Dubai Desert Classic preview and best bets

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Ben Coley expects a high-profile winner of the Dubai Desert Classic, with English duo Matt Wallace and Andy Sullivan among his fancies.

Golf betting tips: Dubai Desert Classic

2pts e.w. Matt Wallace at 25/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

2pts e.w. Andy Sullivan at 35/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)

2pts e.w. Shane Lowry at 35/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Martin Kaymer at 45/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

As the European Tour has become increasingly dependent on the Middle East to form the bookends of its calendar, we’ve grown used to a collection of familiar courses, how they tend to play, and where best we might look for clues. Presented in a spider diagram, form across Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Qatar and now Saudi Arabia would reveal all the ties that for many of us are ingrained. Last year underlined one of the strongest, between Abu Dhabi and the DP World Tour Championship, as Lee Westwood and Matt Fitzpatrick fought out the finish to both events.

Here at the Dubai Desert Classic, that line to the DP World Tour Championship, held nearby, is strong, and shooting off in another direction is a dotted one to Doha GC, former home of the Qatar Masters. Further afield, there’s a clear connection with the Portugal Masters, held at another low-scoring, resort-style course where good weather is all but guaranteed. Open up enough tabs on your browser and somewhere buried within the leaderboards in front of you could well be the winner.

Then 2020 happened, or rather 2019 did, because in golf if you can’t blame 2020 for something, you probably can blame Bryson DeChambeau. Before he became the Muscleman of Modesto, back when he was a plain old scientist, DeChambeau won the Dubai Desert Classic in a score of 24-under-par, a tournament record. A year earlier, the cut here fell at five-under. It’s a fine line that tournament organisers tread, but those here at the Emirates Golf Club – where the European Tour’s relationship with the Middle East began – evidently didn’t much like their pride and joy being made to look an insufficient test.

It didn’t take long for it to become clear that a very different beast awaited in 2020 – and I’m not referring to a bemuscled Bryson. The Majlis Course which awaited the defending champion and his rivals was totally different to that which they’d left behind 12 months earlier. Rough had been allowed to grow and strong wind also played a key part, particularly on Thursday and Sunday. The biggest change, however, came in the form of greens that were more inclined to repel than to receive a golf ball. At a course where angled fairways ensure plenty of approaches are played from the rough, things became extremely difficult.

“If you want to sort all the professional golfers out, just give us firm greens,” said Padraig Harrington, eyes sparkling at the rare gift of being presented with his ideal conditions. “The chip on the last hole, I probably had 40 feet of green (to work with) and all I’m worried about is chipping it in the water on the far side. Firm greens really sort us out and we find it difficult.” Eddie Pepperell said it was ‘the toughest I’ve ever seen this course play’, and by the end of the week, nine-under was good for a play-off between two who ghosted through having started the final round tied for 13th.

Interestingly, some of those form ties still held up – first-time winner Lucas Herbert had previously come closest in the 2018 Portugal Masters, when beaten by Tom Lewis, who was third to him here. But the fundamental nature of the challenge was transformed, as suddenly it became a test of short-games. Six of the top seven scramblers hit the frame, which is rare. To have a play-off between two players who lost ground with their approaches only to pick up a combined 13 strokes around the greens may well be totally unprecedented.

All of which gets us to the big question ahead of the 2021 edition: what exactly should we expect? Are we looking at a lights-out shootout, or another scramble against demanding conditions? And, thanks to two people who have been at the course recently, and a weather forecast which I hope is trustworthy, I have landed much closer to the former than the latter. Greens reportedly run fast and the rough is not insignificant, but sunshine, little in the way of breeze and a little more moisture in the greens should return us to something a little more predictable.

With that in mind I’m pretty keen on the front of the market here, and there’s really no reason why Tyrrell Hatton can’t go back-to-back, as he did in 2017. Even after his breakthrough, career-changing win a year earlier he finished ninth in the British Masters, and with a couple of top-three finishes to his name at this course, he’s the one they all have to beat.

Tommy Fleetwood’s European Tour record is so consistent that double-figure prices are always fair assuming neither Jon Rahm or Rory McIlroy are playing, Collin Morikawa must have every chance if the putts drop, and Matthew Fitzpatrick is a two-time winner in the Middle East who simply had a shocker around the greens in Abu Dhabi. Picking holes in the front four is difficult.

I’m hoping though that a run of English winners is extended by ANDY SULLIVAN or MATT WALLACE, both of whom have rock-solid each-way claims and are capable of serving it up to the aforementioned quartet.

Sullivan is just outside the world’s top 50 and a pipe-opening share of 25th in Abu Dhabi, where he’s now made all nine cuts but never bettered 19th place, offers all the encouragement needed now he heads to a more suitable course.

It has been feast or famine here, but Sullivan has three top-six finishes and a 12th to his name, to go with three missed cuts and a disqualification last year when he signed for the wrong score after a poor start in difficult weather. Certainly, easier conditions will suit and he was unfortunate not to win this in 2016, when losing by a shot to Danny Willett having given him nine across the par-fives.

A nine-shot win in the previous year’s Portugal Masters (23-under) and a seven-shot victory parade at Hanbury Manor last summer (27-under) underline where Sullivan is at his most dangerous and he’s a good putting week from winning again based on the evidence of the last few months.

In Abu Dhabi, Sullivan was second in strokes-gained approach for the second time in his last three starts, the first of which came in the Golf in Dubai Championship which again he probably ought to have won only to have his pocket picked by Antoine Rozner. Since his long overdue victory in August, he’s only missed three cuts, two of which came in the USA and the other when he flushed it but had a horrendous time on and around the greens at Valderrama.

Put simply, he’s playing some of the best golf of his career and since it was kickstarted by a double in South Africa, he’s looked at his most comfortable in Dubai or in Portugal, at a course which correlates really well with this one.

“I know it’s somewhere where I adore coming to,” he said of the Majlis in 2018, adding: “I seem to play pretty well here, and the golf course really does suit my eye.” The Englishman went on to say that he was determined to get off to a good start in a Ryder Cup year and with points worth 50 per cent more, doing so is especially important now.

He’ll know he needs to be playing at the highest level to give himself a realistic chance of qualifying by rights, which he’ll surely have to do following a poor first crack in 2016. Above all else, this streaky, in-and-out putter will be a threat to all if they do drop and he looks just about as serious a threat to the big names as I can see here.

On a strict reading of the form book it’s Bezuidenhout who deserves that accolade, but last year’s renewal was a peculiar one and he’s far less suited to a shootout. As such, I’ll back Wallace to end his own winless run having spurned good chances to do so both in Scotland and here in Dubai in an otherwise encouraging 2020.

Although he could do with driving the ball better, Wallace is enjoying a run of sustained quality with his approaches and his short-game is dynamite – as has been true since his quick graduation from the Challenge Tour, he only really needs to keep it in play off the tee and then go to work. This course is one where finding fairways is pretty difficult for everyone, and he was second here in 2019 when his short-game dazzled.

Fast forward two years and his irons are much sharper, which helps explain why he was able to step up on previous form in Abu Dhabi to finish seventh. Having led the field in par-four scoring while doing so, he looks absolutely primed for a move to a course where he’s enjoyed greater success in the past.

And perhaps last week’s improvement can be partly put down to having Gareth Lord on the bag, which will help him here as much as it will anywhere. Lord spent a long time with Henrik Stenson, a former Dubai resident who has played this course more than just about anyone, and is a potentially game-changing addition to Wallace’s team given the caddie turnover he’s had.

Lord, who has also caddied for desert specialist Alvaro Quiros and Portugal Masters winner Steve Webster, can go and find another bag whenever he likes so you’d like to think he won’t take any nonsense from Wallace, who impressed with his self-deprecation in that wonderful European Tour video. It’s a partnership which could take off at a course where Wallace shot a second-round 66 on debut before chasing home DeChambeau in 2019.

In a recent interview with Kit Alexander, Wallace put that performance down to how well he drove it, saying: “I know for a fact the reason I played well around there in 2019 was because of my driving. I drove it great one day and shot probably the easiest 64 I’ve ever shot.

“I was in the middle of the fairway every time, hitting greens and giving myself loads of chances – that’s what you can do around that course. It suits my eye nicely and I know the course really well from doing practice and prep there for many years.”

Should he do the same this week, at a course where he’s played a lot of golf outside of competition, his game is where it needs to be to go on and contend, knowing that victory here could propel him to the Ryder Cup as it did for Stephen Gallacher in 2014, and Willett, via Augusta, after that.

As you’d expect, the market has reacted strongly to events of last week, players who disappointed drifting – Justin Rose just a hair to 40/1, Martin Kaymer to 50s, Sami Valimaki to 80s, and so on – while those who impressed in some way have been trimmed. We can see this right at the front, where Hatton, Fleetwood and Fitzpatrick were almost identical odds but have now been re-ranked on the basis of one tournament.

History suggests we should be a little cautious when it comes to Abu Dhabi as a guide to the Dubai Desert Classic, though. Among the last nine Dubai winners who had played Abu Dhabi, three had missed the cut, while Bezuidenhout and Willett had finished 54th and 59th respectively. Only McIlroy, who went 2-1, has translated a big finish in week one to a win in week two, and the courses are about as different as it gets when we’re talking modern, desert designs.

I would argue that SHANE LOWRY might be better suited to this one despite having won in Abu Dhabi and he’s taken to leave behind his missed cut last week, which was in fact his fifth in just seven visits to the course.

Lowry won the 2019 edition of that event because, well, golf is golf, and he happened to have a fabulous week around and on the greens. Five missed cuts in seven though represent the most significant evidence and last year’s was soon left behind as he finished 11th here, having been 12th in 2019.

Those two performances came after a five-year absence, his early efforts here having been modest, but Lowry right now appears to really enjoy the challenge at Emirates GC – a fact underline by ranking third and 10th for strokes-gained approach across these two visits.

With his iron play sharp enough last week as he narrowly failed to make the weekend, and 10 birdies suggesting his strong form in practice might not be far away in competition, Lowry looks to be a prime candidate to complete that quick turnaround in results we’ve seen from so many here.

Anyone who has listened to him or read interviews will know that Lowry has a massive, Ryder Cup-shaped goal this year, and he worked hard in the off-season with it firmly in mind. A missed cut in Abu Dhabi won’t set him back – especially as he’s won a World Golf Championship on the back of a missed cut – and he’s another former Portugal Masters champion who has it within him to underline ties between the two events.

Laurie Canter was runner-up in Portugal during a fabulous 2020 campaign which ended with fifth place in the DP World Tour Championship, and he’s drifted to a tempting price despite a fast start which was undermined by a cold putter and some scrappy approach play. It’s worth noting that poor strokes-gained approach figures have been anomalies he’s quickly recovered from and I think he’ll take to this place on debut.

We know already that Callum Shinkwin can score here because he was fifth at halfway in 2019, when his effort petered out following a busy run in qualifying tournaments. Fast forward two years and this big talent is now a European Tour winner capable of taking the next step up the ladder, his performances since that breakthrough in Cyprus offering plenty of encouragement.

He’s arguably the pick of the outsiders along with Takumi Kanaya, Minwoo Lee and Rasmus Hojgaard, three of the most promising players in the field. Lee hit it well last week and is one to keep an eye on with Saudi Arabia in mind, while Hojgaard’s greens-in-regulation numbers (ranked first) were back at summer levels, when he won at the Belfry and contended everywhere for a month or so. Kanaya, meanwhile, shot 70-67 on the PGA Tour a fortnight ago and won the prestigious Dunlop Phoenix on just his fourth start as a pro, following a fine amateur career.

On balance though this is probably too much, too soon for Kanaya, and Hojgaard’s desert form offers only limited promise, so I’m going to go back to MARTIN KAYMER for one more try in an event which has been dominated by the big names when the weather has played fair.

Checking back on last year’s record, I actually only put the German up once post-lockdown, when he finished third and should’ve won at the Belfry, so I may be making unnecessary excuses in keeping the faith after going in again for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Drawn in the afternoon, which wasn’t as bad as it looked but still made for a difficult start, Kaymer never got anything going and laboured to a missed cut at a course where he’s a three-time champion. It’s not difficult to see why he’s been pushed out to 40/1 generally, 45/1 with eight places and 50/1 with six on the back of that return to action.

But he’ll take it in his stride, and wrote on Instagram that he ‘used my unexpected spare time over the weekend very well and will be ready next Thursday’, and despite an absence of silverware he is just as effective in the Dubai Desert Classic, where he has four top-four finishes from earlier in his career but has finished inside the top 25 in each of his last four, too.

Leading the field in greens hit twice in the last three years, including 12 months ago, Kaymer’s strokes-gained approach figures are as strong as anyone’s here and it’s that which will eventually lead him back to the winners’ circle. With Rory and Justin Thomas both absent and this event so often going to someone who has suffered a setback in Abu Dhabi, the shift in his price makes him hard to ignore.

Romain Langasque and Adri Arnaus both showed much more than the German last week, but both have been cut accordingly, although I half expected Arnaus to go off closer to 33/1 than the 45/1 on offer. Still, he was twice the price of Kaymer last week and I don’t want to place too much stock in one windswept tournament now that the calmer and lower-scoring conditions of Dubai lie in wait.

On that note, I’ll finish by suggesting that Dean Burmester and George Coetzee are worth considering against Bezuidenhout in the top South African market, offered only by Sky Bet at present hence not featuring among the recommended bets. It may just be that Bezuidenhout wants a tougher test whereas his two compatriots, both of whom excel in the Portugal Masters, are suited by low-scoring shootouts.

Both have placed here, Burmester doing so after a horrific car accident on the eve of last year’s tournament, and he would be marginally preferred to Coetzee if you want to play each-way rather than dutch them at a combined 3/1. The big-hitter was another to miss the cut last week but he was pleased to sign off on the front foot and is far more suited to the Majlis Course, where we should see birdies and eagles back in fashion.

Posted at 2000 GMT on 25/01/20



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