Massive investment and the lure of prize-money is slowly turning the Middle East into one of world?s major golf settings, and this week?s first stage of the European Tour?s ?Middle-East Swing? is no exception. Virtually every leading European, excluding Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, are present in Dubai for the third running of the Abu Dhabi Championship along with world no.8 Adam Scott.
Scott shares favouritism with PADRAIG HARRINGTON, though I have strong preference for the latter. As in the previous two years, low scoring is expected on what is essentially a ?second-shot?, target golf course. Although Scott could make hay on the par-5s here, I wonder whether this dodgy putter will be able to keep pace with scoring on his course debut.
Harrington alternatively is talking a confident game going in. The Open champion spoke very warmly yesterday about the tournament and venue, saying how much he was looking forward to jump-starting his season. Whereas many players are slightly below par first time out after a break, Pod often plays his best golf when fresh. He looked the most likely winner for a long way here last year before slipping back to 5th on the final day, and stands out as ideally suited to the demands of this golf course.
The fact that virtually none of this field have played for at least a month does add a strong element of guesswork to betting. Lee Westwood, for instance, would have outstanding claims on his pre-Christmas form but has proved very unreliable in the past when coming back from a break. Defending champion Paul Casey comes in without a warm-up, and needs to improve on his efforts from the second half of 2007. In particular, he?ll need to improve his distance control on this course. Henrik Stenson is another whose previous course form places him on any shortlist, but took three rounds at Kapalua to find any sort of rhythm. Darren Clarke is certainly in form and ?match-fit?, but this field is light years ahead of last week?s South African opposition.
I?m prepared to risk a bet on IAN POULTER despite having to second guess his preparation. Poulter made great strides in 2007 and finished the season in fine style with an impressive win against a world-class field in Japan. Though slightly less consistent than some of his peers, Luton?s finest is usually seen to best effect on golf courses like this, and played well enough in 10th on his sole previous visit in 2006.
And in the spirit of a New Year, NICK DOUGHERTY is forgiven past misdemeanours. After numerous disappointments, most memorably when trading at 1.03 on Betfair in-running at the Italian Open, Dougherty had been placed on my black list. In fairness though, Nick’s temperament looked flawless when landing the Dunhill Links in September and may yet start to fulfil the talent everyone has known he possessed since his Walker Cup days. Again, this is the sort of golf course where I?d expect to see him produce his best.
Several of the emerging young guns must come in for consideration this week on a course that could play to their strengths. I?m not sure Rory Mcllroy has mastered his putting enough yet to pass this low-scoring test and prefer MARTIN KAYMER, ROSS FISHER and ZANE SCOTLAND. As regular readers will be aware, I think the world of Kaymer and strongly expect him to win a European Tour event before long. This week?s course looks right up his street and another bold show is expected.
Fisher retains the inconsistency one would normally associate with youthful inexperience. Having done everything bar close the deal against Mickelson and co in the prestigious Champions Trophy, his efforts in South Africa were rather disappointing. Nevertheless, he?s worth sticking with whilst his odds are still 66/1 and when confronted with a course that should play to his strengths. Remember it was this time last year, albeit on a different if not dissimilar course at the Dubai Desert Classic, that Fisher first sprung to prominence when giving Els, Woods and Stenson a run for their money.
And at 125/1, ZANE SCOTLAND could be worth a punt to make a strong early impression in his Euro Tour career. The youngest player ever to qualify for an Open Championship – 9 years ago at Carnoustie – has finally earned his Tour card after his career was derailed by injury following a car crash. Earning his card from just seven events last year was quite an achievement, and he is a player well worth following on target golf courses that suit his attacking game.