The latest Keith Pelley-inspired European Tour innovation is without doubt his most controversial.
If the organisation had previously remained blind to the potential ramifications of playing in Saudi Arabia, over last weekend it gained publicity in ways which cannot possibly shine a good light on the players or the Tour – and it will only get worse as the week rolls on.
Does any of this matter from a gaming point of view? Well possibly, but quite how we gauge it is anyone’s guess.
There will be players in the field for whom the regime beyond the golf club gates will mean nothing and for whom the fuss in the media means less. There will be others who can block out the moral qualms for one week. Yet others might spend the trip regretting their decision to play and just try to muddle through it. Most might be somewhere in the middle.
Will awkward questions be asked of players in contention? Might this impact on their performance? Would some youngsters be fazed by this? Others might be so golf-greenhoused they barely register what’s going on.
They are real considerations this week, but it bears repeating: They are ones we have very little evidence to go on.
Royal Greens G&CC is a European Golf Design layout and we’ve seen plenty of their courses in use on the European Tour (indeed the team is associated with the European Tour). Usually a par-72 it will play to 70 this week at 7,010-yards with the fourth and 18th holes remaining par-5s. The greens and fairways are Paspalum Dynasty, the rough Carly Rye. Four lakes feature on five of the holes. Close by the sea, some holes are ocean-side, and there is “freeform desert waste” around the fairways and greens. A gently rolling effect has been sought and it seems fairly typical of Middle Eastern courses from the few photos available. David Sampson was the head architect (he also headed the re-design of Crans), but other EGD projects include: Carton House, Woburn Marquess, The Dutch, Montgomerie Maxx, Worsley Park, PGA Catalunya, San Domenico, Celtic Manor 2010 and Royal GC (Bahrain), plus the most recent re-design of Wentworth.
Sunny, with temperatures in the high 70s and early 80s, but the wind could be a factor. The afternoons, especially, see a rise in gusts and it is forecast to be typical this week.
Dustin Johnson: “Unfortunately, it’s in a part of the world where most people don’t agree with what happened, and I definitely don’t support anything like that. I’m going to play golf, not support them. I’m not a politician. I play golf.”
Justin Rose: “There’s other reasons to go play it. It’s a good field, there’s going to be a lot of world ranking points to play for, by all accounts it’s a good golf course and it will be an experience to experience Saudi Arabia.”
Bryson DeChambeau: “I don’t think it’s a bad decision as long as they want us there. That’s what I’ve heard – they want us there. And they want to have a little bit more exposure in the game of golf. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Matt Wallace (last Sunday): “Friday was the best I've ever played tee-to-green, and that's really good signs. Got the new Ping driver in the bag and it's doing me wonders. Swing speed and ball speed's gone up. I knew it's been coming. We'll go again next week.”
Instinctively you’d say he’s one guy who is going to brush any moral concerns aside, in the sense that very little complicated seems to go on in his head (a great benefit to his game mostly. His three visits to the Middle East have reaped T2-T9-T16 which suggests he’s going backwards, but that might be a flippant assessment of a golfer so good. His capacity to cope with the expected wind might be his biggest threat.
Undoubtedly he will face most questions. He’s the World No. 1, hewas a fine winner last week and he’s the man most likely to provide quotes that work on the thorny subject of accepting a huge appearance fee. Can he brush that off? Will it set the bit between his teeth? His game is clearly in a good place, but another potential problem is travel. That Ian Poulter coped so well with a similar journey two weeks ago highlights that most often it causes problems.
No travel concerns for Koepka who spent last week in the Maldives on the beach. Before that he was T9 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a fifth top ten in his last six regular European Tour starts. He’s not actually completed a win at this level since the end of 2014 however. That’s moot in many ways – he plays here less, he’s won three majors, but might be a consideration.
Won by eight strokes last week with his B game, a fourth win in nine worldwide starts. A tougher field this week, but he’s also had time to seek his A game. Won The Northern Trust and Dell Technologies Championship back-to-back so no concerns on that score. Might face questions about his time-keeping this week, that and the science of overlooking the activities of the men paying his appearance fee might be the biggest distraction.
Probably no-one in the field (or world golf) has greater experience of playing golf and not giving a damn about what anyone else thinks about him than Reed. He’s done it at his first college, second college, on tour and in a Ryder Cup team. Stuck on unlucky T13 currently. Finished that way in the Sony Open and again last week in the Farmers Insurance Open. Like Rose has made the long journey from California.
Beware the golfer who sounds enthusiastic about the state of his game and elbow. After finishing T12 in the DP World Tour Championship and T4 at the Indonesian Masters Stenson landed in the UAE sounding chipper and then missed the cut in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. There were little glimpses (a near hole in one during his back nine last Friday), but he looks in need of a few weeks of full activity.
A little rueful after last week’s T3 in the Dubai Desert Classic (only his second top ten there in nine starts). Felt he putted beautifully in the first and fourth rounds, whilst he striped the ball in the middle rounds. If he can catch the right combo (and avoid the worst one) he could be invincible. He’s now ticked seven top tens in succession, but might not be best were the questions hot and niggling on Saturday night.
As the quote above proves he feels very good about his game and does not plan to take the foot off the accelerator. He’s on a run of six top 20s on the trot, two of those were second placed finishes and both in the United Arab Emirates. Thriving in top class fields was always his next step and he’s gone close. A win in such company might not be far away.
Finished T6-T3 in the last two weeks and but for one or two shots it could have been better. In the first of those efforts he hit a stray tee shot, tried too hard with his recovery and ended up with a late triple bogey. Similar perhaps to Reed, Poulter has made proving people wrong and backing up his own decisions something of a career motif, should the question of playing here arise.
If any man can play this week feeling wronged and determined to confound fate, the unbending arm of the law and tour referees it is the Chinese golfer who was handed a two-shot penalty for a violation which almost no-one is in agreement with. Prior to that he had put up a sterling defense of his Dubai Desert Classic title. Beware the golfer scorned?
No course form this week, but Smith fondness for golf in the region appeals. He was a winner in Egypt and the U.A.E. on the Challenge Tour, has been T6 in Doha, was T12 at Jumeirah last year, then T11 in Abu Dhabi and T9 after 54 holes last week (T29).
Finished T5 in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, missed the cut last week and this test, a touch shorter than both, should suit him far more. Has a second in the Qatar Masters so windy golf in the desert won’t alarm him.
Like Kjeldsen arrives off a top five-missed cut double. In his case he was T3 in Abu Dhabi. A winner at blustery Almouj in last year’s Oman Open, he’s also won at EGD designed The Dutch and Celtic Manor 2010, and was second at Carton House.
The Spaniard opened with a 65 in Abu Dhabi on his way to T6 and then closed with a 64 in Dubai for T20 so his desert golf is bubbling nicely. A winner in Abu Dhabi in 2014.
Last week (T16) he landed just a fifth top 20 in 29 starts since his breakthrough-win-that-didn’t-quite-lead-to-a-breakthrough at … The Dutch. Three top 20s, two of them top tens, at Celtic Manor 2010. Briefly on the front page of the scoring last week.
Slow progress since winning the British Masters and then suffering injury: WD-T49-T38. If the latter seems underwhelming take note that it was his best effort at the Emirates GC – indeed a first top 60 in six tries including a course career low 67.
T10 near the end of 2018 and T15 to open the 2019 campaign hinted at good stuff. But missed the cut in Leopard Creek by a long way, got closer to it in Abu Dhabi and then finally played some excellent golf (amid some poor) to grab T20 last week.
Last week was a third T7 in five starts and he moved nicely through the field all event. Opened with 69 for T31, 67 got him to T14, 68 to T5 and had he holed a makeable birdie putt on the 72nd hole he’d have grabbed T3.
Chalked up that fine win in South Africa last last year and might be nearing another peak having gone T20-T16-T7. Moreover, having hit the weekend T26 in Dubai he shot 69-67 to move first to T12 and then T7 by week’s end.
The late-blooming South African is currently in the ascendant after a run of MC-T51-T7. That final effort came courtesy of a wet sail final round 63 in the Dubai Desert Classic which got him in this week on Category 7 (top ten the week before).
Not only was he T6 in Abu Dhabi, he also played with Brooks Koepka and bested him by two swings. Perhaps buoyed he kicked on and claimed T3 last week with a R4 64.
Undoubtedly an enigma but T3 last week, a winner at two windy tracks that could be similar to this week (Doha and Verdura), and also at EGD’s Worsley Park (on the CT).
What to make of his T16 last week at the Emirates? There was plenty to like as he was T5 after 54 (and 2nd for GIR). Will he kick on or suffer a slump?
Second in Abu Dhabi when playing well all week, he suffered a hangover R1 78 on Thursday in Dubai, but don’t overlook his 67 on Friday despite the MC.
Made a first cut on the tour in over a year when carding 71-70-69-69 last week. A double winner at EGD’s Montgomerie Maxx Royal in Turkey.
Made seven top tens in nine starts ahead of T48 last week, but always had a rotten record at Emirates and it was actually a career best finish there.
Ahead of his missed cut last week he was in contention twice in succession: leading at Leopard Creek after 54 holes (T3) and T5 after 36- and 54-holes in Abu Dhabi (T11).
Up to the end of 2017 he was 8-for-25 in Middle Eastern events with a cut, since he is 4-for-6. Twice runner-up on EGD tracks (Woburn and PGA Catalunya).
Impressive winner at The Dutch last Fall (and contended there 12 months earlier). Finished T38 and the EuropeanTour.com stats report he needed just 22.8 putts per round.
Always worth considering in the Middle East as a winner in Doha, T6 finisher at the Emirates, two-time top 20 at Jumeirah and T2 in an Asian Tour event in Dubai.
1. Justin Rose
6. Patrick Reed
7. Ian Poulter
9. Joost Luiten
10. Lee Westwood
11. Matt Wallace
12. HaoTong Li
13. Thorbjorn Olesen
14. Thomas Pieters
15. Andy Sullivan
16. Eddie Pepperell
17. Tom Lewis
18. Ryan Fox
19. Jordan Smith
20. Pablo Larrazabal
Look out for Tuesday’s Expert Picks column with advice from myself and Dave Tindall on selections for DraftKings and the European Tour Fantasy Game.