The European Tour stays in the United Arab Emirates for this week’s Dubai Desert Classic.
First things first. Make note of anyone who wins with 19-under-par. Why? The last two winners here, Danny Willet and Sergio Garcia, both shot 269 and went on to win the Masters three months later.
There’s no obvious reason why form at the flat Majlis course at Emirates GC should translate so well to success at undulating Augusta National and it may just be a case of victories here infusing high-quality players with an extra confidence for the first major of the year.
That said, launching it long has been a feature of past winners of this event, as has hitting plenty of greens.
Traditionally, this has been the third leg of the Desert Swing but it now comes straight after Abu Dhabi, with the Qatar Masters moving to a February date.
There must be a strong chance that those who shone in Abu Dhabi will do so again here as it’s a similar test. You’ll also find lots of strong links players thriving at this venue (flat and windy so makes sense), a correlation which Garcia enhanced last year.
He returns to defend the title, while Rory McIlroy goes for his third win in this event.
Last 10 Winners and Stats
2017 -19 Sergio Garcia (DD: 4, DA: 4, GIR: 1, Scr: 15, PA: 17, AA: 1)
2016 -19 Danny Willett (DD: 10, DA: 38, GIR: 19, Scr: 35, PA: 1, AA: 7)
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)
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)
The ‘Majlis’ at Emirates GC was the first grass course in the Middle East and takes its name from the Arabic word for ‘meeting place’. Designed by Karl Litton, it has a storied list of previous winners and has held every edition since 1989 apart from 1999 and 2000. The par 72 measures 7,328 yards and three of the par 5s are on the back nine (10, 13 and 18). Water is in play on 10 holes, including the last, while the greens are Tiff Eagle Bermuda.
Fierce gusts up to 35mph and heavy sandstorms caused havoc 12 months ago, with play suspended and three trees uprooted. This year it looks like we might get a repeat of Abu Dhabi – sun (around 80 degrees) and excellent scoring conditions over the first three days before the winds pick up to create a more testing Sunday.
The Leading Contenders
If only the last three winners of this event had gone on to win the Masters soon after. Then 2015 champ Rory would have a Green Jacket too. It’s a very special place for two-time victor Rory as it was the scene of his very first European Tour win in 2009. He’s never finished outside the top 10 in six subsequent visits and last week’s T3 on comeback at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship suggests he should be right up there again. These desert courses just suit him down to the ground.
Surprisingly, Sergio had never managed a top 10 in seven previous tries in this event before winning last year. Then again, he did reel off four straight top 20s from 2008 to 2013 so wasn’t far off. He’ll return this year with the added swagger of being a major champion and also with an extra spring in his step brought on by very recent events after winning the Singapore Open by five shots on Sunday. A big defense is expected.
A majestic winner in Abu Dhabi last week. When the going got tough and the wind blew on the final day, the defending champion really got going and his closing 65 featured an inward 30 when he took the tournament by the scruff of the neck. Here at the Emirates GC, Fleetwood was T10 in 2013 but hasn’t made the top 40 in five other starts, his latest effort resulting in an early exit at halfway last year. Dangerous to assess on him on old form, though, given his giant strides over the last year and a bit.
There may have not been much pressure on him but Stenson’s final-round 65 to grab a share of eighth place in Abu Dhabi was the joint-low round of the day. “It’s probably the best that I’ve played since I won on the PGA TOUR in August last year,” said the Swede later and he’ll be confident of riding the wave this week. He won this event in 2007 and the latest of his six other top 10s came last year when finishing runner-up to Sergio.
The English youngster putted like a god at times in Abu Dhabi, shooting an outward 29 in round three and closing with a hat-trick of birdies on Sunday for T3 alongside Rory McIlroy. Fitzpatrick is also a previous winner of the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai so he’s another big player in the United Arab Emirates. A fifth place on this course last year adds to his hot record in the desert.
He’s a two-time winner of the Qatar Masters (being played next month) and has a couple of top fives in Abu Dhabi but this event has provided slim pickings for the South African. He’s pegged it up three times and has yet to crack the top 50. This is his first start in the event since 2015 and perhaps he’ll arrive here fresher given that he’s not had his swing blown around in Qatar due to the schedule change. Second place in the South African Open and T15 in Abu Dhabi last week (R2 64) shows he’s in fine form.
He never really got in a blow at last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship but T15 was a decent week and represented an 11th top 15 finish in just 14 starts in the United Arab Emirates. Specifically at this venue, Hatton has got better each year – MC-55-8-3. He closed last year with 65-67 on the weekend and he’s a combined 28-under for the last two years in this event.
The Spaniard is another who comes with a strong reputation in the desert but his achievements in this event stand tallest. RCB won here in 2012 after opening with 63, was runner-up in 2016 and added T11 last year. He owns five top 20s in eight visits overall. He’ll need to clean a few things up from last week however after ending down in T40 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, finishing only 55th for GIR.
Golf can be a cruel game. Fisher has shot 21-under (Alfred Dunhill Links), and 20-under twice (Italian Open, last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship) in three of his last six starts and yet still remains without a win on the European Tour since 2014. Tommy Fleetwood’s brilliance was the latest cause of Fisher muttering ‘what do I have to do?’ but the ‘W’ is surely imminent and he has six top 20s at this venue so perhaps it’ll arrive sooner rather than later.
For much of the week in Abu Dhabi, it looked as if Pieters would be the man on a course where he’d previously finished second and fourth. In the end, he had to settle for T5 after a closing bogey-6. Still, it represented a first top five since August’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and provided further evidence that he comes alive in elite fields. He’s not excelled here yet but T23 last year with all four rounds under par was his best effort so far and there’s so much more to come.
The Next Rung
While Sergio’s decision to pay in Singapore last week paid off handsomely, with the Spaniard cruising to a five-shot win, it rather backfired for Oosthuizen, who was down in T49. There has to be an element of him losing adrenaline though in an event disrupted by weather. That isn’t a problem this week but he won’t have the same familiarity with the course as others having played just once here since 2009 (MC 2016). More encouraging is some older form which reveals a third in 2008 and a top 10 the following year.
A tied 15th in Abu Dhabi was a decent start to the year for Wiesberger and he also played in the previous week’s EurAsia Cup so any rust should now be shaken off. His usual crisp iron play wasn’t on show last week though so he’ll want to sharpen that up here at a venue where he’s made his last six cuts. A top four in 2015, T9 the year before and another pair of top 25s show that this is a course where he can score well.
It’s a tournament debut for the American but he’s had some good results in the desert on the PGA TOUR, winning the Bob Hope Classic, taking second in the Reno-Tahoe Open and adding a T7 on his most recent start in Vegas (2016). Perez really kicked on in 2017 and so far this year we’ve seen him post T4 in the Sentry Tournament of Champions and take T21 in last week’s Singapore Open.
Bare course form of MC-61 in his two starts here won’t get Aphibarnrat many votes but he was second in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai back in November and also T4 in Abu Dhabi last year. He returned there last week to make the top 25 again and shot at least 2-under in all four rounds. Ended 2017 with four straight top 10s.
The Korean’s record of a top 15 in every start he’s ever made in the United Arab Emirates (nine of them) finally ended via a T40 in Abu Dhabi last week. Even then, he shot all four rounds under par though. He missed this tournament last year but was T4 in 2016 after a closing 65 and T13 on debut in 2015. Form over the last six months is patchy.
This guy’s good. He’ll be a staple of many fantasy teams soon and is worth considering this week too. T4 in November’s DP World Tour Championship in Dubai forms part of a run of seven top 20s in his last nine starts and that includes a win in Mauritius last month and T19 in last week’s Abu Dhabi Championship where he was T9 with 18 to play. This will be the South African’s course debut.
A three-time winner in Abu Dhabi, Kaymer had to settle for T27 there last week after not being able to go through the gears when the course was there for the taking over the first three days. He’s got an excellent record here too with a quartet of top four finishes, the most recent in 2015. He added another top 25 last year.
A winner at October’s British Masters, Dunne hasn’t missed a cut since July and played some more fine golf to hoist up T19 in Abu Dhabi last week. It promised to be better than that after a Saturday 65 but he dropped 10 spots on the final day. The Irishman was T42 on his first start here last year but the idea that good links players (54-hole leader 2015 Open, T7 in 2017 Alfred Dunhill Links) are suited by this test suggests he could have a much bigger impact this time.
The Frenchman has more than one eye on this year’s Ryder Cup in Paris and you could see how pumped he was when finishing T7 in last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, hitting over 80% of GIR for the second tournament running. He’s 4-for-4 here with a best of just T29 but when he’s ‘on’, special things can happen.
One thing’s for sure, no-one in the field has a hotter putter than Paisley right now. It helped him score a breakthrough win in the South African Open and add a hugely impressive T5 in Abu Dhabi last week where he shot all four rounds in the 60s and was 1st in both putting categories. The sweet swinger missed the cut in his first two starts in the Dubai Desert Classic but T15 last year should make managers raise an approving eyebrow if they’re keen to ride the hot horse.
His favourite place in the world? He brings his family to this resort for holidays and when teeing it up in the tournament itself his results are staggering for a player who doesn’t make many headlines elsewhere. He won here back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, was runner-up in 2012, third in 2015 and T9 last year made it six top 10s here in his last seven visits. Down in T61 at Abu Dhabi but he shot in the 60s twice.
There wasn’t just one Belgian called Thomas making a big impression in Abu Dhabi last week. Pieters led the way after 54 holes but Detry was in the hunt too. After working his way through the field with rounds of 70-68-64 he gave himself a chance on Sunday but had to be content with T9 after a closing 72. He didn’t cash here last year but last week’s performance should set him up well.
Poulter is a three-figure price with the bookies, a reflection of the strength of the field and his missed cut in Abu Dhabi last week. However he did shoot a Friday 68 and is 7-for-7 here, including T15 last year.
‘Beef’ admitted he lost some focus last season with everyone wanting a piece of him but he’s put in the work over the winter and was an impressive T9 in Abu Dhabi. T35 and T45 in two starts here.
Slow start to the year (T54, MC) but he’s a course horse. T7 last year and made the top five on his debut in 2012.
Boasts six top 20s here including T19 and T8 the last two years. That’s the good news. The bad? His four rounds in 2018 read 75-77-74-76, resulting in MCs in South Africa and Abu Dhabi.
Another to crack the top 10 in Abu Dhabi (T9 with rounds of 67-69-68-70). Big negative on course form though with his eight starts at this venue resulting in six missed cuts.
Had a run of six top 10s in seven starts at the end of 2017 but he opened 2018 with an early exit in Abu Dhabi (MC-MC). 2-for-4 here but yet to make the top 60.
Big-hitting Aussie has a T8 (2016) and a T14 at this course and closed last week’s Abu Dhabi Championship with a trio of 69s to make the top 25 (4th for GIR).
Has a win (2010) and two second places here but MCs in his last three visits. Opened up his 2018 Champions Tour campaign with a top four in Hawaii at the weekend.
Who’s On The Team?
Tommy Fleetwood defended in Abu Dhabi. Can Sergio repeat the feat here?
There must be every chance so he’s one of the first names on my team.
Rory should contend heavily again while Henrik Stenson’s fast finish in Abu Dhabi really caught the eye.
I’ll reveal my six-man line-up for the European Tour’s official Fantasy game in Tuesday’s Playing The Tips feature.
One To Swerve
Of the big names, Branden Grace doesn’t have any course form. A must-play in Qatar but not here.