The final leg of the always enjoyable three-week Desert Swing returns us to the United Arab Emirates for the Dubai Desert Classic.
This was the first European Tour event to be staged in the Middle East and has been part of the schedule since 1989.
It’s always attracted the big names and, although former winner Tiger is in action in a different desert this week, Rory McIlroy returns to the scene of his first pro victory.
Last week’s Qatar winner Branden Grace is also back for more as he tries to make it three wins in his last four tournaments.
Four of the first nine winners were future European Ryder Cup captains (Mark James, who won the inaugural event in 1989, Seve in 1992, Monty in 1996 and Jose Maria Olazabal in 1998). Ernie Els (three times), Tiger (twice), Rory, Fred Couples and Henrik Stenson have also engraved their names on the trophy but the less celebrated are represented too – Wayne Westner, Richard Green, David Howell, Jose Coceres and Robert-Jan Derksen. Also note, the last five winners have failed to win a major between them so this event isn’t just the preserve of the elite.
2014 Stephen Gallacher (-16)
2013 Stephen Gallacher (-22)
2012 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (-18)
2011 Alvaro Quiros (-11)
2010 Miguel Angel Jimenez (-11)
2009 Rory McIlroy (-19)
2008 Tiger Woods (-14)
2007 Henrik Stenson (-19)
2006 Tiger Woods (-19)
2005 Ernie Els (-19)
The Course – The Majlis
Apart from the 1999 and 2000 editions which were held at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, the “Majlis” course has been the permanent host for one of the European Tour’s most prestigious stops. Designed by Peter Harradine (course architect for the previous two weeks’ events in Abu Dhabi and Qatar), it was the first grass course in the Middle East and takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘meeting place’. The 72-hole record of 22-under was set by European Ryder Cuppers Thomas Bjorn (2001) and Stephen Gallacher (2013). At the other end of the scale, 11-under was enough to secure the title for Mark James (1989), Miguel Angel Jimenez (2010) and Alvaro Quiros (2011). Water is always a big factor and is in play on 3, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 18. The par five closing hole, played over water, throws up eagles and double bogeys and often produces a dramatic climax.
Temperatures, as you’d expect, are very pleasant -- in the high 70s all week and peaking at 80 on Saturday. Winds are down for the first two tournament days but could pick up to 16mph on Sunday. Add in final-round pressure and all the water hazards and it could get interesting.
The Leading Contenders
When he won here in 2009, Rory had bad hair and 0 majors. He returns this year with much better hair and four majors. Contrast that with Tiger, who hasn’t added to his tally of 14 majors in that period and has lost hair. McIlroy's only problem at the moment is seconditis. Another near-miss in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago means he's finished runner-up in four of his last five worldwide events (15th in the other). Since his victory here six years ago, his Dubai Desert Classic form reads 6-10-5-9 so throw it all in a pot and mix it about and maybe he'll come up just short again this week.
A T46 in Qatar represented a disappointing defense of his title although he did shoot three 69s. A third-round 77 was the errant child while the putter didn’t really behave too well either. “Still kind of trying to find my way with it,” he said on day two. This is Sergio’s seventh start here and he’s yet to post a top 10, finishing a mildly disappointing 31-MC-19-11-20-17. Some detail is required though. He was fifth with a round to go in 2008, second at halfway in 2011 after opening with a pair of 67s and eighth at the midpoint on his last visit in 2013. In short, he just needs to put four rounds together but will his putter allow him to do so?
Stenson hit all 18 greens in regulation in his final round in Qatar last week and topped the GIR stats for the week with 86.1%. He was also a regular visitor to the practice putting green and therein lies the explanation to his eventual T13. At least a closing 66 left him with a positive vibe. Stenson’s Dubai form mirrors his Qatar form. Once it was brilliant; in recent years it’s tailed off. The Swede reeled off five top 10s, including a victory in 2007, between 2006 and 2010. In four visits since his best is T20. It seems the post-Christmas rust comes off slower these days.
Kaymer’s incredible collapse in Abu Dhabi may now be used by mind coaches around the world when trying to boost their client after a setback. “If Martin Kaymer can blow a 10-shot lead, don’t beat yourself up. It can happen to anyone.” How it happened to Kaymer is still almost beyond belief but the smart money says it won’t leave the strong-willed German with too much scar tissue. For most of the Abu Dhabi event, the two-time major champion was brilliant and his eventual third place followed a second in the Thailand Golf Championship. A strong Dubai record (2nd 2008, 4th 2009, 4th 2010) also points to a big bounce back in his first start in this event since 2012’s T13 (fifth after 54 holes).
This is Westwood’s only outing on the three-week Gulf Swing but he’s perfectly capable of riding into town and making off with the trophy. A winner of the Thailand Golf Championship on his last start in mid-December, the Englishman has spent the last few years knocking on the door in this event. Boosted by second-round 65s, he was runner-up in both 2010 (lost a playoff) and 2012 while on his last start in 2013 he again cracked the top five. In all, he’s cashed on his last 13 appearances in this event and finished in the top 10 six times. No wins but loads of high finishes… Westwood must think this is a major. Ooh, harsh.
Stevie G is a fine player but who would have thought he’d be able to beat off world-class fields and win this event back-to-back in 2013 and 2014? He was even second in 2012 for goodness sake! The Scot has a couple of theories, the first rather obvious, the second a little more esoteric. Theory 1: “I play the course quite a lot, I come over on holiday with the family and play it. Any time you play a course a lot, you know where to hit and miss it, clubs off the tees, different winds. Just familiarity really.” Theory 2: “Even the sand is pretty similar from back home, a bit linksy and firm and running, the winds. It’s pretty similar apart from the heat.” When you see the names of Open champs Woods, Els and O’Meara on the trophy, it starts to make sense. Gallacher warmed up for his three-peat bid with a T33 in Qatar last week.
Here we go again! The South African couldn’t stop winning in 2012, eventually piling up four titles in an incredible rookie season. He’s on course to match that tally after two wins in his last three starts – the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa before Christmas (the second event of the 2015 European Tour season) and last week’s Qatar Masters after coming home in 31. He’s not done well here before (T51 in 2012 and MC last year) but this isn’t the time or place to ditch a player who now has 10 straight top 25s worldwide. As Grace says: “The Middle East is one of the places I’ve always wanted to win. I’ve thought my game suits these type golf courses.”
Victor Dubuisson *** NOT COMPETING ***
‘Doobs’ provides the classic course form v current form conundrum this week. In three starts in this event he’s disappointed, missing the cut twice (2012, 2013) and finishing T31 on debut in 2011. But… the flamboyant Frenchman was fourth in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago and his last two starts in Dubai have yielded a second and a third in the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. Before his top four, he’d missed both previous cuts in Abu Dhabi (2012, 2013) so it’s pretty obvious current form wins and we put faith in today’s Dubuisson rather go off the results of the yet-to-be-realized talent of a couple of years ago.
G-Mac is a prolific winner but all 11 of his combined European and PGA TOUR titles have come between March and October. If it’s too early in the year to expect a win, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be a creaking mass of rust. He’s made the top 25 on his last three appearances here (T20, T24, 5th) although his last start was back in 2010. And last year he finished T7 at Pebble Beach (scene of his 2010 US Open win) in his first outing of 2014. Also on his CV are a pair of top threes (2011 and 2013) in Abu Dhabi so he can perform well in the desert at this time of year.
The Next Rung
He appears to have disappeared off the radar to some extent but look at the numbers. In his last five starts in 2014, Oosthuizen reeled off form figures of 6-14-6-7-2. In November’s DP World Tour Championship (T6) he was predicting a strong 2015 after “hopefully” getting all his injury problems “sorted”. He hasn’t played here since 2010 but was third in 2008 and seventh in 2009.
One of the stars of the Gulf Swing so far with a sixth in Abu Dhabi and a third in Qatar last week when he co-led with 18 to play. Confidence obviously boosted by a big show in the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla, the Austrian has finished top 16 in nine of his last 11 outings. A ninth place here last year suggests that run continues.
Was flavor of the month at the end of 2014 after an excellent win in elite, if limited, company at the Nedbank Golf Challenge and top fours in Turkey and the Alfred Dunhill. He came back down to earth with a T57 in Abu Dhabi so will want to get going again here. The Englishman has cashed three times in five previous visits with a best of T13 last year when third at halfway after a seven-under 65 in round two.
Close to a Ryder Cup debut in 2014, the Dutchman remains a player to watch closely. He’s continued his upward curve with three wins in the last two seasons and a T26 on his Masters debut last April and sits at 29 in the world rankings. Luiten has banked four top 10s in his last six starts in the UAE but in this event he’s struggled. Perhaps a T23 last year (70 or lower in all four rounds) which beat previous course form of MC-33-MC-MC shows he’s ready to be a factor.
The young Argentine will be a popular pick this week and rightly so. In last year’s Dubai Desert Classic he closed with a 66 to finish runner-up to Stephen Gallacher and last week he was one of the four co-leaders after 54 holes before finishing fifth. Grillo, who has a Florida residence and speaks excellent English, topped the All-Around stats in Qatar so is doing everything well. A first European Tour title can’t be far away.
South Africans often thrive in the Middle East. They like the courses and the events follow on from their big tournaments back home so they’re always match-fit. Coetzee is a prime example and, after another prominent showing in Qatar last week, his form figures in the three Gulf Swing events now read 12-5-4-2-9-5-35-6. The fifth came in his only start in this event in 2012.
An unexpected non-factor in Abu Dhabi (T50) and Qatar (MC), can the Dane finally live up to his reputation as one of the Gulf Swing’s top performers? In this event, his last chance to shine, he was fifth in 2014 and third in 2013. He’s 33-under for his last nine laps of the Majlis course.
One of five Spaniards to have lifted this trophy, Cabrera-Bello had his golden moment in 2012 when shooting 18-under and edging out Lee Westwood by a shot. He also made the top 20 here either side of that and is a regular presence on Gulf Swing leaderboards. Enjoyed a hot start in Qatar last week when carding an opening 66 but faded to T33.
A fun and useful fact about Eddie Pepperell. On the last two occasions he’s played the week after registering a top four, he’s stayed hot by finishing in the top five! So, after a solo fourth in Qatar on Saturday, the signs look good for another big show here. With five top fives in his last 12 starts, Pepperell deserves full respect despite previous course form in Dubai of MC-68.
The former Ryder Cup star is clearly enjoying life back on the European Tour after a pretty unsuccessful dabble in the U.S. where he got bored of the touring pro’s lifestyle. He had three top sixes in his final six events of 2014 and has started 2015 with T26 in Abu Dhabi and T13 in Qatar. The young Colsaerts missed four straight cuts in this event but was T9 on his last visit in 2012 and T28 in 2011.
The Scot continues to be talked of as a player with the talent to go much, much higher and he lived up that billing with a T2 in Qatar last week, missing a playoff after failing to find a birdie at the par-5 18th. Stats-wise, he’s been the top-ranked putter in two of his last three starts. As for course form, he’s missed four of six cuts in Dubai but did make the top 20 in 2011 and 2013.
A T23 (three 69s and a 73) in Qatar represented another solid week for the Thai, who hasn’t missed a cut outside of the U.S. since 2013. That consistency is highlighted in this event as he’s cashed in 13 of 14 visits. The peaks were a third in 2010 and a fifth in 2004.
T9 (Abu Dhabi) and T30 (Qatar) on the Gulf Swing so far but this could be the week where he makes his mark. In five straight starts between 2007 and 2001, Fisher placed between 5th and 13th so it’s a course he really likes. A pair of runner-up finishes at the end of 2014 suggest he’s returning to the form that once made him a top 20 player (he’s currently ranked 67th).
Banked his first top 10 since 2013 with a ninth place in Qatar last week (he’d played just twice in 2014 due to tendonitis in both wrists). Is 4-for-6 in this event and shared the first round lead in 2010.
The rookie, who won the 2009 U.S. Amateur, won’t remain a longshot if he continues the form which has produced a 12th (Abu Dhabi) and a fifth (Qatar) in the last two weeks. He was also top five in his last two events before graduating from the Challenge Tour in 2014 so the promise of six years ago is being realized. Making debut here.
Still showing the inconsistencies of the young, but constantly being tipped by his fellow pros for greatness. T23 in Qatar last week included a 65 on day two and was T10 in this event two years ago (second at halfway). Desperate to crack top 50 and earn Masters invite (currently 52nd).
Looks to be having a ball at the moment, laughing his away around the course and playing with freedom. Not surprising given that he won the South African Open three weeks ago. Also T19 in Qatar last week and T12th in this event on debut in 2013.
Went bogey free for three rounds in Qatar last week before finishing T8 and backing up a T12 in Abu Dhabi. Has cashed four times in five starts here although not bettered T54.
Monster-hitting Belgian struggled a little on the grainier greens in Qatar last week but a T38 (15th after R3) was a decent follow-up to his fourth spot in Abu Dhabi. Huge potential; could be a big player this week.
Has a win and eight other top 25s in this tournament (T13 last year) so the Dane, who played in the last Ryder Cup let’s not forget, shouldn’t be written off on his first start of 2015 even though he’s way down in the betting.
Anyone with finishes of T12 (Abu Dhabi) and T10 (Qatar) on the Gulf Swing is worthy of mention. His course form is a bit of a car crash though – four missed cuts and a T67.
Course horse. Top 20s in 2010 and 2011, seventh in 2013, fifth last year. Missed cut in Qatar (putted horribly) and T37 in Abu Dhabi.
Like fellow Englishman Rock, has placed fifth and seventh here in the last two years. Crashed out at halfway in Qatar but was T12 in Abu Dhabi.
Who’s On The Team
Rory. Of course. You feel that the worst he could do is finish runner-up.
Bernard Langer won the week after missing THAT putt in the 1991 Ryder Cup so expect Martin Kaymer to show that same steely German resolve following Abu Dhabi-gate.
Victor Dubuisson must surely win again soon (the Turkish Airlines Open in 2013 remains his sole victory) while, further down the betting, Emiliano Grillo could do a Stephen Gallacher and win here the year after finishing runner-up.
Of the longshots, former U.S. Amateur champ Byeong-Hun An looks like he’s here to stay after a flying start to his rookie campaign. Also watch for another big performance from young Belgian Thomas Pieters.
To get my full 10-man squad for the European Tour’s official Fantasy Game, check out the Playing The Tips feature on Tuesday.
One To Fade
Sergio. Some old putting issues cropped up again in Qatar last week and he’s never posted a top 10 here.