Power the key to success at Al Hamra
Another low scoring birdiefest is on the cards
After the Hero Cup in Abu Dhabi and two Rolex Series events to kick off 2023 - the Abu Dhabi Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic - the DP World Tour remains in the Middle East for the second edition of the Ras al Khaimah Championship.
Although this is only the second renewal, last year's inaugural edition - won by Nicolai Hojgaard - was followed a week later by the Ras al Khaimah Classic - won by Ryan Fox - and the course was also used for three events on the Challenge Tour, so we've got plenty to get our teeth into.
Al Hamra Golf Course, Ras Al Khaimah, UAE.
Par 72, 7325 yards
Stroke Average in 2022 - 70.67
Designed by Peter Harradine, the Al Hamra Golf Course was new to the DP World Tour last year, but it was used three times on the Challenge Tour between 2016 and 2018.
Al Hamra was the venue for the twice only staged Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge in 2016 and 2017 and it also hosted the Challenge Tour Grand Final in 2018.
Jordan Smith beat Jose-Filipe Lima by a stroke with a 20-under-par total here in 2016 before Sweden's Jens Dantorp got the better of Poland's Adrian Meronk in extra time 12 months later, after the pair had finished on -15 in the second and final edition of the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge.
And at the 2018 edition of the Challenge Tour Grand Final, Adri Arnaus shot 17-under-par to finish the week a stroke in front of Victor Perez.
A typical desert track with wide fairways, water is in play on eight holes and the greens are Sea Isle Paspalum.
Live on Sky Sports, starting at 8:30 on Thursday.
Last Year's Course Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices
Ras al Khaimah Ch'ship - Nicolai Hojgaard -24 40.039/1
Ras al Khaimah Classic - Ryan Fox -22 55.054/1
What Will it Take to Win the Ras al Khaimah Championship?
Both Nicolai Hojgaard and Ryan Fox overpowered Al Hamra last year and their stats were very similar - although they played the par fours and fives very differently.
Hojgaard was able to drive three of the par four greens (the first, the fifth and the 13th) and he could also reach the four par fives in two which is why he was able to play the long holes in 15-under-par. Only Sean Norris (-12) got anywhere near to that and nobody else in the field bettered -10.
As many as four players played the long holes in -13 the following week but Fox constructed his score on the par fours. He played the par fives in only seven-under-par, but he played the par fours in 14-under and that was six better than anyone else in the field that week and four better than Hojgaard had played them in the week before.
Hojgaard ranked third for Driving Distance and Fox ranked ninth but neither man was especially straight off the tee. Hojgaard ranked 72nd and Fox 60th for Driving Accuracy.
The pair ranked sixth and seventh for Greens In Regulation so missing fairways didn't result in many missed greens and that's a good job given Hojgaard ranked 42nd for Scrambling and Fox ranked 70th!
Fox putted better than Hojgaard, ranking fourth for Putting Average and seventh for Strokes Gained Putting compared to the Dane's 12th and 43rd for those two metrics.
Hojgaard and Fox both ranked second for Strokes Gained on Approach and they ranked first and second for Strokes Gained Tee to Green.
The last three course winners all ended 2022 ranked inside the top-ten for Driving Distance on the DP World Tour.
Previous course form needs to be respected
Although Al Hamra was only used three times in total on the Challenge Tour, course form held up nicely.
Victor Perez finished seventh and second here, Jose Filipe Lima has been sixth and second at Al Hamra, Max Orrin seventh and sixth, Jack Senior finished 11th and sixth and Romain Langasque finished sixth in 2016 and fourth two years later.
There isn't an abundance of evidence to suggest that form at other Harradine-designed tracks is going to be worth exploring in detail but Perez, who won this year's Abu Dhabi Championship at the Kyle Philips-designed Yas Links, has also finished second at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club - which has hosted the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship until last year - and Marcus Kinhult finished third in the Qatar Masters at Doha in 2018 - another course designed Harradine.
Look to Portugal for pointers
In addition to form at Doha and the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, the last two weeks should provide a few clues too. Both the Yas Links and the Emirates are more linksy than this venue but desert form translates very well and I'd also closely consider any form at the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course, which hosts the Portugal Masters.
Hojgaard and the man that finished tied third behind him, Matthieu Pavon, finished tied second behind Thomas Pieters in the Portugal Masters in 2021, and Jordan Smith, who won here on the Challenge Tour before finishing second to Hojgaard, romped home in Portugal at the end of October - amassing a 30-under-par total.
Mathew Jordan, who was 13th, finished fifth in Portugal in 2021 and the first and second at the Challenge Tour Grand Final here in 2018, Arnaus and Perez, have also played well in Portugal.
Ryan Fox doesn't have a great record in the Portugal Masters but the places were filled with players that have played well there.
Ross Fisher, who was second to the Kiwi, has finished second, third, seventh and eighth in Portugal, Hurly Long, who was third behind Fox, finished fifth behind Smith in October last year and Masahiro Kawamura, who finished sixth, was fifth in Portugal in 2020.
As long as it's not too windy, up with the pace is usually the place to be in the desert and that's been the case in the last three events here.
Ryan Fox and Adri Arnaus both won wire-to wire and Hojgaard was in the van throughout. He trailed by only two strokes after rounds one and two and he was three in front with a round to go.
The back nine is significantly harder than the front nine and it's particularly tricky around the turn. The hardest three holes on the course at both last year's tournaments were the 12th, 10th and 9th and the six hardest holes are all encountered after the par five 8th.
The 2022 Golfer of the Year, Ryan Fox, who won here wire-to-wire last year, heads the wide-open market following his tied 20th in the Dubai Desert Classic last week. But the big-hitting Kiwi hasn't been at his best of late.
A couple of missed cuts in Australia at the end of 2022 were followed by a disappointing week in Abu Dhabi (65th) prior to last week's effort so I'm happy to swerve him.
Rasmus Hojgaard is the second favourite but he too makes little appeal after he finished alongside Fox on Monday.
He too missed a pair of cuts Down Under before Christmas and his two efforts at the track to date don't make for much encouragement. He finished 42nd behind his brother in this event before coming 30th behind Fox the following week.
Although he finished poorly on Monday to slip to tied 25th in Dubai, that was a decent enough effort for the recent Abu Dhabi Championship winner, Victor Perez, who was seventh and second at Al Hamra on his only two previous visits.
Tucked in behind Perez are another two players with course form.
With Al Hamra form figures reading 2-57-6, Poland's Adrian Meronk is bidding to put last week's surprising missed cut behind him, and the defending champ, Nicolai Hojgaard, who has started 2023 with a 10th in Abu Dhabi and a disappointing tied 38th last week in Dubai.
Having backed him before the off last year at 44.043/1, I was happy to have a tiny bet on the defending champ at 26.025/1. He has a habit of finding form out of the blue and he was very impressive when winning last year.
Not for the first time, I'm in agreement with Matt Cooper so I've backed two of his three fancies too - Adri Arnaus and Callum Shinkwin.
I was lucky enough to get a bit matched on Arnaus at 46.045/1 on Monday but he's still a fair price at 10 ticks lower.
As Matt highlights, having romped to a wire-to-wire win here on the Challenge Tour, he was in second with a round to go (albeit six adrift) when Fox won here last year and he was also in the thick of it last week, hitting a low of 4.47/2 when he hit the front after eight holes of round three.
He was a bit disappointing after that to finish 13th but this less penal layout suits the big-hitting Spaniard better than the Emirates.
Again, Matt makes a great case for Callum Shinkwin but one further point I'd like to make is his sneaky form at the Dom Pedro Victoria Golf Course.
As already highlighted, form at Dom Pedro correlates nicely to Al Hamra so it bodes well that Shinkwin has sat inside the top-four places after round one in three of his five starts there.
Nicolai Hojgaard @ 26.025/1
Adri Arnaus @ 36.035/1
Callum Shinkwin @ 36.035/1
I'll be back later with the Find Me a 100 Winner column.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter