Qatar Masters: Outsiders chanced in weak renewal

Eddie Pepperell – one of The Punter’s four in Qatar
Eddie Pepperell – one of The Punter’s four in Qatar
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The European Tour hops from Oman to Qatar and our man has the lowdown on the 21st edition of the Qatar Masters. Read Steve's in-depth preview ahead of Thursday's start here...

"Doha winners, Henrik Stenson, Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie have all won the Open Championship and Sergio Garcia, Thomas Bjorn and Adam Scott arguably all should have done."

Tournament History

It's almost 20 years since Sky pundit Andrew Coltart won the inaugural Qatar Masters in early March 1998 so this will be the 21st edition.

Having been staged in January or very early in February, as the middle leg of the Middle East Swing for the last 12 years, the tournament now moves to this later slot to sensibly follow last week's brand new event in Oman but it certainly hasn't helped with regards to field strength. This is, by some margin, the weakest renewal I can remember.

Venue

Doha Golf Club, Doha, Qatar

Course Details

Par 72, 7,400 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 71.13

Doha was designed by Peter Harradine, the man also responsible for the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, 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 and water is in-play on six holes (3, 8, 9, 13, 15 and 18).

The back nine is quite a bit easier than the front nine and last year it averaged 1.39 strokes less than the front-nine. The par four 15th is a tough hole coming in but the par five 10th and 18th holes are both great birdie holes and the par four 16th is drivable. Every hole bar the 15th on the back-nine averaged below par last year and five of the six hardest holes were all on the front-nine.

The course is very exposed and high winds can have a big say on the outcome so keeping an eye on the weather forecasts is essential.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 7:30 Thursday morning (UK time)

Last Five Winners

2017 - Jeunghun Wang -16 (playoff)
2016 - Branden Grace -14
2015 - Branden Grace -19
2014 - Sergio Garcia -16 (playoff)
2013 - Chris Wood -18

What Will it Take to Win the Qatar Masters?

Last year's stats were quite strange for a couple of reasons and it's hard to pinpoint why.

Only two players in the top-ten ranked inside the top ten for Driving Distance and that was unusual given big hitters have fared really well here of late. Distance from the tee has been of far more importance than accuracy and 11 of the 12 winners before Wang, who only ranked 37th for DD, all ranked inside the top-15 for Driving Distance.

A year after ranking ninth when he won in 2015, Branden Grace ranked sixth for DD when successfully defending two years ago and he and big-hitting Belgian, Nicolas Colsaerts, were the only two to play the long holes in double-digits under-par in 2016.

Wang only ranked eighth on the par fives - playing them in only seven-under-par - but four of the last six winners have ranked first or second for Par 5 Scoring. Lucas Bjerregaard, who eventually finished tied 11th alongside former winner, Chris Wood, played them in 12-under-par to rank number one last year.

Only one player in the top-12 (Rafa Cabrera-Bello, who ranked 10th) ranked inside the top-ten for Greens In Regulation last year and Wang only ranked 26th. Grace only ranked 19th for GIR 12 months earlier too but they're a pair of outliers when looking at results over the last 12 years as nine of the last dozen winners ranked inside the top-seven for GIR.

Scrambling has been a key stat at Doha and the number one scrambler for the week has been placed in each of the last three years.

Up until last year, this was a very straightforward event to evaluate statistically and looking for big-hitters that would be far enough down the fairways to find plenty of greens and to score well on the long holes was the way to go.

Is There an Angle In?

Although part of the three-event Middle East Swing for 12 years, since the inception of the Abu Dhabi Championship in 2006, this tournament has never really sat well alongside the two pure desert golf tournaments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai and this was always the poorest attended of the three. Many golfers just skipped it as playing Abu Dhabi and then Doha before playing the Dubai Desert Classic didn't really flow but following on from last week's brand new NBO Oman Open makes loads of sense and hopefully the quality of the fields will increase in time.

The two events look comparable on paper so I won't be a bit surprised to see those in-the-mix in Muscat doing well again in Doha and I'll be surprised if this week's winner didn't play last. We've lost something in terms of field quality here with the scheduling switch but if the two tournaments correlate as well as I suspect they might, that may improve in years to come - provided this isn't just a one-off of course. The test faced this week should be fairly similar to last week's and it will be interesting to look back afterwards and see how many players contended in both events.

Two courses that already correlate quite nicely to Doha 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 three years ago and Robert Karlsson and Paul Lawrie have also won here and finished second in Portugal. Portugal Masters winners, Lee Westwood, Steve Webster and Richard Green have all finished inside the top-four here.

Last year's Portugal Masters winner, Bjerregaard, fared well here last year finishing 11th and the runner-up to him in Portugal, Marc Warren, was also second here in 2015 so form at Oceânico Victoria is definitely a plus but the correlation between Doha and Gleneagles (although now slightly dated) 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, Ryder Cup captain, Thomas 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 four 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?

Wang had never played Doha before when he won last year but a previous good performance or two here is a big plus and when Branden Grace successfully defended in 2016 he became the third to win the title twice in its short 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 he's also 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 five years ago before he took the title 12 months later, so course form stands up really well and so does links form...

Doha winners, Henrik Stenson, Ernie Els and Paul Lawrie have all won the Open Championship and Sergio Garcia, Thomas Bjorn and Adam Scott arguably all should have done.

Given he shot the first 62 in major championship history at the Open at Royal Birkdale in July, Grace boosts the links angle-in and so does the 2016 second, Thorbjorn Olesen, and the 2015 runner-up, Marc Warren. Grace has also 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.

Wang hasn't yet built any sort of links pedigree but he's still very young and the exception to the rule here. Prior to last year, a links golf specialist had taken the title almost every year and that's the strongest angle-in for me.

In-Play Tactics

A slow start can be overcome at Doha.

Last year's winner, Wang, trailed by five after round one and four of the 20 winners to date have been as far as seven off the lead after the opening round. 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 12 of the 20 winners were in front after three rounds.

If you're betting in-running, bear in mind that the back-nine is easier than the front (see above course details) and the finish here is fairly easy and a number of shots can be picked up late on. The 15th is a tricky hole (ranked second toughest last year) but after that the players face a drivable par four at 16 which only rankled as the second easiest last year after years of ranking as the easiest on the course, the 17th is the easiest of the four par threes and the 18th is a reachable par five which last year averaged 4.81 and ranked as the fourth easiest hole. Chris Wood won the event with an eagle at the 72nd hole five years ago and Grace eagled the 16th on his way to winning three years ago.

Market Leaders

Having finished third in 2014 and second two years later, Thorbjorn Olesen brings course form to the table but he's also missed a couple of cuts here and he hasn't been in the best of form of late. He made the match play element of the World Super 6 Perth last time but that isn't an awful lot to write home about given he lost straight away in the match play element.

Having won four times on the European Tour, he's fairly prolific and after drawing blank last year he's arguably due another title but all things considered, it's hard to get enthusiastic about his price.

Andy Sullivan has found a bit of form at last finishing sixth at the Dubai Desert Classic, 17th at the Maybank Championship and 16th last week in Oman and with form figures here reading 9-MC-19-28, he certainly has scope but I was disappointed with his play after a bright start last week and he looks short enough to me.

After chasing home Joost Luiten in Oman, the 2013 winner, Chris Wood, is understandably much shorter than he was last week but it's hard to back him at a hundred points shorter! Coming in to the event with poor form (three MCs) following swing changes, he was matched at a whopping [130.0] before the off last week but you get [30.0] this and it's very hard to take the plunge given he's inconsistent at the best of times.

Defending champ, Jeunghun Wang, was disappointing last week in Oman and defending is never an easy thing to do so he's dismissed at the prices too.

Selections

I can't say I fancy anyone strongly in what is a really disappointing field but I've dug out four outsiders for small stakes.

Eddie Pepperell took two months off after a solid 2017 and he's been slow to get going in 2018 but he might just be ready to spark into life again after three missed cuts and a 44th paced-finish in Oman last week.

He has form at all the right places, including a fourth here two years ago and if he is finding his game (as the below tweet suggests) he could very easily contend.

Marc Warren looks woefully out of form but a return to a track that suits could see an upsurge in form and as a Gleneagles winner and a Portugal Masters runner-up he certainly ticks all the right boxes.

I've also taken a chance that last year's Portugal Masters winner, Lucas Bjerregaard, finds something and I thought last year's Challenge Tour Order of Merit winner, Tapio Pulkkanen, looked big enough. He missed the cut in the South Africa Open in his first start for a month but he was 23rd in Oman last week and he finished third at the Joburg Open before Christmas.


Selections:
Eddie Pepperell @ [80.0]
Marc Warren @ [130.0]
Lucas Bjerregaard @ [140.0]
Tapio Pulkkanen @ [150.0]


I'll be back shortly with my Honda Classic preview.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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