Dubai Desert Classic Preview, Picks & Analysis
SERGIO GARCIA, Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Jose Maria Olazabal – it reads like a who’s who of golf. In fact, it is just of the giants of the game who have won the Dubai Desert Classic, one of the most prestigious tournaments on the European Tour, an event that has come to symbolise the start of the European Tour season.
Twelve months ago, Garcia recorded a memorable victory in Dubai, kick-starting an astonishing year for the Spaniard, during which he won The Masters and got married. Finally, it seems, Garcia is at piece with himself. After a couple of seasons using the claw grip, his confidence is now so high that he has even reverted to using the traditional putting grip. And, lo and behold, the Spaniard has actually started holing some putts. During a long and illustrious career, during which he came so close so many times to breaking his duck in the majors, Garcia has shown frailty on the greens time and again.
Before we go any further, let’s clear up something right here and now. You do not win The Masters unless you can putt. In fact, you do not contend at Augusta unless you can putt. The greens are fast and they are treacherous. Garcia holed more than his fair share of putts on his way to securing the Green Jacket and he has continued to do so ever since. So now we are talking about a golfer with no weaknesses. He has always been somebody who drives the ball well, capable of producing moments of magic. But then all those near-misses began to take their toll. There were temper tantrums, there was time away from the game that had been so good to him, there were fall-outs with fellow professionals and then there was the public admission that he honestly believed he was not good enough to ever win a major.
But then something extraordinary happened. Garcia fell in love. For the first time in his life he appeared to be at peace with himself, and he began to enjoy himself on the golf course. It all came to a glorious climax in April last year when he beat Justin Rose at Augusta in thrilling fashion, and so Garcia is finally free of the shackles of failure and looking forward to another glorious season. It goes without saying that he will return to Dubai feeling as if he can walk on air, and he would love nothing more than to successfully defend this title.
However, all eyes will be on Rory McIlroy, as the Northern Irishman continues his busy 2018 schedule. McIlroy endured the worst year of his professional career in 2017, a season during which he battled with injury, a season during which, for only the second time in his career, he failed to win a tournament. McIlroy became a professional only to win. Like Woods, it is what drives him, what motivates him to improve. By 2014 he had already won four majors at the age of 25. It is scarcely credible that in the years since then he has failed to add to that total. Sure, there have been some remarkable achievements in the meantime, not least his FedEx Cup win in 2016.
Like Garcia, McIlroy got married in 2017. He sacked his long-term caddie JP Fitzgerald, replacing him with his childhood friend Harry Diamond. It was a decision that puzzled many, and continues to do so. It was problem the right time for McIlroy and Fitzgerald to part company, but Diamond, although a decent golfer, had never before worked as a professional caddie. McIlroy believes it is important to have somebody on his bag with whom he has a close friendship, and it is difficult to argue with his logic. The real test will come when McIlroy finds himself in contention in an important tournament and has to turn to Diamond for advice. It may well be that Diamond rises to the occasion.
Crucially, McIlroy ended his 2017 season after the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at St Andrews in October. He failed to make the field for the season-ending Tour Championship on the PGA Tour and he chose to miss the Dubai World Championship, saying that he wanted to get himself fit. It is no secret that he has spent the winter working hard on both his game and his fitness, but time alone will tell if we have already seen the best of this amazing golfer. His main target for 2018 is to win The Masters, which would allow him to complete the full set of all four of golf’s majors.
But the thing he wants more than anything else is to once again experience those feelings that come with winning golf tournaments. There is little doubt that he will once again routinely smash the ball 320-plus yards from the tee, that he will strike glorious fairway woods to the heart of par fives and that he will rifle long irons at flag after flag. But there are two areas of his game that he simply must have sorted out during the winter if he is to rediscover his very best form. Time and again we saw him struggle with short irons in his hand in 2017, hitting wedges over greens, missing the target with a nine iron in his hand – to be the best in the world, as many still believe he is, you simply cannot afford to that. These are the scoring clubs. More important than any of that, however, is that Rory McIlroy must return with a putting stroke in which he has confidence. He will not need anybody to tell him that this is the single part of his game with which he has endured the greatest struggles. And there were plenty of encouraging signs at Abu Dhabi, where he finished third, that he has sorted everything out.
If the wedges are dialled in, and if the putts start dropping, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama et al had better watch out because they will all be playing for second place. McIlroy loves Dubai, is a former winner here and is desperate to put down a marker for the rest of the year. If he is on song, Garcia and everybody else in the field this week may as well pack their backs and head for there airport.
However, Tommy Fleetwood might just have something to say about that. In successfully defending the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the 27-year-old Englishman picked up where he left off last year. A final round of 65, that featured six birdies on the back nine, took him to the cusp of the top 10 in the world rankings. He now believes that he can win every time he tees it up. He is now a world-class performer with no weaknesses to his game. Coincidentally, like McIlroy and Garcia, he recently got married and is clearly in a very, very good place on and off the golf course.
Rory McIlroy. Previous winner on a course he loves
Ross Fisher. Looking to secure Ryder Cup place
Sergio Garcia. At peace with himself
Rory McIlroy. At his best, he is simply the best
Ross Fisher. Hugely underrated
Sergio Garcia. Looking for a successful defence
Tommy Fleetwood. Getting better and better
Eddie Pepperell. Ready to win at the highest level
Tyrrell Hatton. Perfectionist who is starting to realise he can’t always be at his best
George Coetzee. Terrific ball striker
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Wonderfully consistent
Henrik Stenson. Simply loves this part of the world
Louis Oosthuizen. Class act
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