The European Tour's Qatar Masters kicks off early again this year so here's Steve's in-depth preview of the second leg of the Middle East Swing ahead of Wednesday's start...
“Many fine links exponents have performed well here and I suspect it's the wide open feel of the course and the fact that the wind usually blows - mirroring the sort of conditions encountered on the links. Year after year, a links golf specialist takes the title and that’s the strongest angle-in for me.”
First staged in 1998, and won by Sky Sports golf pundit, Andrew Coltart, the Qatar Masters is the middle leg of the European Tour's Middle East Swing. This will be the 19th edition and for the fourth year in-a-row, the event begins on Wednesday and ends on Saturday so get your bets on nice and early.
Doha Golf Club, Qatar.
Par 72, 7400 yards
Stroke Index in 2015 - 71.33
Like last week's venue in Abu Dhabi, Doha was designed by Peter Harradine but this is a different sort of test. The rough was thick again last week in Abu Dhabi but it's not usually an issue here. The fairways are of average width and the rough is usually far from penal.
The average-sized Bermuda greens, which are over seeded with Poa Trivalis, have some tricky slopes and they usually run at around 12 on the stimpmeter. Both nines open and close with par fives, water is in-play on six holes (3, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 18) and the par 3s (holes 3, 8, 13 and 17) are all tough.
The hardest hole on the course last year was the par four 11th but the back nine still averaged almost a stroke easier than the front nine.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Wednesday.
Last Five Winners
2015 - Branden Grace -19
2014 - Sergio Garcia -16 (playoff)
2013 - Chris Wood -18
2012 - Paul Lawrie -15 (54 holes)
2011 - Thomas Bjorn -14
What Will it Take to Win The Qatar Masters?
Distance off the tee is far more important than accuracy around Doha and big hitters shine. Last year's winner, Branden Grace, only ranked 61st for Driving Accuracy but with a Driving Distance ranking of ninth, he became the 10th winner in 11 years to rank 14th or better for DD.
Grace ranked third for Greens In Regulation and that's a key stat too - nine of the last ten winners have ranked no worse than seventh for GIR.
Taking advantage of the four long holes is usually important. Grace only ranked 26th but the second and third, Marc Warren and Bernd Wiesberger, ranked first and third. The three winners that preceded Grace ranked either first or second for Par 5 Scoring and when Thomas Bjorn won here five years ago, the runner-up, Alvaro Quiros, played the long holes better than anyone else.
Is There an Angle In?
Two courses that appear to correlate quite nicely are Oceânico Victoria in Portugal and Gleneagles in Scotland.
Although Alvaro Quiros is the only man to win both this event and the Portugal Masters at Oceânico Victoria, a number of players have played well at both venues. Chris Wood, who won here in 2013, was the runner-up in Portugal last year and Robert Karlsson and Paul Lawrie have also won here and finished second in Portugal. And Portugal Masters winners, Lee Westwood, Steve Webster and Richard Green have all finished inside the top-four here. So, form at Oceânico Victoria is definitely a plus but the correlation between Doha and Gleneagles is even stronger after last year.
Two men have won this event and the now defunct Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles in the same year - Bjorn in 2011 and Paul Lawrie a year later - and last year's result here boosted the link even further.
The 2007 winner at Gleneagles, Warren, finished runner-up behind Grace and Bernd Wiesberger and George Coetzee who were tied with Grace at halfway here have both lost a play-off at Gleneagles.
Keep an eye on the forecast. The wind can play a big part in the outcome of this tournament. A poor draw can scupper your chances and it certainly had a say about the result two years ago with the top-21 players on the final leaderboard all coming from the late-early side of the draw over the first two days.
The early forecasts suggest there won't be that sort of an unfair bias this year but the field will encounter blustery conditions throughout the event. At this stage, early-late looks marginally the best draw but a lot can change so keep an eye of the forecast.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Paul Lawrie was winning the event for a second time in 2012 and Adam Scott has also taken the title twice. Henrik Stenson has won the event and been second three times and Quiros is a two-time runner-up as well as a winner here. Robert Karlsson has a first and second to his name and Sergio Garcia finished second three years ago before he took the title 12 months later so course form stands up really well here and so does links form.
Doha winners, Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie have both won the Open Championship and Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott arguably should have done. Grace boosted the links angle-in further last year, as did the runner-up, Warren. Grace has won at the Fancourt Links in South Africa and like past winners, Lawrie and Karlsson; he's also a former winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. And both Grace and Warren have lost a playoff at the Scottish Open at the Castle Stuart Links.
Many fine links exponents have performed well here and I suspect it's the wide open feel of the course and the fact that the wind usually blows - mirroring the sort of conditions encountered on the links. Year after year, a links golf specialist takes the title and that's the strongest angle-in for me.
Retief Goosen, in 2007, and Henrik Stenson, 12 months early, are the only first round leaders to go on to win and both men achieved the feat wire-to-wire but Grace was the 11th winner (of 18 in total) to have been inside the top-five after the opening 18 holes so a fast start is clearly a plus. Grace was also the seventh winner to be in front after two rounds and he was the tenth (of 17 - not counting Lawrie's 54-hole victory in 2012) to convert a 54 hole lead.
When Garcia won two years ago, he was the first winner of the event to be outside the top-ten with a round to go and he was the third player to be as far as seven strokes off the pace at halfway. Fellow class acts, Ernie Els and Adam Scott were also seven astray and outside the top-20 through 36 holes when they won in 2005 and 2008 respectively but every other winner was inside the top-eight at halfway. You can make up ground after the midway point but you need to be straight out of the top drawer.
If the weather is consistent, i.e. blowing hard in the morning both the first two days or the afternoon both the first two days, so the draw is fair, it is possible to overcome a slow start. Garcia was 60th and seven back after round one in 2014, Els was 81st in 2005 and 12 months earlier, Joakim Haeggman was in a tie for 113th after day one before he went on to win.
If you're betting in-running, the finish here is fairly easy and a number of shots can be picked up late on. The par four 15th is tough (ranked fourth hardest last year) but after that the players face a drivable par four (16th), the easiest of the four par threes (17th), and a reachable par five. Chris Wood won the event with an eagle at the 72nd hole three years ago and Grace won't ever forget this shot on the 16th last year!
The market is struggling to split the last two winners of the event - Branden Grace and Sergio Garcia - and I can see why but this is a very competitive tournament, and both Grace and Garcia have been assigned the possibly unfavourable afternoon-morning draw, so I'm more than happy to swerve them both.
Last year's winner, Grace, was in great form in Abu Dhabi last week but I've got a feeling he isn't quite as ruthless in-contention as he once was. He's lost his way in-the-mix on several occasions of late and given he's attempting to defend, so I'm more than happy to look elsewhere at the prices and the same can be said of Sergio.
Garcia clearly loves Doha but this is his first start of the year and as I don't think he ever represents anything like value, I'm more than happy to leave him out too.
Last week's gallant runner-up, Thomas Pieters, has been slashed to a level even lower than I'd expected so even though I fancy this venue will suit him even better than last week's, I have to leave him out. I was able to back him on the exchange at 70.069/1 this time last week. I simply can't go taking 20.019/1 this.
I had a fairly long list of players to consider here and I've decided to wait for the off with most of them. This looks a devilishly tricky puzzle to solve and I'm more than happy to let the morning starters on Wednesday get their rounds in before I make a significant move in the market.
As already stated, at this very early stage, those that begin the event with an early start on day one might just get the best of it so I thought I'd narrow down my picks by backing only those drawn early on Wednesday but somewhat bizarrely, they've nearly all been assigned that draw.
The market hasn't formed properly yet so I may yet add one or two more before the off and if I do, I'll be sure to tweet them but at this stage the only player I've backed is Michael Hoey.
As a brilliant wind and links exponent and a prolific winner with strong GIR stats, I thought he was worth a punt at 250.0249/1. He's not the longest off the tee but at such a big price, I'm prepared to overlook that. It's been a while since Hoey troubled the judge but this looks right up his street.
Michael Hoey @ 250.0249/1
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