Rory McIlroy was a teenager with bad hair when he first won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in 2009.
He returns to the Emirates GC this year as a four-time major winner trying to win the tournament for a third time.
This is the third and final leg of the European Tour’s Desert Swing which has continued its tradition of producing high-class winners in the two previous events.
Fowler and Grace sit this one out but there is plenty of top-class opposition looking to deny McIlroy another title.
After last week’s Wednesday-Saturday schedule in Qatar to coincide with their weekend, we’re back to the normal Thursday-Sunday action in Dubai.
A reminder that the European Tour’s revamped Fantasy game doesn’t tee off until March.
The Course – The Majlis
The “Majlis” course, a 7,327-yard par 72 at the Emirates GC, has been the permanent host apart from the 1999 and 2000 editions which were held at the Dubai Creek Golf & Yacht Club, It was the first grass course in the Middle East and takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘meeting place’. The generally flat greens are Tiff Eagle Bermuda and roll very true while the fairways are Bermuda overseeded with perennial rye. Water is in play on 10 holes, including the par-five 18th, which throws up eagles and double bogeys and often produces a dramatic climax. That’s one of three par fives on the back nine (others at 10 and 13) so the card is split 35-37.
Champions, Winning Scores and Stats
2015 -22 Rory McIlroy (DD: 1, DA: 67, GIR: 5, Scr: 3, PA: 14, AA: 2)
2014 -16 Stephen Gallacher (DD: 5, DA: 52, GIR: 12, Scr: 65, PA: 5, AA: 13)
2013 -22 Stephen Gallacher (DD: 4, DA: 34, GIR: 12, Scr: 18, PA: 4, AA: 1)
2012 -18 Rafael Cabrera-Bello (DD: 17, DA: 28, GIR: 2, Scr: 5, PA: 23, AA: 2)
2011 -11 Alvaro Quiros (DD: 1, DA: 49, GIR: 15, Scr: 2, PA: 6, AA: 1)
2010 -11 Miguel Angel Jimenez (DD: 25, DA: 31, GIR: 4, Scr: 20, PA: 10, AA: 3)
2009 -19 Rory McIlroy (DD: 2, DA: 16, GIR: 2, Scr: 58, PA: 4, AA: 4)
2008 -14 Tiger Woods (DD: 2, DA: 39, GIR: 23, Scr: 15, PA: 2, AA: 1)
2007 -19 Henrik Stenson (DD: 4, DA: 16, GIR: 1, Scr: 21, PA: 15, AA: 1)
2006 -19 Tiger Woods (No stats)
Notes: Seven of the last nine winners were in the top five for Driving Distance that week so giving it a thump off the tee certainly helps. Driving Accuracy looks relatively unimportant while every winner, apart from Tiger surprisingly, was in the top 15 for Greens In Regulation. Eight of the last nine were in the top 15 for Putting Average and in the top four on the All-Around.
The list of past winners includes four European Ryder Cup captains (Mark James, Jose Maria Olazabal, Monty and Seve) and several who have topped the world rankings (Fred Couples, Ernie Els, Tiger Woods and Rory). However, it’s not always a carve-up for those in the very upper echelons as shown by the wins for Stephen Gallacher (twice), Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Alvaro Quiros.
The forecast, as you’d expect, shows sunshine throughout but it could be favorable to get a morning start on day one as the strongest winds of the week (gusting up to 21mph) are expected on Thursday afternoon. Temperatures are set to be locked in the mid-to-high 70s throughout the week.
The Leading Contenders
Well, it’s easy to argue that if Stephen Gallacher can win this event back-to-back, surely Rory can too. As well as winning in 2009 and 2015, McIlroy sandwiched four top 10s inbetween (he didn’t play in 2013). His record in the United Arab Emirates as a whole is even more ridiculously good. Last five starts? 3-1-1-2-2. Keep winding back and you’ll find more wins and second places. Rory topped the GIR stats (81.9%) when third in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago so it’s all down to the putter (he was only 34th in PA there). If he holes his share, he almost certainly wins.
Despite his class, Stenson’s third place in Abu Dhabi was still slightly unexpected. His form there in recent years had been really poor as he struggled to get going in the early season and there was even more excuse for rust this time as he was coming back from knee surgery. He took last week off as a precaution so isn’t 100% yet. He won this event in 2007 and that was the second leg of a five-year sequence of top 10s at the Emirates. He’s cooled off since with a 13th place last year his best since 2010.
The German was second here on debut in 2008 and has had three further top four finishes in five starts since including T4 last year when he closed with a 64 – his best round in 24 laps of the Majlis course. He couldn’t quite get in a blow at Abu Dhabi two weeks ago when T16 but he shot all four rounds under par and it was his fourth straight top 25 worldwide. Kaymer looks close to a big week but will need to sharpen up a little in all areas to come out on top in a strong field like this.
Returning from a long break, Oosthuizen came flying out of the blocks in Qatar with a 65 to share the lead after day one but lost the tournament on day two with a 73. He battled well in the weekend winds to card a pair of 71s and eventually took T7. This is his first start at the Emirates since 2010 so he’ll have to reacquaint himself with a few changes although he has done well on this course, carding a 7-under 65 in both 2008 and 2009 to finish third and seventh respectively.
After a T5 in Abu Dhabi took his top 10 streak to five, An headed east to contest the Asian Tour’s Singapore Open. He started brightly (67-68) but shot 77-73 on the weather-hit weekend to end up a disappointing T38. If we can forgive him that (we surely can), he’s likely to be a leaderboard presence again here. An was T13 here on debut last year when still finding his feet at this level and has never been outside the top 15 in six starts in the UAE at European Tour (four) and Challenge Tour (two) level.
Consistency is guaranteed with Wiesberger these days and a T13 in Qatar means he’s finished worse than T26 just once in his last nine starts. He opened with a 64 to lead this tournament last year before finishing fourth while a pair of weekend 68s gave him a top 10 the year before too. Both current and course form paths lead to another strong showing.
Olesen reminded us that he’s always a player to have in mind on the Desert Swing by finishing joint runner-up to Branden Grace in Qatar last week. The Dane finished second in greens in regulation and just needed to hole a few more putts. In this event, he took third place in 2013 and fifth the following year while he was fighting a hand injury when missing the cut last year. A contender for a Ryder Cup spot, he’ll want to give Darren Clarke another nudge here.
Watch out for the Englishman again as he’s a bit of a player in the United Arab Emirates. T12 on debut here in 2013, Sullivan was fourth last year after opening with a 68 while he was runner-up in last November’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. He looked all set to enhance his reputation in this part of the globe by putting down twin 67s in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago to share the halfway lead before faltering on the weekend to finish T22. Another with eyes on making a Ryder Cup debut later this year.
Unlike all those around him at the front end of the betting, Willett has never cracked the top 10 in six starts at Emirates GC. That said, he’s not been far away in the last two, posting T13 in both 2014 (R2 65) and 2015 (R2 66). He produced a mixed bag in Abu Dhabi on his last start with rounds of 75-68-69-74 leaving him T54 but he’d closed 2015 with three top fours in four starts so more good times are surely not far away.
G-Mac ended 2015 with a bang by winning the OHL Classic on the PGA TOUR and finishing third at the following week’s RSM Classic. But he’s reverted to the poor form which dogged him for much of the previous campaign by starting out this year with T29 in a field of 32 at the Hyundai TOC and a missed cut in the Sony Open. In theory, this is a good place for McDowell to get the spluttering engine going again as his last four results at the Emirates read: 9-20-24-5.
The Next Rung
RCB took victory here in 2012 and was top 20 either side so he deserves plenty of respect at Emirates GC – especially as he comes in off the back of a joint second place in last week’s Qatar Masters. The stats show he topped the Scrambling stats in Qatar although the reality of it was that some poor chipping still continues to hold him back when he gets in contention. The Spaniard tends to string good weeks together so after T14 and T2 on the Desert Swing so far, another good performance has to be expected.
Luiten is another having a strong Desert Swing after backing up his top five in Abu Dhabi with a T13 in Qatar. His greens in regulation numbers were north of 77% in both so he’s striking it nicely. His record in this event looks poor on first glance with three missed cuts and no top 20s from six starts but his last eight rounds starting from 2014 read 70-69-70-70-68-70-70-75 so he isn’t far away. The Dutchman also boasts five top 10s from his last nine starts in the UAE.
The young Belgian was all the rage with many UK pundits to thrive in Qatar last week but it didn’t work out as he fell away to T52 after a poor week on the greens. Before that he’d finished solo second in Abu Dhabi to fuel those high expectations. Pieters was only T42 on his debut in this event last year but three of his rounds were 69s so the course could be a good one for him.
Fitzpatrick has slipped down the betting after missing the cut in Qatar last week. That may be a little harsh as he still managed a second-round 69 and had been a decent T26 in Abu Dhabi the week before. There is a second negative though; he shot 73-76 in this event last year and failed to make the weekend. A fourth place in November’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai suggests we shouldn’t worry about his ability to handle desert golf even though there are probably better-suited venues.
The South African has only played this event twice but posted fifth place in 2012. He missed the cut last year but still squeezed in a round in the 60s and another good performance beckons here after he took T7 in Qatar last week. Coetzee has a strong body of work on the Desert Swing and looks to be coming back to full sharpness after a lengthy injury break in the second half of 2015.
Westwood hasn’t put his name on this trophy and some will say his chance has now gone. But…. he was ninth last year to show he can still get in the mix at the Emirates and his previous two visits had produced a fifth in 2013 and a second in 2012. Also runner-up in 2010, Westwood has seven top 10s in all at this event. Do we trust him though after his miserable 73-76 missed cut in Abu Dhabi rather poured water on talk of a revival after he ended 2015 with a second place in the Thailand Golf Championship?
This is an annual stop for the Thai, who is an ultra-consistent 14-for-15 down the years. That run includes a third in 2010 and top 10s in both 2003 and 2004 although he hasn’t cracked the top 30 in his last five visits. Jaidee, who has cashed in 11 straight worldwide starts since missing the cut at the PGA Championship in August, has finished T46 (Abu Dhabi) and T20 (Qatar) in his two starts on this year’s Desert Swing.
Gallacher’s record in this event is extraordinary with back-to-back wins in 2013 and 2014, second place in 2012 and third last year. Add in a T10 in 2011 if you like. The ultimate course horse must be given huge respect (he also holidays here so plays this track when off duty) although his current form doesn’t add any further layers of confidence. He opened his season with an 81 in Abu Dhabi and also missed the cut after a pair of 72s in Qatar last week. His putting stats were wretched in both.
The youngster remains hit and miss still and has shown that in the first two legs of the Desert Swing. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi but responded in Qatar and was in position to challenge for the title on the final day before settling for T7 after a closing 74. He’s 3-for-4 in this tournament and that includes T10 in 2013 when he burst out of the gates with a Thursday 65.
Last year’s runner-up after rounds of 68-67-69-65. Noren also made the top 30 in three of his previous five visits so has had some good days at Emirates GC. Since returning from injury in Turkey last October he hasn’t missed a cut in six starts although he hasn’t beaten T35 either. That said, back-to-back starts in Abu Dhabi (T35) and Qatar (T41; T20 at halfway) will only help him get back in the groove.
Who’s On The Team
If Rory is close to his best, he wins in my view.
His odds are short (5/2) but the two-time winner’s record on courses like this quite rightly has the bookies running scared.
At bigger prices, Joost Luiten (40/1) could be due a big week on this track and there’s every reason to believe Thorbjorn Olesen (33/1) will show up strongly again.
George Coetzee (40/1) is another suited strongly to this track.
One To Fade
It all went wrong in Abu Dhabi, but I’m prepared to take on Henrik Stenson again this week.