We're off to Qatar on the European Tour this week for the middle leg of the Desert Swing in Doha. Read our man's comprehensive Qatar Masters preview here...
“Noren’s won four of his last 13 starts and it’s a job to know whether he’s just had a purple patch or whether his game really has moved on to the next level. His seasonal bow last week suggests it could be the later and he should be the clear favourite at a track we know he’s played well at before.”
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 Desert Swing. This will be the 20th edition and it's a real shame that Branden Grace, who's won the tournament in each of the last two years, isn't here to attempt the three-peat. He's back in the States supporting his wife who's apparently undergoing some sort of minor surgery.
After four years of the event beginning on Wednesday and ending on a Saturday we're back to the more traditional Thursday to Sunday format.
Doha Golf Club, Doha, Qatar.
Par 72, 7400 yards
Stroke Index in 2016 - 71.8
Like last week's venue in Abu Dhabi, Doha was designed by Peter Harradine but this is a different sort of test. The fairways are of average width and the rough is usually far less penal than it is in Abu Dhabi.
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. Last year holes eight, three and 13 ranked the first, second and fourth hardest on the course.
The back nine is quite a bit easier than the front nine and last year it averaged more than a stroke less.
The course is very exposed and high winds can have a big say on the outcome, although at this early stage, significantly breezy weather isn't forecasted.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting on Thursday at 06:30.
Last Five Winners
2016 - Branden Grace -14
2015 - Branden Grace -19
2014 - Sergio Garcia -16 (playoff)
2013 - Chris Wood -18
2012 - Paul Lawrie -15 (54 holes)
What Will it Take to Win the Qatar Masters?
Big hitters have fared well here of late and distance from the tee is of far more importance than accuracy with 11 of the last 12 winners all ranking inside the top-15 for Driving Distance.
Branden Grace ranked sixth for DD when successfully defending last year, 12 months after ranking ninth when he won in 2015. He and big-hitting Belgian, Nicolas Colsaerts, were the only two to play the long holes in double-digits under-par last year and four of the last five winners have now ranked first or second for Par 5 Scoring.
Grace had only ranked 26th for that stat when he won for the first time in 2015 but the second and third that year, Marc Warren and Bernd Wiesberger, ranked first and third. When Thomas Bjorn won here six years ago he only ranked 15th for Par 5 Scoring but the runner-up, Alvaro Quiros, played the long holes better than anyone else.
Grace only ranked 19th for Greens In Regulation 12 months ago and that was a surprisingly poor ranking given nine of the previous ten winners had ranked inside the top-seven for that stat.
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 two years ago 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.
Three men have won this event and the now defunct Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles and all in the same year! Adam Scott in 2002, Bjorn in 2011 and Paul Lawrie a year later - and the 2015 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. The 2002 winner at Gleneagles, Soren Kjeldsen, also finished second here in 1999.
As already mentioned, the wind can play a big part in the outcome of this tournament so keep an eye out for a change in the forecast. A poor draw can scupper your chances and it certainly had a say about the result three 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.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
A previous good performance or two at Doha is a big plus and when Branden Grace successfully defended last year he became the third to win the title twice in its short 19 year history.
In addition to Grace's back-to-back wins, Paul Lawrie won the event in both 1999 and 2012 and Adam Scott has also taken the title twice in 2002 and 2008. Henrik Stenson won the event in 2006 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 four 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 boosts the links angle-in and so does last year's second, Thorbjorn Olesen, and the 2015 runner-up, Marc Warren. Grace has won at the Fancourt Links in South Africa and like past Qatar Masters winners, Lawrie and Karlsson, Grace and Olesen are both former winners of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. Grace and Warren have also both 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 often 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.
A slow start can be overcome at Doha and four of the 19 winners to date have been as far as seven off the lead after round one. And three winners, Ernie Els in 2005, Adam Scott in 2008 and Sergio Garcia in 2014, were seven back at halfway.
Els was still five back with a round to go and Scott and Garcia still trailed by three but every other winner has been within two strokes with a round to go and 11 of the 19 winners were in front after three rounds.
If you're betting in-running, the finish here is fairly easy and a number of shots can be picked up late on. The 13th 14th and 15th are all tricky holes (ranked fourth, sixth and fifth toughest last year) but after that the players face a drivable par four at 16 which ranks the as the easiest hole on the course every year, the 17th is easiest of the four par threes and a reachable par five which last year averaged 4.7 and ranked as the second easiest hole. Chris Wood won the event with an eagle at the 72nd hole four years ago and Grace eagled the 16th two years ago.
Three players couldn't be split at the head of the market yesterday - Alex Noren, Bernd Wiesberger and Martin Kaymer but the first name is the most likely candidate in my book and the last name has been understandably drifting badly.
World number 10, Noren, comes here fresh off a 13th place finish at the Abu Dhabi Championship and that was by some distance his best effort there since he finished 11th way back in 2008. As a confirmed links specialist, Noren is far better suited to this track and his form figures read a respectable MC-13-21-49-MC-4-9-41. He's won four of his last 13 starts and it's a job to know whether he's just had a purple patch or whether his game really has moved on to the next level. His seasonal bow last week suggests it could be the latter and he should be the clear favourite at a track we know he's played well at before.
It took Wiesberger a little time to get to grips with Doha and his first four visits here yielded three missed cuts and a tied 42nd but in his last two appearances he's finished third and 13th. On a spectacular run of form that's seen him finish inside the top-seven in seven of his last eight starts, the Austrian has to be respected but he doesn't win anywhere near often enough to go taking a short price about and I'm happy to pass him over here.
Kaymer lost his way on the back nine last week in Abu Dhabi, having been matched at odds-on to win the title for a fourth time, and that's the huge negative. He's not been the same player in-contention since he threw away a 10-stroke lead in Abu Dhabi two years ago and that's a big worry. Like Noren, Kaymer is a brilliant links player but his course form isn't quite as good, reading MC-31-32-28-9-9-57. I was on board last week at 30/1 on his favourite track. He's not for me here after last week's disappointment at more than 10 points shorter.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello has course form in the book with two thirds and a second from just seven starts but he fell away again last week after a promising start and win only, he's as close to untouchable as it gets. I can see him placing and I wouldn't put anyone off backing him in the top-five and top-ten markets but he's not for me.
Last week's winner, Tommy Fleetwood, is a fascinating contender. I thought this might be the place that he'd get his second win and I had a good bet on him at 50/1 three years ago. He finished 75th. Given he's a great links player and that his only win before last week was the final edition of the aforementioned Johnnie Walker Championship in 2013, he's a great fit and he finished seventh 12 months ago. He missed the cut the week after his maiden win but that was more than three years ago and he could be far more focussed after his second win. He's a vastly shorter price than he was last week but I wouldn't be surprised if he contended.
This is an event I've enjoyed success at in the past and with some nice clear trends to follow, I was hoping to find one or two candidates to get stuck into but if the truth be told, I'm not overly keen on anyone so stakes are modest before the off.
If, and it's a big if, Alex Noren can pick up from where he left off last year then the 12/1 offered by the Sportsbook is simply too big. Last week was an encouraging performance and given how prolific he is now, it can't be right that the world number 10 is the same price as the far from prolific world number 37, Wiesberger.
Last week's fancy, Thorbjorn Olesen, was a bit disappointing in Abu Dhabi but he's a very in-and-out and he could very easily contend here given he has in two of the last three years, finishing third in 2014 and second last year. In typically inconsistent Olesen style, he missed the cut in 2015 and he could easily not turn up again this week but I thought he was a small play at 33/1 before the off.
In-form Zimbabwe-born South African, Dean Burmester, gets into the field thanks to his seventh place finish in Abu Dhabi and he was fourth two weeks ago at the South Africa Open. He's a huge hitter and currently ranks number one on the European Tour for Driving Distance so this place should suit him. South Africans have a decent record here and Zimbabwe's Tony Johnstone won here back in 2001.
And finally, Bradley Dredge ticks lots of boxes. The veteran Welshman was a bit disappointing over the weekend last week but he still finished inside the top-20. He has form at Gleneagles, is a fine links exponent and he's been placed here twice in the last five visits.
You can read our form guide for the players starting at the Qatar Masters behind the link.
I'll be back later with my Farmers Insurance Open preview.
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