18 Holes in the Holy Land

Can Israel’s coastal climate and expansive shoreline turn the country into a golf destination?

On a mild December weekend 120 Israeli golfers played in the National Net Championship at Ga’ash Golf Club just outside of Tel Aviv. By American standards, it was an average-sized charity tournament, but with only two golf courses and an estimated 1,200 golfers nationwide, it ranks as Israel’s second-largest golf tournament.

Only 60 years old, Israel is still developing. And with threats of terrorism from its neighbors, constant Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and ongoing religious strife, golf isn’t exactly high on the government’s to-do list. “Israel claims they’re going to start promoting golf, but there’s currently not much to promote,” says Cyril Kaufman, president of the Israel Golf Federation. “You first have to build the courses.”

Most attempts to get golf courses approved are trounced by strict governmental regulations. In 1993, when ardent golf advocate Uri Aylon urged Israel’s minister of tourism to consider golf, he was told golf courses take land and water, two things the country lacks. At one-tenth the size of Colorado, Israel considers land its most precious resource. It gets classified into three categories: agriculture, sport and tourism, and residential. Changing a land classification involves a hefty betterment tax, making golf courses cost-prohibitive. Aylon argues that the coastal land can’t be used for crops or business and would be best-suited for resort development.

Ga’ash Golf Club worked the land-usage regulations to its advantage. Located on a kibbutz (a collective settlement) just outside Tel Aviv in 2000, Ga’ash maintains its “agriculture” classification by growing sod on a small plot, which the kibbutz sells. The tight par-70, 5,471-yard course is an earshot away from the Mediterranean Sea’s rumbling waves and integrates a handful of forced carries and an abundance of out-of-bounds. There are only nine holes, but 18 different sets of tees distinguish your second lap from your first.  Israel’s other golf course, Caesarea Golf Club, represents change in the Holy Land.

Established in 1961 by the Rothschild family and located just down the road from the ruins of the ancient port city named for Caesar Augustus, Caesarea is in the midst of a $10 million overhaul by Pete Dye. Once it reopens in October, the course will serve as a shining example of the potential for world-class golf in Israel. “What motivates me is the potential for this course to become a catalyst for golf and tourism in Israel,” says Dye. “It’s a great site, and the weather is outstanding.”

Even with Caesarea’s facelift, golf as a tourism draw will always exist in the shadow of Israel’s tremendous natural and historical bounty. Aside from having near perfect weather in the winter (the average temperature hovers around 60 degrees along the coast), the wee country brings to life familiar sites from both the Old and New Testaments: Masada, the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, the Sea of Galilee, the old cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem and more. Golf courses can only help to attract the droves of world travelers and the Christian, Jewish and Muslim pilgrims who flock to Israel each year.

In another attempt to persuade bureaucrats to help develop golf courses, Aylon in 1999 wrote another letter to the minister of tourism: “So how do we get these tourists to come to our lovely country? We build three more golf courses along the coastal strip from Ashkelon to Haifa at a cost of six million dollars each. We continue to promote the outstanding weather we have for golf all year round with the accent on the winter months. I claim we have better weather for golf in winter than Spain, Portugal and Majorca, which today are the happy hunting grounds of Europe’s golf community.”

Thus far, however, Israel’s golf potential remains largely untapped. What’s needed are intrepid investors—like those who have bankrolled the Jordan River Golf Club, a Michael Young-Charlie Rymer design set in the Bet Shean Valley along the Israel-Jordan border—willing to cut through governmental red tape.