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QATAR MASTERS

Long established on the European Tour as part of the ever expanding ?Middle East Swing?, the Qatar Masters has steadily grown in profile. Just four years ago, there was virtually no representation from the world?s top-50 here. There?s no chance of that nowadays, with mega-rich Qatar capable of drawing a number of top players away from the Buick Invitational at this year’s US Open venue.

Since the oil-rich hosts have increasingly been able to attract the top stars, all the winners have been amongst the market leaders. The last three were Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Henrik Stenson, all in the top-3 in the betting, and last year the first 8 home were all quite well fancied. The most obvious explanation is that Doha GC is a track that places great emphasis on par-5 scoring and the approach shot, normally the hallmarks of a course that separates the best from the rest.

This year?s leading three face some stiff opposition but nevertheless all have big chances. Stenson, 1st, 2nd and 7th in the last three years, continues to hint at a return to his very best after a good week in Abu Dhabi. Guaranteed to prosper on the par-5s here, I?m in no doubt that he?ll be in the top rank again. However, I?m prepared to overlook Sweden?s finest simply because his long game is still not in tip-top shape and there are several others with equally strong claims.

Nobody more so than LEE WESTWOOD. Considering he’s won 29 international events and that I’ve been hailing him as one of golf’s great ‘finishers’ since I can remember, I’ve found it very hard getting any returns from Westwood over the years. In fact he probably owes me more than any golfer, and that reason alone made me think twice about taking the fairly short price of 12/1. Nevertheless in gambling the formbook must be king, and on that score he?s the man to beat this week. Westwood was in better form than any of these before Christmas, and opened his 2008 account in good style with 2nd place. Apparently he?s been working hard over the festive period, so I expect to see him reap some dividends in the weeks to come.

Another star talking a good game going in is ADAM SCOTT, who pulverised a moderate field on this course six years ago as a 21 year old for what was then only his second title. Then as now, the key to success was scoring on the par-5s. There?s no question in my mind that this week?s test is far more suitable than last week at Abu Dhabi. Scott has a long game to die for, but often gets left behind on courses where his weak putting and short game are exposed.

Goosen and Sergio Garcia both start their 2008 campaigns with much work required to restore their ailing reputations. Goosen won this last year before barely turning in another decent effort all year, while Garcia?s putting and temperament towards the end of the season were in crisis. It might pay for now to stick with a rising star instead in the form of MARTIN KAYMER. Normally, I hate backing players who?ve won the previous week. Especially when it was their first win. And of course, it will be no disgrace if Kaymer fails to repeat the trick so soon. However, he is such a great young talent, and scores so well on the par-5s that its hard to see him being too far away. It may just be that there is still some value left in the 33/1.

A crucial point to note for both pre-tournament and in-running bets at Doha is the advantage to early starters as a consequence of the Shamal wind. This course often becomes a very tough test in the afternoon, so each day it should pay to stick with those out early. Westwood and Kaymer are both out early on the first day, while Scott will be my sole representative in the afternoon.

I was delighted to see RICHARD GREEN get an early tee-time, because his was the first name on my shortlist. Sunday?s 66 looks the ideal preparation for consecutive Middle East events that he usually contends for. Next week its the tournament that marked his first ever win, the Dubai Desert Classic, but beforehand he has a very strong chance in Qatar. He?s made the top-8 three times in the last five years, and the top-4 in two of the last three.

Finally, Denmark?s SOREN HANSEN could represent some each-way value at 70/1. Rather in the same vein as Green, Hansen has the ideal long game requirements for Doha. Over a number of years, he?s done fairly well on the course without ever looking like winning. Four top-15 finishes is a fair record, but one that could be bettered if showing the same level of improvement he did over the late summer. Then, he went from also-ran to regular contender, the highlight of which was a win in the Mercedes Benz Championship in Germany.