Following Rory McIlroy’s superb halfway comeback for a fourth win in the Dubai Desert Classic, that now establishes him as the most successful player in that event’s history, the DP World Tour continues its International Swing in the Middle East, with the Ras Al Khaimah Championship at Al Hamra Golf Club.
The Ras Al Khaimah Championship debuted on tour in 2022, as Al Hamra GC held back-to-back tournaments (the other event named the Ras Al Khaimah Classic) while the tour was still finding its feet after coming out of the covid pandemic.
Nicolai Hojgaard recorded his second DPWT victory in that inaugural edition, firing a score of 24-under-par to see off Jordan Smith – a former winner at Al Hamra on the Challenge Tour – by four strokes; with Ryan Fox an even more emphatic five-stroke winner over Ross Fisher the following week in the Ras Al Khaimah Classic, winning with a score of -22.
Conditions were trickier in last year’s edition, at which -17 was enough to see England’s Daniel Gavins win for the second time on tour in dramatic fashion; surviving two water balls on the 18th to hole an incredible 26ft putt for a double bogey, that whilst cutting his then three-shot lead to one, was enough to see him over the line.
Gavins returns to defend this week, though he has been woefully out of form since then and will be hoping that the scene of his latest victory can spark him back into life.
Al Hamra GC is a relatively new course, designed by Peter Harradine in 2007 and aside from hosting the three DPWT events in the last two years, players will have become familiar with it from its time on the Challenge Tour. There, it hosted the Ras Al Khaimah Challenge in 2016 and 2017, along with the 2018 Challenge Tour Grand Final; the three winners of those events, Jordan Smith, Jens Dantorp and Adri Arnaus all tee it up here this week.
This flat desert course is a par 72 and will play to 7410 yards. It contains 10x par 4s (355-486 yards), 4x par 5s (576-607 yards) and 4x par 3s (166-214 yards).
Built on sandy ground and typically fiery, this exposed layout is somewhat linksy and like those types of courses, the difficulty of it can be significantly impacted by the wind. We saw it with last year’s winning score being five shots higher than any of the previous two DPWT events and of those three Challenge Tour events at the course, two were won in scores of -15 and -17.
A further reason for the tougher scoring last year can be attributed to more penal rough in 2023. In the two 2022 events, the rough was virtually non-existent, which meant that despite these fairways being extremely narrow – with Padraig Harrington saying last year that they were the narrowest he’d ever seen - and ranking as the toughest to find on the DPWT in recent years, they didn’t punish you for missing.
That meant that a much lower percentage of these generally small, firm and gently undulating paspalum greens were found; again ranking in the top 5 most difficult to find on tour.
With these clear challenges that the course poses to your ball-striking - even in the previous two lower scoring tournaments - it’s perhaps a surprise to see scoring so good, as Al Hamra ranks both high for birdie average and low in bogeys made. However, bunkers are limited and not too difficult to play out of, and providing you don’t find the water on any of the eight holes in which it’s in play, the course is reasonably straightforward.
That water plays a big part in the exciting closing 576-yard par 5. It protects the entire right-hand side of the hole, from the narrow fairway to the triple-tiered green – the largest putting surface on the course.
Despite still getting the win, we saw how dangerous it can be with Daniel Gavins last year and it looks almost certain to play a pivotal role in deciding the outcome of the event this week.
- SG: Off-the-Tee
- Driving Distance
- SG: Approach
Last year’s renewal threw a real spanner into the works in terms of knowing what it takes to win here. With wins for Ryan Fox and Nicolai Hojgaard at Al Hamra in 2022, it looked pretty cut and dried that the event was favourable to big-hitting and high-class ball-strikers, which was represented statistically, as both ranked top 3 in approach and drove the ball well; Hojgaard in particular, ranking 1st.
However, of last year’s top three, winner Daniel Gavins and runner-up Alexander Bjork drove the ball terribly, both ranking outside the top 50 and neither accurate nor long. Instead they largely relied on the short game, with each player ranking top 5 in putting and around-the-greens.
There is a chance that the course has bedded into its status as a DPWT venue, and that these more challenging, firmer conditions - along with the thicker rough - could change the dynamic of the event.
Having said that, when we look at the rest of the top 5 last year we find that previous dynamic still proving important. Zander Lombard, also in 2nd and Adrian Meronk in 4th are both big hitters and ranked top 7 off-the-tee, whilst each ranked top 25 in approach and GIR. Though not quite as confident as with previous editions, I still feel that the lengthy ball-strikers have this course sussed.
There was a noticeable increase in scrambling numbers among those top challengers, more so than previous years, with all five ranking top 25 in this area. With greens that are so tough to hit it makes sense to factor in some level of scrambling ability.
CORRELATING EVENTS (COURSES)
Qatar Masters (Doha Golf Club)
Doha Golf Club is a fellow desert design by Peter Harradine. It has similarly narrow fairways to Al Hamra, plays firm and uses paspalum on the greens.
Notable correlating form (Includes Challenge Tour form):
Ras Al Khaimah (1st, 2nd) / Qatar (5th, 6th)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd, 4th, 6th) / Qatar (3rd)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd) / Qatar (5th, 10th)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd) / Qatar (4th, 5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (4th) / Qatar (2nd, 3rd)
Ras Al Khaimah (5th) / Qatar (9th)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Qatar (3rd)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Qatar (5th)
Abu Dhabi Championship (Abu Dhabi Golf Club)
Abu Dhabi Golf Club is another Peter Harradine course that was generally scoreable in its time as host of the Abu Dhabi Championship, up to and including 2021. Tough-to-find fairways were again a feature of this course and it also ranked closely to Al Hamra in scrambling difficulty.
Notable correlating form:
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd) / Abu Dhabi (1st, 2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd, 9th) / Abu Dhabi (2nd, 6th)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd) / Abu Dhabi (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (4th) / Abu Dhabi (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Abu Dhabi (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Abu Dhabi (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Abu Dhabi (8th)
Portugal Masters (Dom Pedro – Victoria Course)
As an exposed course with firm greens, lots of sand and plenty of water in-play, form in the Portugal Masters has traditionally gone hand-in-hand with form in the Middle East.
Notable correlating form:
Ras Al Khaimah (1st, 2nd) / Portugal (1st)
Ras Al Khaimah (1st) / Portugal (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd, 9th) / Portugal (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd, 9th) / Portugal (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd) / Portugal (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd) / Portugal (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (6th) / Portugal (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (7th) / Portugal (8th)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Portugal (8th)
Alfred Dunhill Links Championship
Due to the linksy nature of Al Hamra I’m going to include two events in Scotland, beginning with the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, which has plenty of correlating form with events in the Middle East.
Notable correlating form:
Ras Al Khaimah (1st) / Dunhill Links (1st, 2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd) / Dunhill Links (1st)
Ras Al Khaimah (4th) / Dunhill Links (1st, 2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (1st) / Dunhill Links (6th, 6th)
Ras Al Khaimah (1st, 2nd) / Dunhill Links (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (2nd, 9th) / Dunhill Links (2nd, 2nd, 2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Dunhill Links (2nd)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd, 9th) / Dunhill Links (6th)
Hero Open/Scottish Championship (Torrance Course at Fairmont St Andrews)
I’ll end with the Torrance Course at Fairmont St Andrews, which hosted the Scottish Championship in 2020 and Hero Open in 2021/2022.
This exposed, links-like layout offered up a similar short-game challenge to this week’s course and played to a comparable level of difficulty, possessing almost identical birdie/bogey average percentages to Al Hamra.
Notable correlating form:
Ras Al Khaimah (1st) / Hero Open/Scottish Championship (5th)
Ras Al Khaimah (3rd) / Hero Open/Scottish Championship (1st, 3rd)
Ras Al Khaimah (5th) / Hero Open/Scottish Championship (1st, 9th)
Ras Al Khaimah (7th, 11th) / Hero Open/Scottish Championship (3rd, 4th)
Ras Al Khaimah (9th) / Hero Open/Scottish Championship (7th)
There is nothing but sun forecast in Ras Al Khaimah this week, with temperatures in the high 20s. This will help keep the course firm and with gusty winds of around 17mph predicted over the opening two rounds, and rising to as high as 26mph over the weekend, playing conditions look very similar to last year.
Thriston Lawrence is the highest-ranked player in this week’s field at #69 and one of just six from inside the world’s top 100. This includes past winner here on the Challenge Tour in 2016, Jordan Smith and the leading player in Japan last year, former #1 amateur, Keita Nakajima.
Daniel Gavins returns to defend. Although he is the only former DPWT winner in attendance at Al Hamra - with Nicolai Hojgaard and Ryan Fox instead playing on the PGA Tour - the three previous winners here on the Challenge Tour will tee it up, with 2017 winner Jens Dantorp and 2018 winner Adri Arnaus joining Jordan Smith.
Talented Australian, David Micheluzzi makes his first DPWT start this year after earning his tour card with three wins in his home country in 2023; PGA Tour winner, Sung Kang appears for the first time on the tour since 2015 and with four wins to his name in 2023, Indian Tour golfer, Om Prakash Chouhan will be hoping to make a splash at this higher level.
Market leaders: Rasmus Hojgaard 11/1, Jordan Smith 18/1, Thorbjorn Olesen 18/1, Thriston Lawrence 22/1, Zander Lombard 22/1
This is the first DPWT event this year in which someone called Rory McIlroy doesn’t intimidatingly head the betting, nor is he followed by a bloke called Tommy Fleetwood. It leaves us with a much more open event and for all Rasmus Hojgaard is a quality operator and in good form, he is not a favourite to fear on the scale of the previous two weeks.
There was little at the top end that caught my eye, with Thorbjorn Olesen appealing most due to his good effort here last year and suitability to linksy tests. However, at more than double the price of the Dane is an equally classy player, who has arguably started the year in better form than anyone else in this week’s field, and I saw absolutely no reason to not follow up on last week’s triple-figure selection, Haotong Li again in the Middle East.
1.25 pts Haotong Li each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 40/1
After a season as terrible as the Chinese star endured in 2023, there were some understandable reservations about whether his 14th-place finish in the opening event of the year in the Dubai Invitational was anything more than a brief, one-off occurrence. He surely put those reservations to sleep last week.
Haotong followed up with a 7th-place finish at Emirates Golf Club, sharing the lead after the opening round and entering the final round in 4th, with an outside squeak from five shots behind. He competed well for most of that round, at one point getting within three of Rory, but his instinctively aggressive nature caught up with him down the stretch, as he bogeyed three on the spin from 14-16 to drop completely out of contention.
It's this nature that makes him such a fun player to watch and also an attractive – if sometimes anxiety-inducing – player to back. He doesn’t settle for a top 5 finish behind one of the best players in the world, he wants to chase him down and get the win; a mentality that has taken him to three DPWT titles.
The putter was the star last week, ranking 1st in the field, but he also backed up his strong ball-striking performance at Dubai Creek the previous week, ranking 5th in approach. Whilst the driver ultimately cost him a few spots on the leaderboard, he was relatively controlled over the week overall.
If Haotong can play to a similar level here - at a course where he finished 3rd in 2022 after a scintillating final-round 63 – he should be one of the leading contenders at Al Hamra, and at a price that whilst a significant drop, I don’t believe goes far enough when considering current form, course form and general ability.
1 pt Sean Crocker each way (1/5 - 6 places) - 55/1
In contrast to Haotong, Sean Crocker wasn’t able to build on his opening-event promise, as he preceded to record a poor missed cut at Emirates GC. However, in a candid interview after his second round, he spoke of his general dislike for the course and I feel he’s worth another shot at a venue that seems a clearer fit.
Crocker looked in fine shape when finishing 6th in the first event of the new year at the Dubai Invitational, firing three rounds of 67 or better; all engineered by his characteristically superb ball-striking, ranking 5th OTT, 6th in GIR and 6th in approach. Business as usual for a player who ranked inside the top 28 in each of these areas in 2023.
He wasn’t able to transfer that to the Dubai Desert Classic, recording rounds of 72 and 75 to miss the cut by three, though I’m happy to forgive that following his aforementioned post-round comments.
The American hasn’t played here in the last two years but does have experience at Al Hamra from the 2018 Challenge Tour Grand Final, where he finished 5th after entering the final round in 2nd and shooting an excellent 64 in round two – which was the best round of the week by anyone.
In addition to that, Crocker’s as yet only professional win came at Fairmont St Andrews in 2022 in the Hero Open, a place where he’d previously recorded a top 10 and with his best finish in the second half of 2023 coming at the Harradine-designed Doha Golf Club in the Qatar Masters, finishing 9th, I’m expecting him to bounce back swiftly from last week’s disappointment.
1 pt Callum Shinkwin each way (1/5 - 6 places) - 66/1
Callum Shinkwin has recorded top 25s in his two completed events at Al Hamra, a record that could well have been added to, if not improved, had he not had to withdraw from last year’s renewal when sat 9th at the halfway point. He can gain some compensation for that unfortunate occurrence this week after a promising effort in the Dubai Desert Classic.
Barring the occasional bright spot, such as a 7th-place finish in the BMW PGA Championship, 2023 was a largely underwhelming year for the Englishman. He looked similarly disappointing when 53rd of 60 players in the Dubai Invitational, but improved significantly at Emirates GC, shooting under par in every round for an 11th-place finish.
Shinkwin putted well there, though I was very encouraged by his ball-striking, as he ranked 5th OTT and 14th in approach. Combine this with the power he possesses and you start to realise why he has performed well here in the past.
A runner-up finish in the Dunhill Links in 2022; a 7th at Fairmont in that same year and several positive performances across the Middle East in Qatar/Abu Dhabi give further reason for optimism, pointing to a likely good week in Ras Al Khaimah for Shinkwin.
1 pt Matthew Jordan each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 80/1
Matthew Jordan drove the ball excellently on his first start of 2024 last week and as a player more at home on these linksy, more exposed courses, he looks good value to go well at Al Hamra.
The driver was the standout club in Jordan’s bag over his first couple of years on tour, though it largely failed to fire in 2023. Therefore it was a huge positive to see him drive it well at Emirates GC - ranking 4th OTT on one of the toughest driving courses on tour.
Though the rest of his game was slightly subdued, he did show a little something in approach and on the greens in round three. After gaining some sharpness there, I’m hoping to see a more complete performance this week.
Jordan has played in all three DPWT events here and recorded two top 20s, finishing 13th on debut in 2022 and then 19th last year; putting these greens well each time. Aside from that, his correlating form is also, recording finishes of 5th in Qatar, Portugal and at the Dunhill Links, as well as a 6th at Fairmont.
His ability to perform on this style of course should come as no surprise for the Wirral man, who is somewhat of a links specialist after growing up playing in the North West of England, winning prestigious titles like the Lytham Trophy and St Andrews Links as an amateur.
Jordan was then able to convert that ability to the pro ranks with a first Open Championship top 10 at his home course last year and when a first DPWT success does come his way, I suspect it will come on a course such as this, which shares many of those links characteristics.
1 pt David Micheluzzi each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 70/1
Australia’s David Micheluzzi got his rookie season on the DPWT underway at the end of 2023 in the co-sanctioned events in his home country. Now able to make his first start on the tour this year, I expect this former #2 amateur to make some serious waves and this looks a place where he can make an instant impact.
He turned pro in 2019 after that excellent amateur career which included a victory in the Australian Master of the Amateurs in 2018; an event also won by Jason Day and Sahith Theegala. However, it’s a couple of performances in the UK during that time which catch the eye most in regards to his potential to perform here this week.
Micheluzzi has been hopping it over to the UK playing on links course since 2016 and has recorded three top 10 finishes in the Amateur Championship, with a best of 3rd in the 2019 edition at Portmanock; then showing glimpses of this ability in the Dunhill Links last year, finishing 14th.
He initially took a little time to get going in the pro ranks but finally found his feet in 2022, winning for the first time in Australia and recording fifteen top 25s in eighteen starts.
2023 brought about even better results, as he produced three more winning performances and started to accrue starts further afield; hitting the top 25 four times in five starts on the DPWT and even making the cut when teeing it up in the AT&T Byron Nelson on the PGA Tour.
It’s not easy to specify exactly what Micheluzzi is about, though in the few events that he’s played where strokes-gained data has been gathered he’s shown signs of quality in ball-striking and on the greens.
Above all that, his level of dominance in Australia, combined with his competent performances at this level already, show that he is ready for the step up. At a course that could well suit based on some of his past performances elsewhere, I’m happy to dive a little into the unknown and take a player who could just have a higher ceiling than almost anyone else in this field.
1 pt Rafa Cabrera-Bello each way (1/5 - 8 places) - 125/1
Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello gets the final nod this week. The classy veteran went well on his 2024 debut last week and as a player with a high-class book of form in the Middle East, he looks a very lively outsider at Al Hamra.
Rafa regularly starts the year well and he did just that in 2023, recording four top 20s in his first six starts, including two top 10s. However, he large disappointed for the remainder of the year, before a 7th-place finish on his second-to-last start in the Australian PGA Championship gave him something to work with heading into 2024.
He began his year at Emirates GC and was sat inside the top 20 heading into Sunday, before a final-round 74 dropped him outside the top 30 into 31st position. Though again, the signs were positive.
Long gone is the quality ball-striker of the past, Rafa is now a player who relies on a neat-and-tidy short game to contend. Having said that, he was much improved in approach last week compared to how he played throughout much of 2023, gaining strokes in rounds one and three. If he can upgrade that performance again this week, we could see him kick on.
He missed the cut here on debut in 2022 but returned to finish 13th last year, with that short game doing most of the hard work. This is a part of the world that he has enjoyed great success in the past; winning in Dubai in 2012; recording finishes of 2nd, 3rd and 3rd in Qatar and two 4th-place finishes in Abu Dhabi.
A runner-up finish in Portugal is further evidence of Cabrera-Bello’s suitability to this style of challenge, which gives reason enough to take him at a tempting three-figure price.
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