The European Tour returns to the Middle East this week for the third edition of the Oman Open. Our man, Steve Rawlings, has the lowdown and half-a-dozen picks here...
"And finally, I thought Chris Paisley was a huge price at getting on for [200.0] on the exchange given the venue should suit and that he’s generally a 100/1 shot on the High Street."
This is the just the third renewal of the Oman Open. Joost Luiten won the inaugural edition having reached 16-under-par in 2018 but in windier conditions, Kurt Kitayama claimed the prize last year with a seven-under-par total.
The Oman Open is the first event in the year's second little Middle East Swing on the European Tour, following the Abu Dhabi Championship, the Dubai Desert Classic and the Saudi International a month ago. The European Tour will take in the established Qatar Masters next week.
Al Mouj Golf, Muscat, Oman
Par 72, 7,365 yards
Stroke average in 2019 - 73.97
With the stunning Hajjar mountain range in the background and the Muscat airport adjacent, the traditional out-and-in links-style Greg Norman designed Al Mouj Golf Course runs alongside the Gulf of Oman.
It's an extremely exposed, flat course with water in-play on ten holes. The entire course is laid to SeaDwarf Paspalum and the fairways are described as generous. There are a number of waste areas and should anyone be particularly wayward, the rough is fairly penal.
The greens are described as big and undulating but because of their exposed positioning and proximity to the coast, they won't be set to run very fast.
Although it only opened in September 2012, the Al Mouj has already witnessed plenty of tournament action. In addition to this event, it's also hosted a couple events on the Challenge Tour, It staged the now defunct and only twice staged National Bank of Oman Classic in 2013 and 2014 and it was also the host course for the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final between 2015 and 2017.
Live on Sky all four days, starting at 06:30 on Thursday morning
First Two Tournament Winners
2018 - Joost Luiten -16
2019 - Kurt Kitayama -7
Five Challenge Tour Course Winners
2013 NBO Golf Classic - Roope Kakko -14
2014 NBO Golf Classic - Max Orrin -7
2015 NBO Grand Final - Ricardo Gouveia -13
2016 NBO Grand Final - Bernd Ritthammer -21
2017 NBO Grand Final - Clement Sordet -15
What Will it Take to Win the Oman Open?
As you'll see by the variation in winning scores above, how this course plays depends on the weather and more specifically, the strength of the wind.
The first edition of this event was played in largely benign conditions but the wind blew hard last year, as demonstrated below. The eventual winner, Kitayama, would have been forgiven if he'd thrown his toys out of the pram after this bit of misfortune during round two.
We can't draw too many conclusions from just two editions and the driving stats aren't especially helpful anyway. Luiten ranked eighth for Driving Accuracy but only 30th for Driving Distance and the runner-up, Chris Wood, ranked 45th for both driving metrics, whereas 12 months ago, Kitayama ranked only 63rd for DA but first for DD. To confuse it further, three of the top five ranked inside the top six for DD Clement Sordet and Max Kieffer, who were two of four men tied for second, ranked second and third for DA.
Alex Levy, who finished tied for fourth two years ago, ranked second for Greens In Regulation but he was the only player in the top-11 to rank any better than 14th for the stat, whereas finding greens was more important 12 months ago. The winner ranked only 15th but the four men tied for second ranked first, second, third and fifth and the only statistical similarity at the two editions was putting...
The first two home ranked first and second for Putting Average in 2018 and Kitayama and Jorge Campillo (tied second) ranked third and second for PA last year.
Are There any Angles In?
Paspalum isn't a grass the European Tour encounters often but we can look to a number of events for clues. The Saudi International was played at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club a month ago and that course is grassed throughout with a Paspalum variety called Dynasty so that's a leaderboard to ponder and the now defunct Shenzhen International and the Fiji International venues are entirely laid to Paspalum too.
The Dubai Desert Classic venue has Paspalum fairways and form at the now defunct Thailand Golf Championship is also worthy of close inspection given that used to be played at another Paspalum track - Amata Springs. The last man to win the NBO Grand Final here, Clement Sordet, who was also second in this event last year, may well confirm that link given he was a surprise runner-up in the final Thailand Golf Championship in 2015.
Of all the courses with a possible correlation, Genzon appears to be the best so far. Genzon hosted the now defunct Shenzhen International for three years between 2015 and 2017 and it also hosted the 2014 edition of the Volvo China Open and last year's renewal, won by Mikko Korhonen.
Benjamin Hebert and Jorge Campillo, who both have form here finished second and third behind Korhonen. Luiten, the winner here two years ago, was second to Soomin Lee at Genzon in 2016 and the . the likes of Brandon Stone, Nacho Elvira, Jordan Smith, Bernd Rithammer, Alex Levy and Alexander Bjork, to name but six more, all have bits of form here and at Genzon.
It's obviously not a traditional out-and-in British seaside links track but the course is definitely linksy and we need to be concentrating on links exponents, even if they're out of form. A number of links specialists contended 12 months ago and it was even more apparent in 2018...
Chris Wood finished second after two weeks off following three missed cuts in-a-row in 2018 and they were his first three starts in two months! Robert Rock, who hit a low of [5.0] in-running has a proven links pedigree, and his form figures were identical to Wood's. Stephen Gallagher and Matthew Southgate are both fine links exponents and they both finished tied ninth, despite not playing well in the lead-up to the event, and we even saw the badly out-of-form former Open Champ, Darren Clarke, get in-contention early on.
The winner, Luiten, like Clarke, is a winner at the linksy Kennemer, the once regular home of the KLM Open, so course form there will need to be considered too.
Kitayama led after the opening round last year but his passage to the title was far from smooth and Sunday was very entertaining with five players trading at [2.28] and below.
Denmark's J.B Hansen, a pre-tournament [120.0] shot, finished tamely but not before he was matched at a low of [2.28] and Fabrizio Zanotti, a pre-event [75.0] chance, hit [2.04] when he gave himself a great chance for birdie at the par five 16th but he four-putted to chalk up a seven! That was his third double-bogey of the final round and he finished up losing by a stroke. Max Kieffer, a [300.0] shot, hit a low of [1.5] as he played the 16th and after birdying 17, Sordet, who was a [55.0] chance before the off, hit [1.9] before he missed his par putt on 18 when leading by a stroke.
It was a typical Sunday finish on the European Tour with nerves having their say and with everyone else playing pass the trophy, Kitayama, a pre-event [250.0] shot, pounced late with birdies at 16 and 17 to claim his second European Tour title in just 11 starts. Having played the first three holes in six-over-par on Saturday, the winner drifted right out to [400.0] in round three and he was matched at high of [65.0] during round four, following dropped shots on seven and 11 before the late rally.
Last year's renewal showed us that we can and probably will get all sorts of drama on Sunday and that players can rally from off the pace and the first edition demonstrated that a slow start can be overcome. Luiten had sat tied for 49th and seven back after round one and although he was up in to a tie for sixth at halfway, he was still five strokes back.
Given he was the last man to win at the aforementioned Kennemer Golf & Country Club (in 2015), it wasn't a surprise to see Thomas Pieters take to Al Mouj last year. He started brightly and sat tied for fourth and just two off the lead after round one but a second round 75 saw him drop to 14th before he rallied to finish tied sixth.
After a break of three years, Pieters won his fourth European Title and his second Czech Masters in August last year and he showed his liking for desert golf when leading after the first round of the Dubai Desert Classic in his penultimate start but he lost the plot after that and finished 37th. His third placed finish in Saudi last time out was an encouraging bounce back but it came courtesy of a fast finish and I'm happy to swerve him at the prices. I'm not convinced he's one to trust entirely in-contention so I'd want bigger before the off than 12/1.
This should be a perfect test for Martin Kaymer and he's played fairly well of late, finishing eighth in Abu Dhabi, 16th in Dubai and 13th at the Saudi International but he hasn't won anywhere in getting on for six years and he's been woeful in-contention. I'd love to see him return to winning ways but he's no value to do so here.
As talented as he clearly is, Thomas Detry is still in search of his maiden European Tour victory and he's passed up numerous chances to get off the mark. Thi sis the fourth time he's played the venue and he's yet to finish inside the top-30 so he too is easy to dismiss and the only one I remotely like towards the head of the market is the 2018 winner, Joost Luiten.
I liked quite a few here at fancy prices and first up is Genzon winner, Mikko Korhonen at [95.0]. the Finn isn't a great order and he's not exactly shone here before but the course really should suiy him and he's found form from nowhere before.
I managed to get a tiny bet matched on Brandon Stone, which I'll increase if he drifts, and I've also backed two-time European Tour winner, Guido Migliozzi at the same price.
I've also backed my each-way fancy, Sebastian Heisele on the exchange and I was happy to see if lightening could strike twice with Rasmus Højgaard. Like last year's winner, he won his first European Tour event in Mauritius a few months ago and in common with Kitayama, he's a huge price this week.
And finally, I thought Chris Paisley was a huge price at getting on for [200.0] on the exchange given the venue should suit and that he's generally a 100/1 shot on the High Street.
I'll be back later today or possibly tomorrow with my Honda Classic preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
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