Fans of the DP World Tour were treated to a thriller of a final round to kick off the new season in last week’s inaugural Dubai Invitational, as Tommy Fleetwood birdied his final two holes to narrowly get the better of Rory McIlroy.
After an up-and-down day for Rory, which included seven birdies but also a three-putt bogey from 2ft, he stood on the final tee with a one-shot lead over Fleetwood. Though on a week where the Northern Irishman had also made a quad-bogey on the 7th hole in the second round, the pain wasn’t over.
He proceeded to hook his drive left into the water and after missing a lengthy putt to save par, the tournament was in the Englishman’s hands. Hole the birdie putt from 16ft for the win or else it was a three-man playoff between the two and Thriston Lawrence, who shot the second-best round of the day with a 7-under 64 to set a clubhouse target of -18.
An inability to handle the pressure in these situations has often been thrown at Tommy but there was no such thing here, the ball never left the hole and he collected the first trophy of the new year in an exciting final round; one the organisers would’ve certainly been hoping for.
With the numerous costly errors over the week, it will feel like one that got away from McIlroy but he gets the chance to make up for that this week at a course where he recorded his first ever victory as a professional, as the tour moves on to Emirates Golf Club for the Dubai Desert Classic.
The Dubai Desert Classic was first staged in 1989 and has been a mainstay on the DP World Tour ever since. All bar two editions (1999,2000) have taken place here at Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course.
It usually attracts a stellar field from around the world and with that, has an impressive roll of honour. Seve won the event in 1992; Colin Montgomerie in 1996 and in 2008 Tiger Woods became just the second player at that time to win multiple Dubai Desert Classic titles, regaining the trophy after his 2006 victory.
Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher has also won twice here, with his back-to-back wins in 2013/2014 making him the only player to successfully defend at Emirates Golf Club. However, there are two players locked at the top on three wins apiece.
Ernie Els was the first to get to this number, with wins in 1994, 2002 and 2005; it could’ve been even more if it wasn’t for finding just one player too good in each of the 2003, 2006 and 2007 renewals.
This feat was only equalled last year, as Rory McIlroy claimed his third win in the event. Following winning his first professional title here in 2009 and then claiming a second success in 2015, Rory got the better of Patrick Reed in a gripping final round, birdying his last two holes to win by a shot.
Last five winners:
- 2023 – Winner: Rory McIlroy (-19); runner-up: Patrick Reed (-18)
- 2022 – Winner: Viktor Hovland (-12; Playoff); runner-up: Richard Bland (-12)
- 2021 – Winner: Paul Casey (-17); runner-up: Brandon Stone (-13)
- 2020 – Winner: Lucas Herbert (-9; Playoff); Christiaan Bezuidenhout (-9)
- 2019 – Winner: Bryson DeChambeau (-24; record winning score); runner-up: Matt Wallace (-17)
Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course was designed by Karl Litten and opened for play in 1988, making it the first all-grass golf course to be built in the Middle East. The course has hosted all bar two renewals of the Dubai Desert Classic since 1989, with the 1999/2000 editions taking place at another of Litten’s original designs, and last week’s host of the Dubai Invitational, Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club.
The par 72 now stretches out to 7428 yards and possesses 10x par 4s (351-488 yards), 4x par 5s (549-601 yards) and 4x par 3s (170-190 yards).
This manicured desert oasis is one of the most attractive courses played all year, with several holes set against the spectacular backdrop of the Dubai skyline, including the often-photographed par 4 8th hole.
Desert dunes frame the course, which is set on gently undulating ground and possesses many subtle elevation changes.
Penal, sandy waste areas sit aside most holes, which flip between being quite open and those that are more densely tree-lined. More sand is on show with the frequent, sizeable and strategic bunkering.
This strategic bunkering comes into play particularly on the narrow fairways, which are the third-toughest to find on tour and dogleg in both directions, though the majority are right-to-left, including five of the final seven holes. Miss these fairways and it isn’t just sand that you’ll have to contend with but some famously brutal rough.
The problems posed at this course off-the-tee then creates issues with approach play into the large and speedy bermudagrass greens. They’re elevated and repeatedly at an angle to your position in the fairway; possessing the second-lowest greens-in-regulation percentage on tour.
Water is another prominent feature at Emirates Golf Club, in-play on eight holes. This includes the exciting closing hole; a reachable par 5 with a huge, sloped green that is intimidatingly protected by water to the front.
Due to the ever-changing directions on which the holes are played, the challenge of this test varies greatly depending on the wind, something we’ve seen vividly in the last five years.
During that time we’ve had the lowest winning score in the history of the event, with Bryson DeChambeau’s -24 in 2019 and in 2020, Lucas Herbert won the toughest renewal in a playoff against Christiaan Bezuidenhout; both players finishing tied on -9.
Having said that, an average winning score of -18 when we stretch that back to the last ten years shows the opportunities that can be had here – with all par 5s gettable and two potentially drivable par 4s - and with nothing too severe currently forecast, I expect the scoring to be good.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Driving Distance
- SG: Approach
This is a ball-strikers paradise; one where the driver carries more importance than any other club.
The list of winners here is littered with players who drive the ball well and often long. We don’t have to look far for evidence of this, as Rory is a three-time winner and is one of the best drivers in the game. Indeed he led the field off-the-tee last year and whilst Patrick Reed relied on other areas, 3rd and 4th-place finishers, Lucas Herbert and Callum Shinkwin are players who excel with driver, and like McIlroy, aren’t short on power.
Big-hitting Viktor Hovland ranked top 10 OTT when winning in 2022 and 2021 saw a particularly driver-heavy renewal, with the top 3 of Paul Casey, Brandon Stone and Robert MacIntyre ranking 2nd, 4th and 3rd OTT respectively.
Keep going backwards to other past winners such as Lucas Herbert (2020), Bryson DeChambeau (2019), Haotong Li (2018) and Sergio Garcia (2017); everyone who has recently won here is strong with driver.
The best way to complement – or in some cases compensate for - that driving ability is with quality iron play. Patrick Reed excelled with his irons when 2nd last year, ranking 2nd. Paul Casey was 2nd in approach in 2021 and Viktor Hovland ranked 4th in 2022.
With GIR percentages so low players are bound to miss their fair share of greens this week and will need to display a solid scrambling ability around a course that ranks around average in scrambling difficulty. The majority of contenders tend to put up decent scrambling numbers, with last year’s top 3 ranking 16th or better.
Finally, three of the four par 5s at Majlis come on the back nine and with all scoreable but lurking with danger, they’ll play a huge part in deciding the outcome of the event.
CORRELATING EVENTS (COURSES)
Qatar Masters (Doha Golf Club)
The Qatar Masters and Doha Golf Club have a long history of crossover form between the two events. Though more exposed, Doha GC is a desert course, with tough-to-find fairways and large, speedy greens; whilst water features prominently.
Notable correlating form:
Dubai (1st, 1st, 1st) / Qatar (1st)
Dubai (1st) / Qatar (1st)
Dubai (1st) / Qatar (1st)
Dubai (1st) / Qatar (1st)
Dubai (1st, 3rd, 4th) / Qatar (1st, 2nd, 2nd)
Rafa Cabrera Bello:
Dubai (1st, 2nd) / Qatar (2nd, 3rd, 3rd)
Dubai (4th, 7th) / Qatar (1st, 5th)
Dubai (3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th) / Qatar (2nd, 2nd)
Dubai (5th, 7th) / Qatar (2nd, 2nd, 5th)
Dubai (4th) / Qatar (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah Championship (Al Hamra Golf Club)
Back to the UAE and I believe Al Hamra Golf Club can prove a good comp this week. Again, this desert course is more exposed but with its narrow fairways and large yet hard-to-hit greens, it has developed some form-ties with Emirates GC in just a short space of time, and I expect more to appear in the future.
Notable correlating form:
Dubai (1std) / Ras Al Khaimah (3rd)
Dubai (3rd, 9th) / Ras Al Khaimah (1st – Challenge Tour, 6th, 9th)
Dubai (6th) / Ras Al Khaimah (2nd)
Dubai (3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th) / Ras Al Khaimah (4th)
Dubai (4th) / Ras Al Khaimah (4th, 6th)
Dubai (6th, 8th) / Ras Al Khaimah (9th)
Portugal Masters (Dom Pedro - Victoria Course)
The Portugal Masters has been a good guide to form in the Middle East for a number of years now and had as much crossover form with the Dubai Desert Classic as any other course I looked at this week.
Much like the previous two courses, it’s more open than this week but driving accuracy percentages are low there. With large greens and sand/water a constant threat, there are many similarities.
Notable correlating form:
Dubai (1st, 3rd, 4th) / Portugal (1st)
Dubai (1st) / Portugal (1st)
Dubai (1st, 3rd) / Portugal (2nd)
Dubai (1st, 1st) / Portugal (3rd, 6th)
Rafa Cabrera Bello:
Dubai (1st, 2nd) / Portugal (2nd)
Dubai (4th, 9th) / Portugal (1st)
Dubai (2nd, 4th, 6th) / Portugal (1st, 2nd)
Dubai (3rd) / Portugal (1st, 1st)
Dubai (5th, 7th) / Portugal (1st, 3rd)
Dubai (2nd) / Portugal (2nd)
Dubai (3rd) / Portugal (3rd)
British Masters (The Belfry – Brabazon Course)
The Belfry’s Brabazon Course ranks very closely to this event in most aspects tee-to-green, from driving accuracy percentages to scrambling difficulty. In addition, it has almost identical numbers in birdie and bogey averages.
Notable correlating form:
Dubai (1st) / Belfry (1st)
Dubai (1st, 1st) / Belfry (2nd)
Dubai (2nd) / Belfry (1st)
Dubai (3rd, 5th, 7th, 8th) / Belfry (1st)
Dubai (4th) / Belfry (3rd)
Dubai (2nd, 4th, 6th) / Belfry (6th, 8th)
Dubai (5th) / Belfry (8th)
This week’s weather should be pretty pleasant, with warm, dry conditions forecast throughout the four days and before.
Winds can always be a factor here and could appear at any time, though it isn’t currently predicted to be too troublesome, with a steady 8mph breeze and gusts up to 18mph. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see it kick up a little more over the week.
World #2 and defending champion, Rory McIlroy is this week’s star attraction of a tasty field in Dubai. He’s joined by a further four members of the world’s top 25: #9 and 2023’s Open Champion, Brian Harman makes his debut in the event; last week’s winner, Tommy Fleetwood at #11; fellow Englishman, Tyrrell Hatton at #15 and another debuting American, Cameron Young at #25.
Rory is one of five former winners, along with Thomas Bjorn (2001), Rafa Cabrera Bello (2012), Stephen Gallacher (2013, 2014) and Haotong Li (2018).
Other notable entrants include LIV Golf’s Joaquin Niemann making his debut; Adam Scott returns after finishing inside top 10 in 2022; #4 ranked amateur, Michael Thorbjornsen and it’s a welcome back to DPWT action for Austrian Bernd Wiesberger, who returns to the tour from LIV Golf.
Market leaders: Rory McIlroy 3/1, Tyrrell Hatton 10/1, Tommy Fleetwood 11/1, Cameron Young 20/1, Brian Harman 20/1, Joaquin Niemann 20/1
Rory is an unattractive, short-priced favourite again this week and followed by a quintet of quality. Hatton has a great record here; Fleetwood has strong form too and whilst it’s their debut at the course, Young and Niemann have the driving ability to take to the setup.
Though just behind them in the betting is a man who has proven he can go well at the course; had a good start to his year with a top 10 in the Dubai Invitational and as another player who excels off-the-tee, I’m going back in on last week’s headline selection, Adrian Meronk.
2 pts Adrian Meronk each way (1/5 - 6 Places) - 22/1
Meronk finished 10th at Dubai Creek and after opening with a 70, shot his final three rounds in the 60s. His tee-to-green game looked strong, ranking 6th, where he looked particularly strong off-the-tee, ranking 2nd.
That was just a case of normal service resumed for the Pole, who ranked 3rd last season OTT and 4th T2G. Rankings of 7th in GIR and 16th in approach were also more of the same, whilst it was good to see him scramble well, which will be needed; as will his demonstrated ability on the par 5s, ranking 9th in par 5 scoring in 2023. He’s a perfect fit for the Majlis Course.
He displayed this with a 4th-place finish on debut in 2022, hitting the ball excellently and looking at home on the greens. Though he missed the cut on his second start last year, there was little to concern you and it was just a case of him having an unusually poor week with the putter.
Meronk has a good record at Ras Al Khaimah, finishing 2nd there on the Challenge Tour in 2017 and recording two more top 6 finishes since the event upgraded to the DPWT; finishes of 3rd in Qatar and at The Belfry increase my confidence and I expect him to be a big contender this week.
1.5 pts Ryan Fox each way (1/5 - 6 places) - 33/1
Ryan Fox made a positive start to the year with a 14th-place finish in the Dubai Invitational and with some improved results at Emirates GC in recent visits, he looks good value for a best-ever performance in the event.
Fox has developed a habit for winning in the last few seasons and added the biggest title of his career to the C.V in 2023, with victory at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship. He wasn’t quite in this type of form over his final few starts of the year but looked much better last week at Dubai Creek.
He was solid if unspectacular over the first couple of rounds there, signing for a 1-under 70 in each of them to sit 20th at the halfway point. Though he upped his level to sign off with two consecutive rounds of 68 and moved up to 14th.
The driver was his biggest strength there, ranking 7th and it is this club that has shined most consistently throughout much of the big-hitting New Zealander’s career, ranking 31st last season.
Fox initially failed to transfer his strong driving game to the Dubai Desert Classic, finishing 63rd on his debut in 2017 and then missing his next two cuts. However, he’s made every cut since 2020 and recorded his two best finishes in 2022 and 2023, finishing 26th and 20th respectively. His impressive five-stroke win in the 2022 Ras Al Khaimah Classic is an added bonus and indicates an ability to perform on similar setups.
1.5 pts Jordan Smith each way (1/5 - 6 places) - 35/1
Jordan Smith hit the ball better than anybody last week and if able to replicate that, he would have every chance of picking up the biggest title of his career at the Majlis Course.
2023 was another consistent year for Smith, as he racked up fourteen top 25 finishes and recorded his best major finish since 2017 when 20th in the US Open. His two best performances of the year came over the latter months, finishing 2nd in the Open de France and 5th in the Qatar Masters; he looked to have carried that over to the new year at Dubai Creek.
He finished 4th there and got better as the week went on; opening with a 3-under 68 to sit 10th after the first round and following with rounds of 67, 67 and 66 in rounds two, three and four to secure the top 5. A better putting week could well have seen him finish up with a title as he hit the ball beautifully, ranking 1st in approach, 2nd in GIR and 3rd OTT.
This has been the story of Smith’s career, where he’s built a reputation of being an elite ball-striker on his day but just struggles to make the putts when needed. We see this from his stats last year where he ranked 3rd in GIR, 20th OTT and 32nd in approach, but outside the top 100 in putting. That being said, he was putting well at the end of 2023 and last week was far from disastrous. If hitting the ball to the same level and just finding a touch of improvement on the greens he’d be a huge danger.
He has a really solid record here, missing one cut in seven and hitting the top 25 three times. His two best finishes in the event have come in the last two years, finishing 9th in 2022 and 20th last year, that despite opening with a 76 to sit 123rd after round one.
Smith has some appealing correlating form, with a win in Portugal, runner-up finish at Al Hamra and several top 6s in Qatar. As one of the best par 5 scorers on tour (ranking 3rd last season) he has much in his favour at this course.
1 pt Sean Crocker each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 80/1
Sean Crocker is another high-class ball-striker who was able to carry some eye-catching form at the end of 2023 into his first start of 2024, finishing 6th. Though his overall record here is sketchy, there’s no visible reason why he can’t perform and I’m expecting him to prove that this week.
Crocker signed off last year by making six of his last seven cuts and recording three top 20s, where his best effort came when 9th in the Qatar Masters. This coming at the end of a generally up-and-down year, which included a best of 2nd in the Scandinavian Mixed.
He carried that form over into this year with that 6th last week, shooting three rounds of 67 or better. All due to that (on its day) elite-level ball-striking that has defined his career so far, as he ranked 5th OTT, 6th in GIR and 6th in approach. No surprise for a player who ranked no worse than 28th in any of these areas last season and as a solid top 40 par 5 scorer, it should translate to being able to perform here.
That hasn’t transpired so far, as Crocker has missed four of six cuts in the event, recording a best of 51st in 2021. Although, that 9th in Qatar at the end of last year signals his potential on this type of setup and with confidence hopefully flowing after the Dubai Invitational, this looks a good time for him to prove that this is indeed a favourable course.
1 pt Haotong Li each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 125/1
Haotong Li burst back into life last week and there’s enough reason to believe it wasn’t a one-off. As a past winner of this event and a historically excellent driver, he looks well worth chancing to keep the improvements coming.
After looking close to getting back to his best in 2022, particularly when winning the BMW International Open in Germany, the following eighteen months have been a huge surprise from the talented Chinese golfer.
He’s made five cuts in thirty starts since, including only two last year where every part of his game looked in disarray. With that, Li’s 14th-place finish in Dubai last week was totally unexpected, though looked no fluke.
He shot every round under par there, firing two 68s and two 70s. Further to that, he didn’t just have a hot week on the greens or relied heavily on one area, but gained strokes across his game. I was especially impressed with the ball-striking, as he gained strokes in every round in approach and OTT, finishing the week ranked 10th and 13th in each respective area.
It’s six years since Li produced that excellent performance to beat McIlroy here. Though there’s a chance he could regress this week, there’s enough about him as a character and the talent he possesses to make that a risk worth taking at a triple-figure price.
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