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Dubai Desert Classic preview

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This week sees the conclusion of the Middle-East swing, and we have a stellar field to conclude this wonderful three-week period on the European Tour schedule.

Last week was another fine tournament, with Branden Grace eventually taking the spoils, with a one-shot victory over Scotland’s, Marc Warren.

The decisive moment for Grace came on the short par-4, 16th where Grace hit his tee shot to within five feet of the hole, and subsequently converting the putt for eagle. This is the South African’s second win of this young 2015 European Tour season, and he is certainly showing signs of form that saw him win four times in 2012.

Grace is now a six-time winner on the European Tour, and that was with a two-year gap between his fourth and fifth win, an impressive feat considering he is still only 26 years old. Of course Rory McIlroy has 9 European Tour victories to his name, at 25 but Grace’s achievements thus far are excellent nonetheless.

Also with his win this past weekend, Grace’s 100% record when leading/co-leading an event after 54 holes is still intact, proving how mentally strong he is when in contention. Grace has now become the 2nd youngest South African to six European Tour victories, Charl Schwartzel still remains the youngest.

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On to this week, and we arrive in Dubai for the Dubai Desert Classic which is hosted by the glorious Emirates GC. As you would expect, this event often draws a high-quality field and as a result the winners list is dotted with superb players.

Most recently, Stephen Gallacher has managed to land this trophy two years in a row, and he will no doubt be confident of playing well here once again, and will dream of achieving the three-peat.

Other winners include World No.1 Rory McIlroy, former World No.1’s Ernie Els and Tiger Woods, as well as the likes of Henrik Stenson, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Colin Montgomerie.

All of these golfers have won on multiple occasions, but the Dubai Desert Classic has been a particularly memorable stomping ground for most. This event has a history of providing the platform for the first European Tour victory for players on several occasions, most notably McIlroy in 2009.

Other players to get their first European Tour win here include, Ernie Els, Richard Green and Robert-Jan Derksen so this event can often be remembered as the emergence or even re-emergence of some great players in the past. This was also the first event David Howell won, however he won at a different course in 1999.

When Gallacher won in 2013, he won just his second event of his career, and his first for nine years. Since then he has re-established himself on Tour, winning this event twice and making his first appearance at the Ryder Cup at the tender age of 4o. There is no doubt in my mind that winning such a prestigious event such as this gave him the confidence to become the player he has over the past couple of years and I am sure it’s an event he will forever enjoy returning to.

The Course:

Emirates GC, 7,300 yards, Par 72. Much like last week, the fairways are very much generous here, and distance off the tee should prove more important than accuracy. The greens are fairly sized, so hitting them will be imperative if you want to stay near the top of the leaderboard.

Putting is always an important part of a players game, but not one player in the top-10 last year finished inside the top-10 for Putts Per Round, although both Gallacher (8th) and Steve Webster (7th) finished inside the top-10 for Putts per GIR.

No one stat stands out this week, so it is very much a week for the all-rounder, however the longer hitters on Tour do tend to prosper here. Last year McIlroy ranked 1st in Driving Distance despite only averaging just over 241 yards off the tee last year. This was an unusual low however, as Ricardo Gonzalez lead the field in 2013 with 298.9 yards and Gallacher who won that week averaged 297.5 yards.

Looking at the list of recent winners, it is fairly obvious that bombing off the tee is advantageous and it will certainly be something to keep in mind this week.

Market Leaders:

Rory McIlroy – 4/1

Henrik Stenson – 12/1

Martin Kaymer – 16/1

Sergio Garcia – 20/1

Lee Westwood – 20/1

All of these five players have earned their right to be at the head of the market, but as ever it is important to look at the negatives as well as the positives when backing a player at the head of the market.

McIlroy can obviously win on any given week, and had it not been for a cold putter on the Saturday in Abu Dhabi he may well of won that week, thanks to Kaymer’s collapse. It wasn’t to be however as he was denied by maiden winner, Gary Stal. At 4/1 you would have to be pretty sweet on his chances, and I am happy to oppose him this week.

Stenson has not really got going yet in 2015, which seems ridiculous to say based on two events, but that is the case. He missed the cut in Abu Dhabi which was particularly surprising, and although he finished T13 last week, that looked fairly flattering as it took a 66 in the final round, when out of contention to rise 26 places.

Stenson did have five consecutive top-10’s here, including a win between 2007-2010 but since then he’s flattered to deceive somewhat. He missed the cut in 2011, and has since finished 20th, 26th and 29th, so he would have to improve massively on his recent showing here, in order to get the win this week.

Garcia has never finished inside the top-10 at this event (11th 2009 his highest finish) and after a lacklustre effort at defending his title last week in Qatar I am happy to leave him out.

Kaymer and Westwood are to me the two that stick out in the top-5 in the betting, and although there are of course negatives against them both like the others, I think they appeal the most given their prices.

Kaymer as we all know, collapsed in spectacular fashion in Abu Dhabi, and after giving up a 10-shot lead just two weeks ago, you could almost be forgiven for ruling him out this week, but I won’t be so quick to do that.

Much like Jimmy Walker on the PGA Tour recently, Kaymer will be keen to put his demons behind him and winning on your next start is the way to do it. Walker blew a chance to win the Hyundai Tournament of Champions, but a week later he won the Sony Open, and Kaymer definitely has the mentality to do a similar thing here.

Not only will he want to prove he can put that Abu Dhabi misery behind him, but Kaymer has a very solid record at this event. In five visits to this course, Kaymer has finished 2nd, 4th twice, 31st and 13th, and although he hasn’t played here for the last two years, I am convinced the German can perform well again this week.

Westwood is the rank outsider in the top-5 and I am not convinced that should be the case. Admittedly he is the only one of the five to not of played so far in 2015, but he did win on his last start, at the Thailand Golf Championship seven weeks ago.

He has some excellent form here since 2003 as well, finishing 2nd on two occasions, 5th, 6th and 10th in amongst some other good finishes. He has not missed the cut here at this course since 1997 and he clearly likes playing this event, and specifically this course.

Since 2010 his form reads, 2-15-2-5 and that bodes very well if you are keen on him this week. He didn’t play in this event last year but his 5th in 2013 and 2nd in 2012 are recent enough to provide good memories for him.

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Here are my picks for the 2015 Dubai Desert Classic.

Lee Westwood 20/1 (General) 1pt e/w:

With 23 wins on the European Tour, Lee Westwood currently ranks T-8th in the all-time list, and there is no reason why he can’t make it 24 here.

Westwood hasn’t played so far in 2015, but on his last start back in December he won the Thailand Golf Championship, his 8th win on the Asian Tour. It wasn’t a weak event either as he had to hold off Martin Kaymer, who finished 2nd, plus the likes of Sergio Garcia and Tommy Fleetwood both of whom finished inside the top-10, and even Bernd Wiesberger and Bubba Watson who also finished in and around the top-20.

As already noted, he has some great form at this track including his 5th last time he teed it up (2013) and 2nd the year before. He finished 2nd in 2010 as well, so his most recent form figures at this course read 5-2-15-2 and for me that is difficult to ignore.

A lot is made of Westwood’s short game on a regular basis, and many cite that as the reason why he hasn’t won a major, but you don’t get to 23 wins on the European Tour if you’re consistently bad on and around the greens. He does have his moments, like everyone he has a weakness, but his short game has certainly looked more solid recently and considering he won on his last start, the putter shouldn’t be too rusty!

For me, 20/1 is definitely too hard for me to ignore, given his obvious course form and recent win and I will be surprised if he doesn’t contend once again this week.

He had two wins in 2014, both in Asia and he will be hoping to continue that good form in 2015, especially in a event as big as this.

Ernie Els 66/1 (Betway, BetVictor, Boylesports) 1pt e/w:

Ernie Els didn’t have the best of seasons in 2014, but the “Big Easy” looks to of found some form of late and he has fond memories around this course.

We say Els had a down year in 2014, and he did but even so, he still managed to make it to the last four in the WGC Accenture Match Play, as well as a T7 finish at the US PGA Championship and a T5 in Hong Kong. Of course he didn’t win last year, but he got a win in 2013 and it was only two years ago he won the Open Championship, so there’s still game in him yet.

Now his last two starts here read mc-mc, which no one likes to see, and those came last year and then back in 2009, but prior to that, the South African was a banker to finish inside the top-5 and that is not an exaggeration. Between 2003-2008, Els finished 2-3-1-2-2-3 which is obscene for any golfer, anywhere.

He has won this event three times, each time at this course (1994, 2002 and 2005) and although they were a long time ago, they are still positive memories in his mind.

His recent form has been very consistent, without being spectacular finishing T-20-T12-T23 in his last three events. His T12 in Abu Dhabi was his best of the year so far, and his putting looked good that week, ranking 13th in Putts Per Round.

Putting has been his Achilles heel in recent years, like it is for many players who are advancing in years, but he has putted pretty steadily so far this season, and it’s no coincidence that his form has improved as a result.

It has been a while since Els played well here, considering he didn’t play here between 2010-2013 and then missed the cut in both 2009 and 2014, but I can see him turning that around this week, as he arrives in better form than he did last time out.

When he teed it up here last year, Els had finished 37th in Qatar, and had not played six weeks prior to that, so to have three consecutive top-23 finishes in as many weeks coming into this year, he certainly looks in better shape to impress this time around.

Alvaro Quiros 125/1 (Boylesports & SpreadEx) 0.5pt e/w:

Alvaro Quiros has had a rough time over the last couple of years on the European Tour, after averaging a win a year between 2008-2010 and two wins in 2011.

He hasn’t won since 2011, and that is where the problem lies for the big-hitting Spaniard. Quiros has consistently been one of, if not the longest hitter on the European Tour so it’s not a surprise that he plays these Middle-East events well, due to the generous fairways.

Quiros won this very event in 2011, and also won the Qatar Masters in 2009 and he generally just plays very well at this time of year.

Since his win here back in 2011, he has only managed finishes of 37th (2012) and 53rd (2014) but after a steady week in Qatar where he managed three rounds under par and a level par round, he may well be ready to compete here again.

Quiros shot two opening rounds of 70 last week, and ended the week with a 68, so a better third round could well of seen him find his way in the top-10 for the first time, since the Nordea Masters in June last year. I know it’s all ifs and buts, however after missing 7/11 cuts since that T6 finish at the Nordea in June, it must be a confidence booster to even be within three shots of the top-10.

He has a proven affinity with this part of the world and apart from his win in 2011, he also had finishes of 6th and 13th the two years prior to that so this course certainly suits his game.

I hope he can build on last week, and I am sure his play in Qatar was a huge boost mentally. To have that positive mindset ahead of playing at a course you have won at in the past could prove massive this week, and I happy to chance him improving on that at 125/1 here.

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I am sticking with three picks here this week, although I could of made a case for at least a dozen players. With such a strong head of the market, there is definitely some value elsewhere and it was very hard to keep it at just three, but as the saying goes “You can’t back them all!”

Profit/Loss for 2015: – 14