Top Brits Tyrrell Hatton and Paul Casey hoovered up the first two legs of the Gulf Swing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and so emphatic were their victories that one of them could well make it an English hat-trick in this week’s all-star Saudi International.
Arizona-based Casey, a 20-1 winner for this column last week, boosted his world ranking to 16th and is a 50-1 shot for the Masters with Fitzdares, a price worth taking for a guy who was sixth on his Augusta bow in 2004 and has since posted six more top-15 finishes there.
Now 43 “but feeling 23”, he’s been inspired by 47-year-old Lee Westwood winning the Race To Dubai. Sometimes the old ones are the best.
Sunday’s four-shot victory on his first visit to Dubai for seven years is unlikely to be the only time in 2021 we hail a Casey triumph as he is in such a good place at the moment, both at home with wife Pollyanna and their two children and on the golf course.
Barring the way to a Casey or Hatton follow-up is an expensively-imported American raiding party headed by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Sunday’s Torrey Pines winner Patrick Reed, eccentric US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and living legend Phil Mickelson.
Phil, winner of his first two Champions Tour starts last year, has had to sacrifice the Phoenix Open, where he uniquely had won three times in different decades, for this long-haul trip and even at 50 won’t be there simply to make up the numbers.
Lefty demonstrated he could handle the tricky Royal Greens course by sharing third place behind surprise winner Graeme McDowell 12 months ago and this gambler would love to prove the odds-makers wrong in making him such a big outsider.
Also jetting over to the Gulf are Mexican ace Abraham Ancer, Sony winner Kevin Na, Norway’s US-based Viktor Hovland and perennial bridesmaid Tony Finau, the latter pair having just shared second place behind Reed in California on Sunday.
That was Finau’s 36th top-ten since that lone early triumph in the low-key Puerto Rico Open five years ago while young Hovland will be kicking himself for catching Reed at Torrey Pines and then making a couple of untypical errors to end his challenge. What a mouth-watering crackerjack of a tournament the Saudis are serving up!
Besides Hatton and Casey, looking to foil the American challengers are Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood and Sergio Garcia to name but three while of the younger generation Robert MacIntyre stands out. The Scot fluffed his lines last week but still finished third. We shall be hearing much more from him.
The fact that Graeme McDowell, one of the shortest hitters in the field, was able to fend off the formidable DJ last year underlines the suitability of this 7010-yard par 70 for all types. Sadly, G-Mac has not done anything this term to suggest a successful defence.
With only two par fives, the bombers’ advantage has been halved but that doesn’t faze Masters champion Johnson who is in the richest form of his career and has only been beaten by one man, McDowell, in two Saudi visits.
Like DJ, the in-form Reed has played in both editions but has underperformed each time so is best left alone. DeChambeau also has course knowledge, placing sixth two years ago. There wasn’t so much of him then but the added muscle and power won’t count for much this week.
As a serial loser, Finau is hard to put up for win purposes but he continues to perform impressively. His Torrey Pines second follows fourth at the AmEx.
Hovland will do well to gather himself together so quickly after Sunday’s disappointment and while Garcia had putting issues in Dubai, his tee-to-green excellence earned a share of sixth place, the same position he achieved in Saudi last year.
Best not to dwell on Garcia’s Saudi debut in 2019 when he was DQ’d for “serious misconduct” after disfiguring a number of greens with his clubs in a fit of frustration.
The usually immaculate Dubai greens were not at their best last week and Sergio may well putt with more confidence in Saudi.
The five-state Gulf circuit has been reduced to four by the postponement of next month’s Oman Open because of Covid. A later date is being looked at.
Hatton did well to make the cut last week after shooting 76 in the first round. Both he and Casey are Saudi first-timers but that didn’t stop McDowell last year or DJ in 2019.
Hatton, now up to seventh on the world rankings, is narrowly preferred to Casey mainly because it is asking a lot of Paul to win two in a row in such strong company – as Hatton found out last week.
Fleetwood had a thin week after a bright start in Dubai and is not quite right yet while Justin Rose’s current lack of confidence showed in a final 77 at The Emirates. Race To Dubai hero Westwood is preferred to both.
If you think Ancer could be the answer, the Mexican’s fifth last time out at the AmEx will be an encouragement and the shortish course should be right up his alley as he is by no means a big hitter.
There is such a stack of talent on display that an upset looks unlikely but new Japanese star Takumi Kanaya caught the eye with a top-ten in Dubai and Malaysia’s Gavin Green was third here last year although his latest form in the Gulf leaves much to be desired.
Guess what? It’s going to be hot (28-29C) and sunny. Bring on the birdies!
2.5pts each-way Justin Thomas @ 8/1
2pts win Jon Rahm @ 6/1
1pt each-way Rory Sabbatini @ 100/1
0.5pt each-way Ryan Palmer @ 40/1
0.5pt each-way Bubba Watson @ 40/1
0.5pt each-way Padraig Harrington @ 200/1
Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm stay in the States for the Phoenix Open, usually the noisiest tournament of the year with attendance typically around 500,000 and punters packed in the stands around the short 16th giving players who miss the green a hard time.
This week it’s different because of Covid but 5000 will be allowed in each day. Even so, with Super Bowl 2021 following Sunday’s golf it will still be a helluva weekend and quite an eye-opener for McIlroy who is making his Phoenix debut.
For Rahm it’s a home game as he has a home in Scottsdale, the smart Phoenix suburb where the tournament is being staged for the 35th time. The Stadium course, a par 71 of 7261 yards, plays shorter than that because of the 1630ft elevation.
Rahm, who graduated with a BA in communications from Arizona State, was fifth in this tournament as an amateur in 2015 and has not bettered that in four attempts as a pro but has posted top-tens the last two years.
Neither McIlroy or Rahm brought his A game to Torrey Pines last week, Rahm finishing seventh for the third tournament in a row as he bedded in some new equipment and Rory a never-threatening 16th with lots of good holes laced with too many bad ones.
Rahm was favourite going into Sunday two behind but was well beaten by 25-1 shot Reed whose red-hot short game kept him out of serious trouble, the controversial Texan helped by Hovland’s fade-out and the unexpected failure of Rahm to challenge.
Better can be expected from Rahm now but I’m taking money-machine Justin Thomas to beat him. A triple winner with a stack of high placings last year, Thomas opened 2021 with a third at Kapalua before embarrassing himself on a well-sponsored trip to Abu Dhabi by missing the cut.
Justin plays TPC Scottsdale well, having finished third to Webb Simpson last year and filling the same slot when Rickie Fowler won in 2019. And he arrives fresh, not having played since that Dhabi flop. That should give JT an advantage over those who had hard weeks at demanding Torrey Pines, the longest course on the PGA roster.
Simpson, last year’s winner, and Xander Schauffele, co-runner-up to Reed at Torrey, are serious threats, Simpson continuing to impress with top tens in the last two Majors and fourth on his latest start at Waialae.
Bubba Watson, third and fourth on the last two visits and runner-up in 2015, enjoys these generous fairways. He found Torrey Pines a trial but will be happier at Scottsdale where a sunny week is forecast and temperatures up to 24C by the final day.
Hideki Matsuyama won this back to back in 2016-17 having been only a shot shy of Brooks Koepka in 2015. The Japanese star is not as consistent as he was a few years ago when predicted to become his country’s first Major winner but he does love this course.
Ryan Palmer’s share of second at Torrey continued a run of good performances. Improvement in putting is behind this renaissance by the 44-year-old Texan who was with Matsuyama and Watson in a share of second at Scottsdale six years ago.
Best outsider could be Rory Sabbatini, who has changed his nationality from South African to Slovak (where his wife comes from) presumably with the hope of representing his adopted country at the Olympics, although he claims it is because he wants to help grow the game in the land of his wife and stepson. He posted his first top-ten of the year on Sunday after top-12s at Sanderson Farms, Sea Island and La Quinta.
There are also each-way possibilities about Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, 49 now but shrugging off the years when seventh in Dubai at the weekend, and last year’s Barracuda winner Richy Werenski, who was in the mix for much of the week in California.