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On to Dubai we go then for the 3rd and final instalment of this year's trio of desert events. The concluding event in the Middle East swing may not be the richest in terms of prize money - that accolade is still with Abu Dhabi for this season at least - and with Rory McIlroy nursing his rib injury still the attendance quality is also a little down on previous years, however with Tiger Woods in town there's bound to be massive excitement and interest to lift this week's event. Rory's omission has meant that Open Champion Henrik Stenson is the clear 7/1 favourite here at the Emirates Golf Club, however a supporting cast that includes Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Lee Westwood and Thomas Pieters - alongside the in-form Rafa Cabrera-Bello and last week's winner Jeunghun Wang - delivers some real quality into this event.
Over on the PGA Tour, Steve Bamford previews the Waste Management Phoenix Open - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Emirates GC. Designer: Litten, 1998; Course Type: Desert; Par: 72; Length: 7,328 yards; Water Hazards: 10; Fairways: Bermuda/Rye; Rough: Bermuda/Rye; Greens: Bermuda (TifEagle) 12'6" on the stimp.
Course Overview. History has shown that hitting greens is the key statistic at the 7,328 yard par 72 Emirates Golf Club - once on board, the putting surfaces are pretty flat and reasonably speedy Bermuda measuring 12-13 on the stimpmeter. Length off the tee isn't a massive advantage here as many holes require a shaped shot to navigate around the numerous doglegs - shaping the ball both ways is a great asset to have here. The course is always presented in perfect condition and the greens are amongst the best on Tour. The back nine, whilst longer thanks the front nine, plays far easier with three mid-length par 5s in play, the short par-4 17th and the shortest of the par 3s at the 11th.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Dubai Desert Classic that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Danny Willett, 40/1; 2015: Rory McIlroy 7/2; 2014: Stephen Gallacher, 45/1; 2013: Stephen Gallacher, 70/1; 2012: Rafael Cabrera-Bello, 125/1; 2011: Alvaro Quiros, 16/1; 2010: Miguel Angel Jimenez, 66/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the completed 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for Dubai is here. The tournament should enjoy mild (mid 70s) and dry conditions throughout the 4 days, however the biggest feature looks set to be the wind with gusts of 30-50 km/h expected on Thursday and Friday afternoon.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 7 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Similar to Qatar last week, the requirement here tends to be strong GIR numbers coupled with a decent week on the slick Bermuda greens. The greens here are slightly different though with Bermuda TifEagle being this week's strain which is well worth noting.
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner.
Each of the last 7 winners had recorded at least one top-10 finish in their previous 8 performances so recent form was fairly decent. Previous form in the desert is also an important factor - each winner had at least two career top-10 performances to their name in the desert, however perhaps most telling is that each of the last 7 winners had recorded at least a top-20 finish here the year before their victory. That trend halts with McIlroy's win here in 2009 (previous event form of MC/52/MC), however prior to that Woods (08), Stenson (07) and Els (05) also had a top-20 finish or better the year before. Woods in 2006 hadn't played 12 months earlier, however he'd finished 5th on his previous start in 2004.
Prior to Rory's win in 2015, no winner since Tiger Woods' victory here in 2008 had started within the top 3 of the betting - the shortest price in that period was Alvaro Quiros who, at 16/1, was 5th favourite - so don't write this off as a procession for Henrik Stenson although he's a clear and worthy favourite this week. The Swede is clearly capable of winning this event for the 2nd time in his career and 5 further top-8 finishes here over the years rubber-stamps his credentials, however for me he still squanders too many opportunities to win on Tour for a player of his ability. Not seeing Henrik around the upper reaches of the leaderboard on Sunday would be a surprise to me, however whether he can get over the line this week at a skinny price is more my concern.
For me, the windy forecast here is a leveller and there could be a number of high-profile casualties before the weekend if the forecast pans out. Early/late tee times will have the best of it on Thursday but the toughest conditions on Friday, so it may well even itself out over the course of the first two days, although these things are never an exact science. Players with the ability to play the conditions and navigate a safe path to the weekend when it will be considerably calmer are favoured, as are those with a high GIR game and the mindset to attack and score on the all-important par 5s.
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My selections are as follows:
It was a disappointing finish for both Tyrrell Hatton and us in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago as the 54-hole leader made no impression on the final day to drift to 13th having played some immaculate golf up to that point in time. Until the Sunday, Hatton had hit 87% of GIR and ranked inside the top-10 for driving accuracy on a demanding track, however it all unravelled on the final day - however that's not to say that the whole episode won't sharpen the 25 year-old's focus this week having opted to stay and practice in Dubai.
8th here last season immediately gets him a big tick in that particular box given that the last 7 winners here had all achieved a top-20 or better on their previous attempt and positive desert form including 6th, 13th and 2nd at the Earth Course and 10th, 6th and 13th in Abu Dhabi suggests that he's more than comfortable in these surroundings. By his own admission, the Dunhill Links champion hadn't done a massive amount of work over the festive period, so for him to have been so competitive for 3 days on his last start should be taken as a huge positive, despite his poor finish. If anything it was the putter which prevented the Buckinghamshire man from converting his 2nd European Tour victory, so with his irons looking immaculate he'll surely approach this week with renewed confidence given he ranked 4th for putting on these greens 12 months ago and achieved the same level on identical composition putting surfaces at the Earth Course in November when narrowly missing out to Matt Fitzpatrick.
Henrik Stenson, as I've already mentioned in the preamble, should feature although whether he can actually convert at such a short price is my concern and Rafa Cabrera-Bello makes little appeal at the price given the opportunities he continues to let slip through his fingers. Sergio Garcia putted awfully in Singapore to finish 11th against a poor field a week ago and Matt Fitzpatrick, who won the DP World Tour Championship the last time the Tour visited Dubai, has been paired with Tiger Woods (as has Danny Willett) which will really test the young man's mettle. To support Hatton then I'm going for a couple of quality ball-strikers who've shown some good form in the early part of this year so far:
The ever-consistent Bernd Wiesberger's recent run of form seemingly took a dent in Qatar which halted a string of 3 consecutive top-4 finishes and 7 top-7 finishes from his previous 8 starts. A slow start birdie-wise - and shock, horror his first bogey for a massive 81 holes - meant that the Austrian only made the cut on the number and had a mountain to climb from there given the sheer number of players between him and the lead. Credit then that after a shaky start to Saturday the 31 year-old went 8-under for his final 27 holes to regain some momentum ahead of this week's visit to the Emirates. 9th here in 2014 (1st for Ball-Striking, 3rd All-Round), 4th in 2015 (5th All Round) and 16th last year (6th for putting average) suggests that Bernd has the measure of this track from tee-to-green and so he should given it sets up very nicely for him. If there was a criticism of Wiesberger then it would be that he doesn't convert enough opportunities to victories and 3 European Tour trophies acquired over the years isn't an appropriate reflection of his game relative to some of his peers, however winning isn't easy and you could say the same about many players in world golf. For me, the former Open de France winner is most comfortable on these types of track where high GIR is rewarded (he ranked 6th on Tour for GIR in 2016) and any kind of spark with the putter this week could see him seriously contend for this title.
Last week's tailed-off 48th place finish in Qatar from Martin Kaymer was understandable for a couple of reasons: firstly, the middle leg of the Desert Swing has historically been the German's weakest by far and, secondly, he was once again suffering the disappointment of a near miss at Abu Dhabi which must now be becoming more than a frustration for him. The fact that the 32 year-old was so competitive on his first appearance since November though is testament to the work that he'd put in over the festive period to sharpen his game ahead of the 2017 season. Although already qualified for all 4 Majors, the former OWGR number 1 won't be at all pleased with his world ranking which has hovered around the 50th mark for the best part of a year now and he's seemingly decided to buckle down and attack this year with renewed purpose. He's clearly pleased with the shape of his game, saying in interview in Abu Dhabi, "A lot of positives. I think my putting was very good, very consistent. A lot of putts, they started online this week. Ball-striking, especially mid-irons and long irons have been very solid. So there's a lot of positives."
The main reason that the 2-time Major winner has been treading water of late has been a putter that's been ice cold, so it was positive to see a marked improvement from him in Abu Dhabi - in fact 1.68 putts per GIR was his best effort for well over a year with the flat stick. 1st for driving accuracy on his last start in Qatar was also positive and clearly from his comments the German feels that his irons are in decent shape, so putting it all together here in Dubai isn't too much of a stretch in my view. 4 top-4 finishes here at the Emirates Golf Club from 7 starts is an impressive record and without the same level of mental baggage associated with this event compared to Abu Dhabi, I can see him contending again here this week.
Regular readers will know that Lucas Bjerregaard is a player that I like to keep a close eye on and one that I believe has the potential to win multiple European Tour titles. His late 2015 form, which saw finishes of 3rd in Italy, 5th in Germany, 9th in Portugal, 2nd in Hong Kong and 3rd in China, hasn't been repeated since his switch to Nike clubs shortly after that, however there have been increasing signs of late that his game is back on track and I suspect he'll be contending for a title again soon enough, potentially as early as this week. 6 consecutive paid weekends has been driven by a far stronger long game that's seen him rank inside the top-4 for both Total Driving and Ball-Striking on 4 of those 6 starts and, with confidence starting to flow once again, it's only a matter of time before the results appear in my view. 45th here last year was achieved shortly after picking up his new clubs so I'd actually see that in a relatively positive light, however of far more consequence in my view was his putting performance on the Bermudagrass greens of Abu Dhabi on his penultimate appearance, where he produced his best putting average (1.64) on Tour for nearly 3 years, and the fact that he led the field for par-5 scoring last week in Qatar.
There was a time when giant Swede Robert Karlsson regularly rubbed shoulders with the best players in world golf. A career high OWGR ranking of 6th back in 2008 - the same year in which he won the European Tour's Order of Merit - and top-10 finishes in all four Majors over the years is impressive and, at the age of 47, you could excuse him for taking his foot off the pedal a little with Senior golf not a million miles away. He's having none of that though and is constantly striving to improve his game and his competitiveness at European Tour level and a run of 10 cuts made from 11 European Tour events would suggest that he's making good progress with his game. 7th in the Czech Republic and 3rd in Germany before Christmas were positive efforts and a 1.59 putting average in Abu Dhabi (4th in the field) and 84.7% GIR stat last week in Qatar (5th in the field) suggests that he's close to a contending performance when he puts both aspects together one week and, at the price on offer, I'm happy to take a chance that it will be this week. Missed cuts here over the past 2 seasons mask what is otherwise an impressive enough record with 4 top-10 finishes here in Dubai over the years including 3rd in 1998 and 4th in 2009. He's clearly comfortable in this part of the world having won in Qatar and at the Earth Course in the past and may well be a dark horse here this week.
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