct exposure to the water. For those who believe Pebble Beach is close to the crashing waves, there’s little separating Al Mouj and the foaming saltwater except for a few boulders hauled in from the scenic Al Hajar Mountain range, which serves as the city’s impressive backdrop.
Norman said they actually pushed the shoreline out as many as much as 60-90 yards in spots to make the proximity to water even more throat constricting. Since the project was backed financially by the Omani government, there were no environmental-sensitivity hearings to endure.
“We got permission to do it, and they said go ahead,” Norman said.
The builders bulldozed the fill sand onto the existing seashore and created a memorable stretch of waterside holes that includes the 18th, which is reminiscent of the closing hole at TPC Sawgrass, with water running down the left side.
Course officials said Norman was hired because of the cachet his name adds to the venue’s marketing firepower. Plus, he also built the parkland-style Earth Course at the Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai, where the European Tour for the past decade has staged its season-ending Race to Dubai finale, the DP World Tour Championship. So he was well-known in the region, too.
“I actually think it’s a better course than [the Earth],” Norman said. “This is more linksy, with more sand dunes.”
The website Top100GolfCourses.com rated the 7,365-yard Al Mouj as the second-best track among courses located in the Middle Eastern countries — already higher than the Jumeirah, Abu Dhabi and Emirates venues in the UAE, which all have hosted key European Tour events for more than a decade. It also ranks ahead of next week’s tour venue in Qatar, Doha Golf Club, by four spots.
The views are hard to beat. Al Mouj is located near the airport just west of the capital city of Muscat, framed by the craggy mountains in the background of the historic city. Muscat’s history as a fishing village predates Christianity, to the days when the city was ruled by Ottomans and Portuguese. No offense to the Scots, but this is ancient soil, indeed. Marco Polo used to hang out a few miles down the Omani coast, in fact.
As for more contemporary travelers, Oman, with a dry seaside climate, aspires to someday become a full-blown tourist destination, with golf as a feature attraction.
Al Mouj hosted a regular Challenge Tour stop in 2015 before landing the rights to stage the tour’s season-ending Grand Final in 2016 and 2017. While the field in this week’s debut as a European Tour stop won’t include the European stars who are members of the PGA Tour – which is playing at historic Riviera near Los Angeles – those who make the trip to Oman likely will be impressed.
As will those watching the scenery via high-definition TV.
England’s Aaron Rai, who finished fourth in the Challenge Tour’s 2017 Road to Oman points standings and T-14 in the season finale at Al Mouj, all but predicted as much in November.
“I fell in love with it straight away when we came here last year for the first time,” he said. “Brilliant course off the tee, very well-bunkered. It’s quite strategic as well, and you can choose to play it any number of ways.
“I think it’s perfect for the Grand Final here on the Challenge Tour, and it will be great for the European Tour too. It’s definitely that level of course.”
Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets.