The first nine holes at Yas Acres, the latest original work from Fry/Straka Global Golf Course Design, will open in September, the first 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 another entertainment attraction on the man-made island in the Persian Gulf. The clubhouse will also open this fall, according to Fry/Straka partner Dana Fry. The second nine is planned but construction has not started yet.
“I have not set foot on the Yas Acres site since March 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 said. “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. Today it’s home to a dozen hotels and beach resorts, Ferrari World, a Warner Brothers Studio theme park, Yas Waterworld, Sea World and Yas Links, which opened in 2010.
“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 said. “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 five 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 bolder and more 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 in Naples, Florida 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 believed 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 said. “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 — for just the first nine 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 United States. 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 to 2019.
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 said. “It’s not yet clear exactly how many golf courses 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.”