Golf,

Sully and Sergio can sizzle in the Desert

Dubai Desert Classic


Best bets
2pts each-way Andy Sullivan @ 33/1
1.5pts each-way Sergio Garcia @ 25/1
1pt each-way Christiaan Bezuidenhout @ 22/1
2pts win Tyrrell Hatton @ 7/1
1pt each-way Paul Casey @ 20/1
0.5pt each-way Danny Willett @ 50/1

Dubai odds


The Emirates course in Dubai, this week’s European Tour stop, is the granddaddy of Gulf golf having hosted all but two of the Desert Classics since its launch in 1989, long before the other Gulf States jumped on the bandwagon.

Now we have five classy Gulf tournaments up to mid-March, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar, plus the big Race To Dubai showdown at Jumeirah Estates in November when the players’ wheelbarrows are heaped high with even more riches.

Ploughing a lone furrow in the early days, Dubai brought the great stars over often at considerable expense to put the UAE on the golfing map. Tiger Woods won there twice and Ernie Els three times, while European heroes Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Colin Montgomerie bagged one Classic apiece.

More recently, double champion Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Bryson DeChambeau have added their illustrious names to the impressive roll of honour and it remains one of the most popular weeks on the European Tour.

Now and then, mere mortals bring down the gods: in 1997 Richard Green won a playoff with Major champions Greg Norman and Ian Woosnam, in 2003 Robert-Jan Derksen held his nerve to edge Els, and last year the unconsidered Lucas Herbert prevailed.

Money-wise, it no longer matches the prize fund of an elite Rolex Series tournament like Abu Dhabi where $8m was on the table. This week there’s less than half, $3.25m. Whereas last week 8,000 Race To Dubai points were at stake, this week just 4,250.

Not that it has stopped a mighty field coming over to tackle this immaculate 7319-yard par 72 headed by Sunday’s brilliant 14-1 winner Tyrrell Hatton and reigning USPGA champion Collin Morikawa.

The young American is already familiar with Dubai when coming over in December and finishing tenth in the tour finale but now makes his Emirates bow. It is a fair bit shorter than Jumeirah but can play tougher depending on the wind.

Last year Herbert and Christiaan Bezuidenhout’s nine-under on the week got them into a play-off but normally such a low score would not be sighted. The two previous champions, DeChambeau and Haotong Li, shot 24 and 23 under respectively. This week it is cloudless skies and 26-27C so plenty of birdies are required.

Hatton, an emphatic four-shot winner on Sunday, deservedly heads the market and must be hard to beat given his solid Emirates form (third in 2017 and 2018).

Last week Hatton was 12 under on the par fives, first in Strokes Gained Tee to Green, tops on eagles and second in approach play.

Only four bogeys marred a nigh-faultless display, as opposed to nine bogeys and one double-bogey from McIlroy who switches to Torrey Pines on the PGA Tour this week as part of his build-up to the Masters, the one Major that keeps eluding him.

Although the Sunday night celebrations will have been fierce, Hatton is not afraid of going back-to-back, having done exactly that when landing Dunhill Links Italian Open in consecutive October weeks in 2017.

There are plenty clamouring to be backed and eager to take Hatton down.

Morikawa, seventh on each leg of the Hawaiian Swing at Kapalua and Waialae and twice a PGA Tour winner last year, is the real deal but lacks course knowledge. It may not stop the young Californian.

Tommy Fleetwood looked Hatton’s main threat early on Sunday but a sloppy finish saw him slide to seventh. He has a better record in Abu Dhabi (twice a winner) than Dubai (11th, 16th and sixth the last three years) so there is no logic in putting him up again.

Matt Fitzpatrick was one of a number of elite names to miss the Abu Dhabi  cut, a list that included the expensively-imported Justin Thomas, and has never bettered fifth at The Emirates.

Arizona-based Paul Casey, making a rare European start, arrives on the back of an eyecatching 2021 debut eighth in California.

Like Morikawa and Sergio Garcia flying in from the States, he does not have the advantage of the Abu Dhabi brigade arriving from the same time zone but body clocks cope better these days and the Englishman has the class to challenge.

I’m also sweet on the chances of two Masters champions Garcia and Danny Willett as well as Andy Sullivan, Matt Wallace, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Christiaan Bezuidenhout.

Garcia won here four years ago, was third behind runaway winner DeChambeau in 2019 and looked to have found a serviceable putting stroke when 11th in the Tournament of Champions at the start of January. Less good at Waialae last time out, he still fired a 64 in round three and is at a backable price.

Cheeky chappie Sullivan has been going great guns, following a third at Wentworth with a second place on Jumeirah’s Fire course in the first of the two late-year Dubai tournaments, then tenth in the big one on the Earth course the next week.

Shooting the lights out for that seven-shot blitz at the English Championship in August has done wonders for Sully’s self-belief and he has good Emirates form too – runner-up to Willett in 2016 following fourth the previous year.

Bezuidenhout, beaten by Herbert in an Emirates play-off last year, has gone on to win back-to-back in South Africa. He was 14th in the all-star finale at Jumeirah on his last Dubai visit before Christmas and in the money again when 12th at Abu Dhabi at the weekend.

Wallace was runner-up at a respectful distance to runaway winner DeChambeau two years ago and showed he means business for a Ryder Cup place with a share of seventh on Sunday.

Willett was another who figured on the leaderboard at the weekend and two of his seven victories have come in Dubai. Cabrera Bello’s first good showing for ages when fourth in Abu Dhabi will be a big lift and he’s back on the course where he won in 2012 and shared second spot behind Willett in 2016.

 

Farmers Insurance Open


Best bets
2pts each-way Marc Leishman @ 33/1
2pts win Jon Rahm @ 7/1
1.5pts each-way Harris English @ 22/1
1pt each-way Xander Schauffele @ 12/1
0.5pt each-way Jason Day @ 33/1
0.5pt each-way Bubba Watson @ 40/1

Farmers odds


Europe holds a strong hand in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines with Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy atop the betting but Rahm pulled out last week after tweaking his back and Rory hotfoots it from Abu Dhabi after failing to hang on to a 54-hole lead.

McIlroy won’t be winning anything until he stops hitting short irons from the middle of the fairway into greenside bunkers. Yet there was much to admire in his 2021 debut. However, after shooting an eight-under 64 on day one, he really should have done better than a 13-under-par third. Too many bogeys. Two lovely rounds, two poor ones.

Third was also his position on last year’s visit to the monster Torrey Pines municipal complex (run by the City of San Diego) in a tournament of particular interest this year as in five months’ time the South course will be hosting its second US Open.

The fearsome South, the longest on the PGA Tour at around 7700 yards, is played only three times this week, not all four as it will be in June, with the 440-yard shorter North drafted in to share the load until Friday’s halfway cut.

This is where Tiger Woods won the 2008 US Open on virtually one leg while awaiting  major reconstructive knee surgery. It took him 91 holes to quell the challenge of Rocco Mediate after a Monday play-off that required 19 holes to settle the argument.

Tiger also won this tournament seven times but there won’t be an eighth this weekend because he’s not fit enough to return to action after “a minor procedure”. The Palmer Invitational at his beloved Bay Hill in early March could be where we’ll first see him.

Rahm has a real soft spot for Torrey Pines as it was there four years ago that he spectacularly plundered the first of his five PGA Tour victories. He looked the likely winner again last year but got overhauled by Marc Leishman’s Sunday-best 65.

The Spaniard is preferred to Rory (who was third last year) but there are plenty of in-form Americans and Australians who will have something to say about the outcome.

The often-underrated Leishman bounced back from a poor 2020 with a strong fourth at Waialae which reads like the perfect warm-up for this title defence.

Jason Day and Adam Scott are two more Australians to consider although Scott is probably more interested in prepping for Riviera next week as he won there last year.

Day is not the same world No. 1 who reigned supreme a few years ago until health and family problems hit him badly but he did have a good 7-4-6-4 run last July/August, the second 4 coming in a Major. More recently posting a seventh and 12th, he could be a tasty wager given his penchant for Torrey Pines where he has won twice.

Americans Harris English, Xander Schauffele, Bubba Watson and Ryan Palmer are on my shortlist. This is a home game for Schauffele who went to college in San Diego. He started the year strongly with fifth at Kapalua but for a guy who drew a blank last year, there’s not much meat on his 12-1 quote.

English is already on the 2021 scoreboard with a play-off victory over Joaquin Niemann at Kapalua, a first win for eight years and an overdue confidence-booster for a class act who is a regular contender but has often failed at the business end.

Pipped by Day in a four-man 2015 play-off, he shared eighth place with Leishman three years later and has sufficient course credentials to rate a punt.

Watson, Torrey winner ten years ago and sixth last year, showed he can still be a force with good finishes at ZOZO and the CJ Cup, while Palmer, who was in the 2018 play-off with Day, seems to have found his second wind. He finally has a putting method in which he has confidence and his Kapalua fourth hinted at a good 2021.

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