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Close but ultimately no cigar in Abu Dhabi with the talented Thomas Pieters coming up just short for us at 50/1 and Byeong-Hun An scraping a share of the final each way place to return a small overall profit. With fellow 50/1 shot Andy Sullivan having led by two strokes at the halfway point and Martin Kaymer flirting with contention throughout without really making an impact, it was another week that could have been so much better. As a number of last week's headline acts depart, we head to Qatar for round 2 of this year's Desert Swing looking for a slightly better outcome this time around. It's worth noting that this week's event is a Wednesday start so pre-event bets need to be placed before the first tee time which is scheduled for 3.30am GMT Wednesday morning.
Over on the PGA Tour a classy field has assembled at Torrey Pines for the Farmers Insurance Open - Steve Bamford has previewed that event and you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Event Overview. This week the second leg of our Middle-East adventure takes us to the Harradine-designed Doha Golf Club which has hosted this event since its inauguration in 1998, giving us plenty of course history stats to review. The Gulf Swing then moves to the Emirates GC in Dubai next week to complete the trio of desert-based events that are a regular fixture in the early season European Tour schedule.
Doha GC. Designer: Harradine, 1996; Course Type: Desert; Par: 72; Length: 7,400 yards; Water Hazards: 6; Fairways: Bermuda; Rough: Bermuda; Greens: Bermuda/Poa Trivialis, 11'6" on the stimp; 2015 scoring average: 71.28; Rd1: 71.46, Rd2: 71.40, Rd3: 71.42, Rd4: 70.62.
Course Overview. At 7,400 yards the course has historically favoured longer hitters when conditions are tranquil; wayward drives aren't punished as severely as other courses on the European Tour circuit with relatively thin rough, particularly compared to last week in Abu Dhabi, allowing the bombers to attack more freely. However the exposed track is particularly susceptible to wind and even the most tranquil of forecasts in the region can still result in a fair breeze blowing over the track at times, which brings the more controlled ball-strikers into the mix. This week's forecast though is for one of wind throughout so any advantage the longer hitters had may well be lost here this time around.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Qatar Masters 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.
Winners & Prices. 2015: Branden Grace, 25/1; 2014: Sergio Garcia, 8/1; 2013: Chris Wood, 100/1; 2012: Paul Lawrie, 50/1; 2011: Thomas Bjorn, 200/1; 2010: Robert Karlsson, 66/1. For a summary of winners' odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the completed 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Doha region in Qatar is here. A stiff northerly will be blowing across the course this week which will both keep a lid on temperatures and scoring. Temperatures will struggle to hit 70 Fahrenheit during tournament days and although it will be dry, 30-50 km/h winds will blow across the course pretty much throughout.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 6 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
Greens in regulation and putting are the common themes in the analysis above with slightly less emphasis on accuracy off the tee. The real premium here in my view tends to be those who favour the grainy Bermuda/Poa Trivialis putting surfaces which aren't to everyone's liking by any stretch of the imagination. The par 3s are the toughest element of the course in my opinion, so picking players with a strong mid-iron game is also a positive. Some players perform consistently well here whilst others tend to struggle year after year - in that respect it's well worth looking at the previous performances of your fancied players to get a balanced view.
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner. It's worth noting that all 6 winners above had recorded at least one top-10 finish in their previous 6 starts and all had played the week before. Going a step further, all 6 had also recorded multiple top-20 finishes in Qatar prior to their victory here - clearly there's something to be said for positive experience of this track. For a summary of 2015 winners' current/event form prior to winning their respective events click here.
Wind is often a feature here at Doha given the exposed nature of the course, however this week's forecast only exacerbates that further. Wind-positive players are likely to gravitate to the top end of the leaderboard over the 4 days in my view. My selections are as follows:
An in-form Thomas Bjorn and a windy Doha fit like a glove and I'm happy to take on the market-leaders in a week that may well prove to be far more about survival than attacking golf. The Great Dane's 2011 victory here in typically blowy conditions still ranks as his biggest success on the European Tour and only his three runner-up finishes at Majors (twice at the Open, once at the US PGA Championship) have contributed as much to his world ranking over the years, so a return to the scene of that victory can only help send positive vibes to a player whose body language and demeanour can swing from one extreme to another. Last week's return to action after the festive break tested his patience with an early treble bogey in his Thursday round all but wiped out with an ace at the very next hole and, to his credit, Thomas had a few chances throughout the event to finish in a far loftier position than his eventual 11th place. Positive signs for a player who's generally performed well in this part of the world with a Dubai Desert Classic title to add to his aforementioned success on this track, plus that's now 3 top-11 finishes in his last 4 visits to Abu Dhabi.
The 44 year-old's last victory came just over 2 years ago at the Nedbank Challenge and recurring injuries have blighted his progress at various points over the past few years, however it was great to see Denmark's most successful golfer playing well again and more silverware isn't out of the equation in my view. Bjorn has twice won the same title on separate occasions - the BMW International Open in 2000 and 2002 plus the Omega European Masters in 2011 and 2013 and it's clear to me that he's far more comfortable in some events and locations than others which washes through to his results. The forecast wind this week plays right into the hands of the experienced players and the really eye-catching part of his game last week was his putting (108 putts, 1.58 per GIR - best in the field on both counts) and that will send confidence all the way through his game.
After a challenging year in 2015 perhaps a new, more relaxed approach will pay dividends this year, "Well, I'm getting to an age where the target is just to go out and enjoy playing golf and trying to get the most out of it. Enjoy playing the game and you never know. I feel like I'm in a decent place with everything and I'm starting to swing the club better and feeling more comfortable with things. And then you never know, get a couple of chances of winning golf tournaments, that's what we play for, and if I get that kind of momentum going you never know. Just happy to be out in the sun and enjoy playing golf again" he said in Abu Dhabi. Although Ryder Cup qualification might seem a little far-fetched with the new breed of European talent out there, I don't think for one second that Bjorn doesn't deep down believe he has the game to qualify for a 4th time and victory here would be a timely boost to his campaign. RESULT: T59
Backing the market leaders here hasn't been the happiest of strategies since the turn of the decade with only Sergio Garcia obliging from the top of the list in 2014 when he shared favouritism with Henrik Stenson. At similar prices this week we have Sergio Garcia once again as well as defending champion Branden Grace and, despite their obvious chance on current and course form, the promise of tricky conditions puts my off backing anyone that short in the betting. Thomas Pieters is clear third favourite and quite likely to add to his double success of last season before too long, however I suspect it will be a more experienced type who prevails this week and to that end I'm backing Thongchai Jaidee to put last week's disappointing final round behind him and seriously contend here.
If the winning combination is once again to be multiple top-20 finishes here at Doha combined with solid recent form then the former paratrooper has both elements in spades: 5 top-20 finishes in this event (in fact 12 top-40 finishes from 13 starts) is the model of consistency and 12 consecutive paid weekends since the US PGA Championship have included a win and three further top-5 finishes to emphasise just how well he's been playing of late.
The 46 year-old is an outstanding wind player and has the temperament to dig in when required plus the ability to score heavily when conditions are a little easier. He became the first Thai player to feature in the Presidents Cup last autumn and was one of the few positives to come out of the recent EurAsia Cup when he combined with Byeong-Hun An to secure the first point for his team. 13 Asian Tour titles plus 7 European Tour trophies underlines how capable he is - particularly on Asian soil - and this week sets up nicely for him once again if he can shake off that poor final round in Abu Dhabi. His all-round game has been strong for some time now and he's not been outside the top-22 for putting on each of his last 7 events, in fact finishing in the top 3 in that respect at the WGC HSBC Champions, BMW Masters and Nedbank Challenge. RESULT: T20
A trio of wind-positive players to complete this week's line-up. First up is Irish Open champion Soren Kjeldsen who had an outstanding 2015, rising from 347th in the OWGR to 45th during the course of the year and by virtue of finishing inside the top-50 at the end of the year he's earned himself entry into a whole host of huge events this year. The win at Royal County Down was an impressive display - the 40 year-old battled 40 mph gusts to end up as just one of five players to finish under par for the week and ultimately secure his first European Tour title since 2009 in a 3-way play-off over Eddie Pepperell and Bernd Wiesberger. "I love playing in the wind. With my game, I shape shots, I hit it low and I rely a lot on my short game . . . I think this type of golf certainly suits my game better than maybe playing in the desert!" he said after securing his biggest career victory in Northern Ireland. Three further runner-up finishes followed in the season and back-to-back top 10s in the final series events at Lake Malaren and the Earth Course were the icing on the cake to an impressive year. With the cobwebs blown away in Abu Dhabi - an event that's never been kind to him and his 54th place finish was an improvement of sorts over his 3 missed cuts in the previous 4 years - a return to Qatar where he's finished inside the top 20 five times in total since 1998, including 2nd in 1999 and 13th here last year, could be just the ticket to kick-start his 2016 campaign. RESULT: T20
One of the crop of young players with the potential to become a European Tour winner before too long is Eddie Pepperell and I suspect he'll have a few more chances in 2016 to break his duck. A promising amateur career and victory in just his 9th Challenge Tour event back in 2012 paved the way for the 25 year-old and over a dozen top-10 finishes on the European Tour since then have seen him break briefly into the World's top 100, however I'm sure there's far more to come from this talented player who hits a lot of greens in regulation when he's playing his best golf. The aforementioned play-off defeat to Soren Kjeldsen in Ireland still ranks as the Abingdon man's best effort at the top level in Europe and to his credit he made the final 3 that day with a 2-under round in extremely testing conditions when all around him were going in the other direction, ultimately making the play-off from a starting point of 7 shots off the lead. 4th at the Scottish Open, 5th in Holland and 4th again here at Doha 12 months ago all helped add up to a decent season for Eddie who also finished 8th at the Alfred Dunhill Championship to start his 2016 campaign. Some decent ball-striking in his first competitive effort since Leopard Creek last week in Abu Dhabi is further encouragement and having tamed the greens here 12 months ago (4th for putts per GIR, 1st for total putts) if he can put it all together this week then he could well carve out another chance to break his European Tour maiden. RESULT: MC
Finally I'll save a small amount for a punt on the enigmatic Pablo Larrazabal at 100/1. Like my other selections, the Spaniard played last week in Abu Dhabi to shake the rust off of 8 weeks away from competitive action and whilst you shouldn't read too much into his musings on twitter which have proven to be a red herring in the past, he did say that he took a lot of positives out of his performance last week. The Barcelona man is an excellent wind player and it's only when the heavens open that I tend to steer clear, so a dry but breezy four days sets up ideally for the 32 year-old to produce some of his best golf and his ability in these conditions is a huge positive here this week. A third round grouping with World No.1 Jordan Spieth in Abu Dhabi clearly enthused Pablo and despite finishing 5 shots shy of his playing partner on the day he went on to produce a strong final round of 68 to boost his confidence ahead of this week. The 4-time European Tour winner already has a trophy earned in the Middle East in his cabinet having held off Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in Abu Dhabi in 2014 and he's been putting well enough of late (1.69 putts per GIR last week and at the DP World Tour Championship, both on Bermuda) to contend here if he can find his range with his irons. RESULT: T13
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