Those who contested the final round of last week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship get just two days off before returning to competitive action in Qatar this week.
Due to the weekend in this part of the globe falling on Friday/Saturday, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters – the second leg of the three-week Desert Swing – starts on Wednesday. It means organizers can get more spectators through the gates for the final 36 holes.
Not surprisingly, given the proximity of the Abu Dhabi and Qatar tournaments, it’s common to see the same names pop up on page one of the leaderboard.
However, Qatar does suffer a little in terms of scheduling as some of the best players, Rory for one, decide to rest up after Abu Dhabi before resuming battle in the Dubai Desert Classic (next week’s event).
That said, the list of past winners here is extremely impressive.
The course – Doha Golf Club
Another reason why those who played well in Abu Dhabi stay hot in Qatar is that the two courses are the work of the same designer, Peter Harradine. Like Abu Dhabi GC, Doha is a par 72 in the desert. There are some differences though. The greens are grainier and the wind is more of a factor at Doha than it was last week. Water is in play on holes 3, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 18. Each nine (the front is much longer at 3,815 compared to the back’s 3,585 yards) starts and finishes with a par five. Fairways are of average width and there are a number of doglegs but loose shots can often go unpunished.
Champions, Winning Scores and Stats
2015 -19 Branden Grace (DD: 9, DA: 61, GIR: 3, Scr: 23, PA: 2, AA: 4)
2014 -16 Sergio Garcia (DD: 5, DA: 54, GIR: 32, Scr: 12, PA: 15, AA: 8)
2013 -18 Chris Wood (DD: 13, DA: 18, GIR: 6, Scr: 58, PA: 3, AA: 4)
2012 -15 Paul Lawrie (DD: 9, DA: 23, GIR: 7, Scr: 6, PA: 3, AA: 1)
2011 -14 Thomas Bjorn (DD: 34, DA: 54, GIR: 2, Scr: 9, PA: 4, AA: 2)
2010 -15 Robert Karlsson (DD: 15, DA: 34, GIR: 4, Scr: 11, PA: 2, AA: 1)
2009 -19 Alvaro Quiros (DD: 1, DA: 68, GIR: 2, Scr: 33, PA: 10, AA: 8)
2008 -20 Adam Scott (DD: 8, DA: 17, GIR: 1, Scr: 64, PA: 1, AA: 2)
2007 -15 Retief Goosen (DD: 14, DA: 28, GIR: 1, Scr: 48, PA: 5, AA: 11)
2006 -15 Henrik Stenson (DD: 2, DA: 26, GIR: 9, Scr: 1, PA: 6, AA: 1)
Notes: Driving Accuracy isn’t important (the rough usually isn’t a problem) but it helps to give it a good thump off the tee. Strong iron play has been rewarded while every winner had a good putting week. The grainier greens are said to suit South Africans, which is something last year’s winner Branden Grace picked up on. “We get this grainy grass here. So I think if you look at all of the South Africans, we don't always have the best strokes and stuff but we manage to get it in the hole somehow. It's just one of those where we feel comfortable out here. It's a little bit linksy, so I think a lot of South Africans love the links‑style golf course, especially this golf course where it gets bouncy and firm and quick.” Look again at the list of previous winners and there are some superb links players in there. Double Open champ Ernie Els won it in 2005 while 1999 Claret Jug winner Paul Lawrie is a dual winner in Qatar (won it the same season he captured The Open at Carnoustie).
As usual, wind will be a factor. Speeds are predicted to be 15mph to 20mph in the middle two rounds (Thursday/Friday this week) but a little less for Wednesday’s opening round and Saturday’s finale. There should be plenty of sunshine but temperatures are modest, starting at 70 degrees Celsius on Wednesday but dropping nearer 60 on Friday before picking up on Saturday.
The Leading Contenders
It comes as no surprise that Garcia should enjoy and thrive on a course which is linksy and windy. As well as winning two years ago with a closing 65, he’s also had five other top 10s. That includes a second place in 2013. The Spaniard will be hoping he can dial into the form he showed at the back end of 2015 when trying his luck in Asia. In two December starts, Sergio won the Ho Tram Open in Vietnam and finished fourth in the Thailand Golf Championship.
Grace is a contender every week it seems and he collected his fourth top five in five starts with a T5 in Abu Dhabi last week. He threw in two 66s but a second-round 74 proved too much of a burden. Before winning here last year with a final-round 66, he’d posted T13 and T6 in the previous two editions so expect another title bid from the pugnacious South African.
Pieters took the scalps of Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth last week but just couldn’t quite do enough to reel in Rickie Fowler. Still, his superb solo second in Abu Dhabi was another sign of the Belgian’s rapid climb and he must be on the shortlist to go well here. It didn’t quite work out last year when T38 but he did shoot a pair of 68s in the middle two rounds and he absolutely fits the ideal skills-set for Doha GC – a big hitter, who sprays it a bit but putts well.
South Africans have a strong record in this event and Oosthuizen is part of that having finished runner-up in 2009. He also cracked the top 10 in 2005. All told, he’s made his last seven cuts in Doha although he’s played this event just once since 2011. Health is always the nagging doubt hanging over the 2010 Open champion and the last time we saw him in action was his T11 at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in early December.
It shows just how solid a player Fitzpatrick has become that his T26 in Abu Dhabi last week was the youngster’s joint worst result in his last nine worldwide starts. He finished out with the washing at Doha GC last year after a pair of closing 77s but opening 68-71 to sit T21 at halfway was a sign that he might do well here one day. That is very much here and now given his huge strides over the last year.
The Austrian finished third here last year after coming in on the back of a top six in Abu Dhabi. That suggested current form was the dominant force as his previous course record was poor (three missed cuts and a T42). It was steadier stuff in Abu Dhabi last week with three 70s to close with and an eventual finish of T26 while his putter looks a little cold too. There look better options.
The Dutchman went backwards last season but has already found a spark in the 2016 campaign with a pair of top fives – the first pre-Christmas in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa and the second in last week’s Abu Dhabi Golf Championship where he was fourth for greens in regulation. The pro-Luiten argument falls flat on course form though. He’s played in Doha just once, shooting 79-72 in 2011 to miss the cut by a distance.
Jaidee boasts one of the most consistent records at Doha with 12 cuts from 13 starts and every finish T39 or better. He’s made the top 25 in four of the last five but, on another level, he’s been a source of frustration here for bettors/gamers as his best finish is only T9 (2007 and 2013). The Thai slipped to T46 in Abu Dhabi last week after a Sunday 76.
For a man with back-to-back Open top fives, the wind and firm, bouncy conditions at Doha should play into his hands. The actuality matches the theory as, in 2013, he made this the scene of his first European Tour win when he sealed victory on the 72nd hole with a dramatic eagle. Wood also made the top 20 in 2012 although, as defending champion, he had to settle for T43 last year. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi but a second-round 68 (he’d opened with a 76) could be a hint that he’s ready for a big week.
He’s not won it but Coetzee is another of the South Africans with plenty of strong history at Doha GC. He was runner-up in 2013 after a closing 65, made the top five again the following year and was also T12 in 2015. After being sidelined by a broken ankle since August, he’s returned this year to post MC-T13-T35. Four of his last six rounds have been in the 60s and this could be the venue where we really see the three-time European Tour winner click again.
The Next Rung
Traditionally a strong performer in the desert, RCB has twice finished third at Doha GC so should command plenty of respect this week. Those top threes came in 2011 and 2014 (leader after 36 and 54 holes) while he’s cashed in all five starts since 2011. Last week, the Spaniard finished fourth for greens in regulation when T14 in Abu Dhabi so he could again be part of the conversation in Qatar.
He shot 66-69 on the weekend to climb into the top five in Abu Dhabi so heads to Qatar with plenty of confidence. To be honest, he wouldn’t have been short of it anyway having finished 8th (2015) and T5 (2014) in the last two editions at Doha GC. The most recent of the Spaniard’s two European Tour wins came at the 2014 Trophee Hassan II in Morocco.
Prior to missing last year’s event, the Swede had made his last eight cuts a Doha GC. His best was a second place in the 54-hole event won by Paul Lawrie in 2012 while he’s cracked the top 25 in four of his last five visits. Hanson started with three 69s and finished with a 71 to post T11 in Abu Dhabi last week and that was his fourth top 20 in the last five events so the former Ryder Cup star is very much back in form.
Noren toured Doha GC in 65 in last year’s final round to take solo ninth and that made it two top 10s in two tries in Qatar following his T4 in 2013. Injuries have dogged him in recent years and after winning the Nordea Masters on home Swedish soil last June he had to rest for four months after a stress fracture in his lower chest. He’s not really found his touch again since although T35 in Abu Dhabi last week was a decent enough showing
A recent winner full of confidence, and he’s South African. Stone will surely take heart from the record of his compatriots on this course even though he missed the cut on his only start. That was two years ago, however, and he’s much more rounded player now as shown by his superb win in the South African Open earlier this month. He’s backed that up with T28 in Joburg and T26 in Abu Dhabi so don’t be surprised if he’s in the mix here.
After a neck injury hampered him in the EurAsia Cup the previous week, the big Thai did well to make the cut in Abu Dhabi although shooting 78-78 on the weekend suggests all is not right somewhere. He played this event for the first time last year and posted T38. In theory, he has a good game for Doha GC if we knew he was fully fit.
It was rather mixed stuff from the Swede in Abu Dhabi (73-69-74-67) but at least he finished well to climb to T35. He’s bettered that on his last two starts in Qatar with T33 last year (10th at halfway and T28 (11th after 54 holes) in 2014 so he’s left us a few clues that he might show up strongly this week.
Following his miserable 2015, the last fortnight has seen a welcome return to form for the German. His T22 in the Joburg Open represented a turning of the corner after his missed cut in the South African Open and he really hit his straps to post T5 in Abu Dhabi last week (4th GIR, 1st Scrambling). Siem has been a regular visitor here but, despite cashing in eight of the last nine editions, a T12 in 2012 is his only top 30 finish.
An excellent links player, logic dictates that Bjorn should do well here. He’s proved that by taking victory in 2011 and also recording top 10s in 2010 and 2006. The mercurial Dane still blows hot and cold but T11 in Abu Dhabi last week was certainly encouraging as was his position at the top of the Putting Average stats. The most recent of his 15 European Tour wins came in December, 2013.
The Dane reminded us of his obvious class and ability to thrive in links conditions when capturing October’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Two years ago at Doha GC, he shot all four rounds in the 60s to finish third and he was also seventh going into the final round the previous year before ending up T22. His 76-78 weekend finish in Abu Dhabi is somewhat off-putting though.
Despite missing his last two cuts at Doha GC, Howell is no stranger to success in the Qatar Masters and once reeled off four top 10s in five years between 2003 and 2008. He also added a fifth place in 2011. The veteran Englishman is 3-for-3 in the calendar year with finishes of 38-13-35 but was fourth at halfway in Abu Dhabi last week so could be close to a big week.
Although Thomas Pieters is the go-to Belgian these days, it’s hard not to be seduced by Colsaerts on certain courses and this is one of them. His blast-it-and-find-it driving suits Doha GC and he’s finished T13 and T9 in the last two editions. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi last week where the rough was more punishing but a second-round 70 suggests there wasn’t too much wrong.
This is his debut at Doha but, as an in-form South African, he’s worthy of a mention. So far in 2016, he’s finished T8 in his home Open, T13 in the Joburg Open and T16 in Abu Dhabi last week. This is a player definitely finding his comfort zone on the European Tour and he has the class to have another strong week.
Who’s On The Team?
The list of previous winners is full of Ryder Cup/Presidents Cup stars so the cream traditionally rises to the top.
Peter Hanson ticks that box and, at 50/1, could be decent value after his continuing return to form.
The South African contingent are all worth a look and a big title defense from Branden Grace (8/1) has to be expected. Compatriots Louis Oosthuizen (22/1), George Coetzee (33/1), Brandon Stone (50/1) and Trevor Fisher, Jr. (80/1) could also join him in the top 10.
The bookies are wary of Thomas Pieters (18/1) and rightly so. If he can hit a few more greens, everything else in his game points to a huge week.
I’m also expecting 33/1 Chris Wood to be prominent on a course that he clearly loves.
One To Fade
I’m a little wary here after Henrik Stenson made a mug of me last week (how did he do that on his comeback from injury?!) when T3 in Abu Dhabi. Despite his good showing 12 months ago, Bernd Wiesberger isn’t in the same sort of form going into this year’s event so could be worth opposing on a course where he’s struggled previously.