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With last week's headline selection Tommy Fleetwood producing a masterclass from tee-to-green in Abu Dhabi to grab us an early-season 20/1 winner, we head to the second leg of the Middle East Swing in confident mood. In tougher conditions on Sunday, Tommy's putter well and truly caught fire and he came home in 30 strokes - a shot better than his winning effort the previous year - to beat an excellent field and a spirited fight from Ross Fisher. That effort pushes the Southport man up to 12th in the World Rankings and with his current state of mind and game who's to say he won't improve on that further in 2018?
With the Qatar Masters now being played in a month's time courtesy of some changes to the schedule, this week we find ourselves at the Emirates Golf Club in Dubai for the 29th renewal of the longest-established of the desert events on the European Tour. With an identical prize structure to last week but significantly less investment in terms of appearance fees, the quality of field has taken a small knock, however headlining the event we still have the likes of former OWGR No.1 Rory McIlroy, reigning Masters Champion Sergio Garcia fresh from his win in Singapore over the weekend, former Open Champion Henrik Stenson and of course last week's hero Tommy Fleetwood.
With the past 2 winners of this event going on to secure their maiden Major titles at Augusta a few months later, the ante-post Masters odds will undoubtedly be very fluid this week as some of those in attendance show some form at various points in time. Whether anyone in this field can repeat the feats achieved by Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia remains to be see, however it's one fact - whether it's coincidence or not - that's sure to capture the imagination of the golfing public this week in Dubai.
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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. The Majlis Course is our venue once again for this year's Dubai Desert Classic. As you'd expect with a desert course, this is a fairly exposed layout - however in contrast to last week's layout in Abu Dhabi, the track here at the Emirates Golf Club is shorter with a number of dog-leg holes which, when combined with wind which is quite often a factor, creates a little bit more of a strategic test. History has shown that hitting greens is the key statistic at the 7,328 yard par 72 layout - once on board, the putting surfaces are pretty flat and reasonably speedy Bermuda measuring 12-13 on the stimpmeter and they can appeal to the less adept putters on Tour. 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 | Combined Current/Event Form.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2017: Sergio Garcia, 20/1; 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 7 years based on the completed 2017 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. Winds will be generally light and variable for the first 3 days with a light breeze picking up each afternoon, however more significant wind could arrive on Sunday with 20mph or more possible during the latter part of the day.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 8 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
One element that stands out from a number of those players above is that they'd previously produced a strong GIR performance here at the Emirates before winning. Although his attendance in this event has been patchy, Garcia had previously ranked 1st for GIR here in 2009; Willett had recorded 80.6% GIR on each of his previous 2 attempts before winning in 2016; McIlroy ranked 2nd, 5th ,6th and 4th for GIR here between 2009 and 2012; Gallacher ranked 1st for GIR the year before winning, plus had achieved GIR ranks of 9/6/8 before that; likewise both Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Miguel Angel Jimenez had ranked 1st for GIR on this layout prior to winning.
Incoming Form: Each of the last 8 winners had recorded at least one top-10 finish in their previous 8 performances so recent form was fairly strong. Rafael Cabrera-Bello's form was probably the most tenuous of those listed, however he'd finished runner-up to Tom Lewis at the Portugal Masters before Christmas so was clearly in recent contending form.
Event Form. Prior to last year's win from Sergio Garcia, each of the previous 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.
Last year's windy conditions played into the hands of Sergio Garcia and when the wind does blow around these parts it can accentuate the requirement for shot-shaping and almost links-like qualities to a player's game, an assertion that's backed up when you look at the list of winners which includes a number of Open Championship winners including Mark O'Meara, Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Rory McIroy and Henrik Stenson. This event also appears to be quite specialised with Els, McIlroy, Woods and Stephen Gallacher all winning this twice - in short, event form is probably worth more than a cursory inspection this week.
The emphasis on the course setup over the last couple of years has been to encourage more controlled play from off the tee which may well slightly favour the more accurate types this year. In last year's top-8 finishers we saw players achieving the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th best Total Driving performances on the week and 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 9th best Ball-Striking performances; the top-3 finishers in 2016 also each finished inside the top-15 on both counts which points me more towards the stronger ball-strikers who have the ability to find the kind of form on these slick Bermuda greens that will help accumulate a contending total.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below.
My final selections are as follows:
The dilemma last week was whether or not to side with one of the market leaders at a single figure price and we're presented with a similar challenge here in Dubai with Rory McIlroy once again heading the betting at a general 9/2, with defending champion Sergio Garcia - who won the Singapore Open at the weekend by 5 strokes - rating an 8/1 chance. Whereas last week we could (tentatively) swerve the favourites given the event's history of recent winners, this week is more of a dilemma with fancied players having more joy here over the years and a few having successfully shaken the rust off last week.
Rory is a worthy favourite having shown a lot of positives last week in Abu Dhabi on his return to competitive action, having given his rib injury sufficient time to heal since October. A 3rd place finish without really excelling in any one aspect of his game is ominous for the season and he returns to the Emirates GC this week looking for a personal hat-trick of titles from this event. Like last week, it would surprise nobody if Rory were to win; likewise Sergio Garcia, who returns as champion this week fresh from an impressive triumph on the Asian Tour, however at a slightly longer price preference goes to Henrik Stenson who felt his game was as good as it's been since winning the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour last August when finishing 8th last week in Abu Dhabi.
I talked in the preamble about both repeat winners here and those arriving with a top-20 finish in their previous attempt at this title and with Henrik's 2007 Dubai Desert Classic one of the 11 European Tour titles to his name and a runner-up last year, he ticks both of those boxes. Aside from those two efforts, the 41 year-old has 5 further top-8 finishes on this track over the years and is impossible to write off when he's playing well and heading to the Gulf. Twice in those attempts has Stenson topped the GIR charts at the Emirates and it's clear that he enjoys his desert golf with a win in Qatar and two more successes at the Earth Course in Dubai to his name. The combination of ball-striking prowess and Bermuda green putting that the Middle East tracks demand clearly brings the best out of the Swede and another big week is eminently possible here.
A 65 to finish last week in Abu Dhabu had Henrik purring, "Yeah, very good. I've been working all week and trying to get things in order for the season ahead. Seemed like we finally got there on Sunday, at least. I feel like I said, it's probably the best that I've played since I won on the PGA TOUR in August last year, this round that I put together here today. So very promising for the weeks ahead."
Clearly the putter was also working very nicely (1.68 putts per GIR, ranked 13th in the field) and that will undoubtedly instill confidence into a long game that's seen him average over 70% of fairways and 80% of greens over his last 3 strokeplay starts. RESULT: T6
Another quality ball-striker who showed a bit of form with the flat stick last week was Matthew Fitzpatrick and he warrants backing too given he's already a winner in Dubai from his 2016 DP World Tour Championship triumph over Tyrrell Hatton. A 3rd round 63 in Abu Dhabi was fuelled by a red-hot putter, however if the Sheffield lad is to seriously contend this week then it will likely be his tee-to-green prowess that gets him into the frame. Having gradually learnt how to play the Majlis course over the years - form of MC/45/5 has seen him rank 1st for driving accuracy (2016) and 3rd for GIR (2017) - he should be ready to put it all together this week and get a little more cement added to his Ryder Cup qualification campaign.
At just 23 years of age, Matt has already proven that he can win on a variety of tracks and putting surfaces and this mid-length desert layout on Bermudagrass greens holds no fears, particularly as he has a couple of very assured performances in this part of the world to his name already. 2nd for putting average last week is an important sign for the 4-time European Tour winner as the work that he put in pre-season on this very course here in Dubai to tighten up his proximity to hole performance can be rewarded with a compliant putter that produces a lot of red numbers when it's hot - as we saw first hand last Saturday. Fitzpatrick has more than a fighting chance this week in my view. RESULT: MC
With a couple of decent bets on two of the shorter prices this week, I've saved a little bit of this week's fund for a pair of outsiders. First up Andy Sullivan who has finishes of 4th and 2nd over the past 3 years on this track and also pushed Rory McIlroy all the way at the Earth Course back in 2015, ultimately finishing a shot shy of this week's favourite. The Nuneaton man has ranked 13th, 9th and 4th here in terms of GIR on the three times that he's played all 4 rounds and is a dangerous player when he's finding greens with regularity as we saw with devastating effect when he rattled off 3 victories in the space of 10 months in 2015 to well and truly open his European Tour account. Although he's been winless since, there have been signs of life on occasion, not least last week when he worked himself up to a tie for 6th place at the halfway point courtesy of a GIR performance of 94.4% after 36 holes - which was better than even the GIR king Tommy Fleetwood at the time. Clearly he didn't progress from there last week, however with some positive signs and a 3-figure price on offer, I'm happy to take a chance on Sulli this week. RESULT: T6
Finally I'm taking a speculative punt on young American Sean Crocker who we're likely to see a whole lot more of over the next few years. Born in Zimbabwe and mentored by 3-time Major champion Nick Price throughout a sparkling amateur career, the University of Southern California standout player has impressed on his early professional starts to the extent that I think he's worth supporting here this week at small stakes. 16th at the Hong Kong Open, 7th at the Australian PGA Championship and 6th last week in Singapore behind Sergio Garcia shows a strong progression over a short period of time and GIR performances of 4th, 6th and 5th over those three events is enough encouragement I need given the price on offer. Averaging over 310 yards off the tee over those three events also bodes well for the 21 year-old's career in a world where controlled length off the tee is a critical success factor and with an Open Championship invite in his back pocket courtesy of last week's effort on the Asian Tour, he's got a better chance of sneaking a place here than the 200/1 quotes on offer about him. RESULT: MC
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