DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC
Following his sixth win in seven tournaments, inevitably all the focus here concerns whether Tiger Woods can be beaten on this rare European Tour outing. If my memory serves me correctly, he may have started at odds-on for a couple of Asian tournaments over the years, but I can?t remember the great man ever starting below this week’s best quote of Evens for a regular European or PGA Tour event. Especially not for this fairly prestigious third leg of the ?Middle East Swing?, that always attracts a good proportion of world stars.
In four visits this century, Woods has never finished below 5th and won once. By anyone else?s standards, that would be magnificent but in Tiger?s case it suggests his dominance is less pronounced than usual and tempers any enthusiasm for a bet at Evens. The Emirates is a low-scoring, target golf course and therefore a significantly easier test than last week at Torrey Pines. Clearly he?s going to be in the thick of it, but I have a suspicion that he could be vulnerable here to somebody else shooting the lights out. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t trade higher in-running at some stage, though I still recommend betting in the “Without Woods” market rather than opposing him.
In fact, Woods? record here is slightly inferior to that of his closest rival in the betting, 12/1 chance Ernie Els. Twice a winner, Ernie has never finished below 3rd in seven cracks at this event over the past decade. Nevertheless, records like that have to come to an end eventually and there was little in Ernie?s pre-Christmas golf to suggest he could beat Woods.
Defending champion HENRIK STENSON and Lee Westwood look bigger dangers. Stenson has looked close to his very best again in the Gulf over the past fortnight, finishing runner-up in both events. Rather than Ernie, he looks the man to beat in the ?Without Woods? market and a must for the staking plan.
Westwood deserves a win after six consecutive top-5 finishes, though I?m not totally convinced that this is the perfect venue. He lost last week because, not uncharacteristically, he threw in the one poor round, and given the expected low scoring can ill afford to do the same again here. Plus in comparison to his overall record, his form at the Emirates doesn?t read particularly well.
Several other contenders have yet to make their mark at all on this course. Sergio Garcia missed the cut last year and will surely not hole enough putts to contend despite starting this season better than he finished the last with 5th in Doha. Ian Poulter?s highest finish in five attempts is a miserable 34th. Richard Sterne?s Emirates best is just 16th and his back to form compatriot Charl Schwartzel?s is 30th.
Alternatively, Niclas Fasth and Miguel Angel Jiminez are overlooked despite having plenty of good course form. Neither have looked anywhere near their best so far in 2008, although I wouldn?t be surprised if they took a hand this week. So almost by process of elimination, my shortlist is reduced to five including Stenson plus four attractively priced each-way selections that have all proved they can prosper around this target golf course.
It is becoming clearer by the week that NICK DOUGHERTY needs a golf course that he can attack to produce his best. Too often on the tougher courses, he has shown a tendency to ruin his chances with one or two strategic disasters. Two top-10s in the last three years at the Emirates show he likes it here, and I?m confident he?s a better player now than when registering those efforts. 7th in Doha was no disgrace at all, suggesting he?s primed for another good week.
Another who reverses his best for target golf courses is ROBERT KARLSSON. The Ryder Cup star is capable of shooting very low when he can attack, and has an almost identical course record to Dougherty over the past three years. Prior to last week?s disappointing performance in Qatar, Karlsson had looked an imminent winner finishing runner-up twice and never worse than 11th in four tournaments.
I?m also prepared to forgive RICHARD GREEN for a poor week in Qatar now that he?s back at a course where he has some fine form but mixed memories. Green first hit the headlines when causing a massive shock here as an unknown 11 years ago, beating Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam in a three-way play off. On the downside though, he can?t have been too proud of a bogey finish on the par-5 18th here in 2006 to throw away what looked like a certain win. Either way he knows the course well, and so rates a reasonable 50/1 chance without Tiger.
The Emirates was also one of the first places where ROSS FISHER hit the headlines as a player of tremendous potential. Exactly a year ago, Fisher traded blows with Woods, Els and Stenson over an enthralling weekend and lost nothing in finishing 5th. Since then he?s won a European Tour event, and all but beaten Mickelson and co in Shanghai. Though he is still inconsistent, I reckon Fisher is a player worth persevering with at decent prices when the course suits.