Dubai Desert Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
Post by Sports Writer Derek Clements
IT IS all about one man again this week as Tiger Woods leads the field at the Dubai Desert Classic - and this time he could easily be in the frame come the weekend.
Woods made his return to competitive action at Torrey Pines as he attempts to get his game back in shape in time for The Masters in April, and the European Tour is to be commended for managing to persuade the 14-time major champion to take part in the final event of the desert swing at Emirates Golf Club, where he has won before. He was always likely to struggle at Torrey Pines, where the rough was thick and lush, but the Emirates course is rather more forgiving, and just might be the venue where he gets his year, and his future, kick-started properly. And at just 7,378 yards, it is a midget by today's standards.
He may be 41 now and it is 2008 since he last won a major, but there remains huge interest in Woods. If you doubt that, just look at the huge equipment deal he has signed with TaylorMade. He has been trying out lots of clubs since Nike announced that they were withdrawing from the golf club manufacturing market. Many players struggle when they change equipment but Woods made a seamless change from Titleist to Nike and there is no reason to believe that new equipment will cause him any problems this time around either.
If he struggles, it will be because of ring rust. No matter how good you are, it takes time to get the competitive juices flowing again after a lengthy layoff.
Woods won this tournament in 2006 and again in 2008, and it boast some illustrious former champions. It was here, in 2009, where Rory McIlroy won his first European Tour title. The 2010 champion was Miguel Angel Jimenez, proving you don't have to be a big hitter to win in Dubai, in 2011 it was Alvaro Quiros, proving that it is no hindrance if you are, in 2012 it was Rafa Cabrera Bello's turn, in 2013 and 2014 Stephen Gallacher walked away with the prize, followed by McIlroy again in 2015, before Danny Willett gave notice of things to come by winning 12 months ago.
Much has happened to Willett in the interim, not least that unbelievable victory at The Masters. By and large, he has struggled with his game, and he continues to do so, but he is far too good a golfer not to be able to put that right soon.
Sadly, McIlroy has had to withdraw because of a troublesome rib injury that is likely to keep him on the sidelines until March. Increasingly, there are shades of Woods in the life and times of Europe's best golfer. This is not the first time that injury has forced him to take a break from the game, and this really couldn't have happened at a worse time. He played superbly at the South African Open, despite being in discomfort all week, and was looking forward to playing a lot of golf in the run-up to Augusta. Now he can only sit and watch. Perhaps the time has come for McIlroy to have a look again at his training schedule.
A man with no such problems is Henrik Stenson, who has a home in Dubai, knows the course like the back of his hand, loves the place and is still riding the crest of a wave. He won this event in 2007 and must be favourite to celebrate that anniversary by doing so again. The Swede seems to be getting better with age. He hits a three wood further than most people do a driver, is a wonderful iron player and is underrated on the greens. Think back to his astonishing victory in The Open at Troon last year and recall all the putts he holed. Stenson is one of the most determined golfers the European Tour has ever produced, and he is not finished yet.
Matthew Fitzpatrick will return to this part of the world with plenty of good, positive memories of his fabulous victory at the Dubai World Championship. Along with Thomas Pieters, of Belgium, the Yorkshire might well represent Europe's best chance of success in the majors in the next couple of years. There isn't much to Fitzpatrick, but what he lacks in stature he more than makes up for with his determination and brilliant temperament. And when his short game is on song, he really does take some beating. Pieters is, of course, exactly the opposite - a fine physical specimen who hits the ball a mile and is the complete package. He could easily become a serial winner, and it seems inevitable that we will lose him to the PGA Tour before long, and who can blame him? The courses in America are made for his game.
To Win: Henrik Stenson. Loves Dubai
Each Way: Thomas Pieters. Will just get better and better
Each Way: Matthew Fitzpatrick. A future major winner
Henrik Stenson. Willbe tough to beat on one of his favourite tracks
Thomas Pieters. Glorious golf swing
Matthew Fitzpatrick. If he putts well the rest could be playing for second place
Sergio Garcia. How will he putt? It's the key for Sergio
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Another week, another top 10 finish
Tiger Woods. I have a feeling in my water about Tiger in Dubai
Martin Kaymer. Swing changes are coming together
Lee Westwood. Old stager just keeps rolling along
Bernd Wiesberger. Brilliant ball striker, suspect temperament
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