The European Tour returns to the Middle East this week for the second edition of the Oman Open. Our man, Steve Rawlings, has the lowdown here...
"It’s obviously not a traditional out-and-in British seaside links track but the course is definitely linksy and if the leaderboard throughout the week last year is anything to go by, we need to be concentrating on links exponents, even if they’re out of form."
This is the second renewal of the Oman Open. Joost Luiten won the inaugural edition just over a year ago with a 16-under-par total.
The Oman Open is the first event in the year's second mini 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 2018 - 72.29
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 on the Challenge Tour. It was the host course for the now defunct, and only twice staged, National Bank of Oman Classic in 2013 and 2014 and it was the host course for the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final between 2015 and 2017.
Live on Sky all four days, starting at 6:30 on Thursday morning
Last Year's Top-Three
Joost Luiten -16
Chris Wood -14
Julien Guerrier -13
Previous Five 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 of the winning scores above, how this course plays depends on the weather and more specifically, the strength of the wind. The European Tour players enjoyed largely benign conditions last year and as a result the tournament developed in to something of a putting competition with the first two home ranking first and second for Putting Average. The winner, Joost Luiten, made more birdies than anyone else and he played the par threes and fours better than anyone else but statistically, I don't think we can read much in to one result, especially given there are much better angles in...
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 inaugural 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, 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. Prior to this event last year, the likes of Brandon Stone, Nacho Elvira, Jordan Smith, Bernd Rithammer and Alexander Bjork, to name but five, all had bits of form here and at Genzon.
Stone and Elvira had top-tens at both courses and the other three top-20s and it's worth highlighting that they wouldn't have been the cream of the crop at the higher-profile Shenzhen International. Callum Shinkwin has a third here and a 24th at the Shenzhen but he was sitting second with a round to go in China before he followed up a crazy low 62 with an awful 79 in 2016 and it definitely looks like there's a link after last year's renewal. The winner here, Luiten, finished second at Genzon in 2016, and Alex Levy, in fourth, was the winner of the 2014 Volvo China Open at Genzon.
It's obviously not a traditional out-and-in British seaside links track but the course is definitely linksy and if the leaderboard throughout the week last year is anything to go by, we need to be concentrating on links exponents, even if they're out of form.
Chris Wood finished second after two weeks off following three missed cuts in-a-row and they were his first three starts in two months! Robert Rock, who hit a low of 5.04/1 in-running has a proven links pedigree, and his form figures were identical to Wood's. Stephen Gallacher 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.
Prior to last year, Max Orrin, who won here with just a -7 score in 2014, was the only winner to come from off the pace but Luiten changed that when he won after a slow start last year. In fact, it was noticeable how many of the final top-ten and ties started slowly so don't panic if your picks are a bit sluggish on Thursday.
Matthew Southgate, who led after round one, finished tied for ninth, and Fabrizio Zanotti, who finished tied seventh, was only three off the lead and tied for sixth after the opening round but they were the only two in the top-ten and ties to be within three of the lead and inside the top-ten after round one. Luiten sat tied for 49th and seven back and although up in to a tie for sixth at halfway, he was still five back.
Orrin had been 20th and six adrift after round one and 12th and five back after round two before a third round 68 saw him tied for the lead with a round to go. The other four previous course winners had been inside the first five places and no more than two strokes back after each round. Like Orrin, Luiten was tied for the lead with a round to go and Ricardo Gouveia is the only course winner not to be at least tied for the lead through 54 holes but he only trailed by a stroke so although a slow start can clearly be overcome, it doesn't look like we ought to scan too far down the leaderboard on Sunday.
The weather forecast suggests fairly light winds will be present for the first two days and that Sunday should be quite kind but we could see plenty of change on Saturday when the breeze is predicted to pick up. Getting with anyone that moves through the field from an earlier tee-time on Saturday might be a decent tactic.
Defending champ, Joost Luiten, surprisingly missed the cut at the Dubai Desert Classic last month but that's the only blip in a so-far superb 2019 which has seen him finish third in Abu Dhabi, sixth in Saudi and tenth last week in Mexico so it's impossible to make a case for taking him on at a venue he clearly loves. He's not yet defended a title but that's just about the only negative and he's a worthy favourite.
Thomas Pieters has been largely disappointing for a few years now but he's been in fair and consistent form of late and he's the last man to win at the aforementioned Kennemer Golf & Country Club (in 2015) so although it's his first visit, I expect him to take to the venue.
Alex Levy is a bit of a Paspalum course specialist. He's a winner at Genzon, he was third in the Thailand Golf Championship in 2013, on his only appearance at Amata Springs, he was fourth in the Dubai Desert Classic last year, and he was fifth at the Saudi International last time out so he has form at all the courses I thought might correlate with this one apart from Natadola Bay, which hosts the Fiji International. But we can't really hold that against him as he's never played there before. He was fourth here last year anyway so we absolutely know the venue suits him and of all the market leaders, he looks the most solid candidate. The only question up for debate, is whether he's a bit short now at around 22.021/1.
Just five from the off for me, although both Jordan Smith and David Lipsky came close to inclusion. I've had a small bet on Alex Levy and on my each-way selection, Ross Fisher, but my strongest fancy is Chris Wood.
The tall Bristolian has been out injured for months so that's a huge risk but he wasn't in great form when second last year so I was happy to back him at 50.049/1. I suspect a return here has been his long-term goal given he had this to say about the venue after last year's renewal.
"I'm really surprised by the course here, it's probably one of the best desert courses you'll see - although you say desert course but it's on the sea. It's a bit of a mix between a links and a desert course. The design is really good and there are so many players saying the same things. It's in perfect condition, the practice facilities are awesome too so I'm really pleasantly surprised."
Brandon Stone is a bit of a mercurial character and he missed the cut here 12 months ago but he was fourth at the course in 2013 and sixth in 2015 so I thought he was worth chancing at a triple-figure price given he's now a three-time European Tour winner and a fine links player.
The Fiji International winner, Gaganjeet Bhullar is looking for his tenth professional title and is too big at 140.0139/1 and I thought Alvaro Quiros was a big price at 250.0249/1 given his overall profile. The last of his seven European Tour wins came at a linksy course at the Rocco Forte Open in 2017 and he was third to Levy at Genzon in 2014.
Alex Levy @ 25.024/1
Ross Fisher @ 30.029/1
Brandon Stone @ 120.0119/1
Gaganjeet Bhullar @ 140.0139/1
Alvaro Quiros @ 250.0249/1
I'll be back on Thursday or Friday with the In-Play Blog.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter