The economic downturn looks to have taken its toll on the 24th staging of the Dubai Desert Classic, the final leg of the Race to Dubai's Middle East Swing, as the field doesn't have the strength of previous renewals. I assume a few million less dirhams have been thrown the way of the world's biggest stars this time around as Tiger Woods, once an ever-present, is keeping away and so too is Rory McIlroy, who misses the event for the first time since he broke his duck here in 2009.
Emirates Golf Club, Dubai, UAE
Par 72, 7301 yards
Stroke Index in 2012 - 71.49
The Majlis course, designed by Karl Litten and opened in 1988, with the exception of the 1999 and 2000 renewals, has hosted the event since its inception. Like last week's venue, Doha GC in Qatar, the wind is often a factor, especially in the afternoons and whereas, for a change, it wasn't really a factor in Qatar, the forecast suggests it will be here.
The front nine ends with a stretch of three tough holes in four - the 6th, 8th and 9th are all strong par fours, so the back nine is the scoring nine, with three par fives (the 10th, 13th and 18th). Water is in play on ten holes.
Live on Sky Sports all four days - 6.00am on Thursday and Friday, 9.00am on Saturday and 8.00am on Sunday.
Last Five Winners
2012 - Rafael Cabrera-Bello -18
2011 - Alvaro Quiros -11
2010 - Miguel Angel Jimenez -11 (Playoff)
2009 - Rory McIlroy -19
2008 - Tiger Woods -14
What will it take to win the Dubai Desert Classic?
Power off the tee is a big plus here, four of the last six winners have ranked inside the top-four for Driving Distance and it doesn't appear particularly important where you hit it off the tee either - no winner has ranked inside the top-15 for Driving Accuracy at the Emirates.
An ability to putt on Bermuda certainly won't go amiss and over the last few years, good scrambling has been a key to success too.
Is there an angle in?
As was the case at last week's Qatar Masters, there appears a very strong correlation between this course and Oceânico Victoria, home of the Portugal Masters. Richard Green and Alvaro Quiros have both won at the two venues and Lee Westwood should have done. And considering there's only been six Portugal Masters in total to date, that's a very strong trend.
Is there an identikit winner?
I'm really not sure how relevant it is, but three different Spaniards have won the last three renewals.
Tee-Times could be crucial
I've been monitoring the ever-changing weather forecast all week and a good draw is starting to look very important. As I write, a morning start on Thursday could be a big advantage. Thursday looks fairly benign for most of the day, with the wind getting up a little bit late on but Friday looks very different, with some very blustery conditions forecast for the morning. Of course, forecasts have a habit of changing rapidly but at this stage, an early-late draw looks favourable.
A fast start looks essential. Four of the last eight winners were in front after just 18 holes and the vast majority of winners have gotten off to a flyer - Mark O'Meara, in 2004 and Alvaro Quiros, two years ago, are the only two winners in the last 12 years that were more than three shots adrift after round on.
A fast start will only be of value if you can handle windy conditions though. As stated, Friday's forecast is mixed and it's just possible one or two could get a result with the draw but there'll be no hiding place come Sunday when a steady and strong breeze is forecast.
This looks like one of those weeks when the weather has a huge bearing on the result and that could offer up some great opportunities in-running.
Surveying the day one leaderboard, Friday's tee-times, and getting with those up in the van early, that can definitely handle blustery conditions, may well pay dividends but keep an eye on those posting a good score early on Saturday, before the wind blows harder - just as Chris Wood did last week in Qatar.
But the main thing to bear in mind is how bad it will be on Sunday - be prepared for a fast changing leaderboard in what's forecast to be the worst conditions of the week.
In what's a disappointingly weak field, Sergio Garcia heads the market at what looks a prohibitive enough [7.2]. Having not played since winning the Johor Open in December, last week's effort, when beaten into a tie for second by a solitary stroke was pleasing enough but it's very easy to argue that he should have perhaps fared better. I'm no big fan of Sergio in the mix and his last appearance here was just one of many examples when he's performed poorly in-contention. Sitting in a tie for 2nd and just a stroke off the lead at halfway two years ago, two weekend rounds of 75 saw him slip to a tie for 20th.
He's in fine form, the course suits, the Spanish have owned the place for the last three years and his chance is crystal clear but there's absolutely no value in his price given his propensity to give up chances to win with such regularity and given he's been drawn to start on Thursday afternoon.
The fact that second favourite, Lee Westwood still hasn't won this title is one of life's mysteries - he has a string of good performances at the Emirates, finished runner-up twelve months ago and was beaten by Miguel Angel Jimenez in a playoff in 2010. It would be no surprise to see him contend but he finished 2012 poorly and hasn't played well first time out in years. There's also his house move to the States to consider, which will have been a disruption and all things considered, he makes no appeal.
Henrik Stenson is a popular choice again this week but I don't get it I'm afraid. He has some old course form to call upon, including a win here in 2007 and he won in South Africa as recently as November but the negatives far outweigh the positives. I appreciate that you can do no more than win but nobody put up any sort of challenge in South Africa and his efforts over the last few weeks have been worrying. After bright starts in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, when he's looked in fine form early on, he's gone AWOL very quickly. There's something not quite right with his concentration levels and for that reason, I'm more than happy to dismiss him at such a short price. Especially as he appears to have a poor draw also.
The player I really liked here was Thongchai Jaidee, but I can't back him at just [30.0], it's just too short, so he's reluctantly left out and I've gone with just three from the start - all of which have the possibly advantageous early-late draw.
The fact that Ben Curtis played in the fog-delayed Farmers Insurance Open is hardly a plus and he doesn't fit the big-hitting tag off the tee either but he does have form here and he will love a war of attrition in blustery conditions. Had he not been drawn early I'd have left him out but I don't want to wake up on Thursday and see him up there so I've had a very modest bet before the off.
My second pick is yet again, Berndt Wiesberger, who I'm convinced, has just the right game for desert golf. He arguably should have won in Portugal, so he ticks that box, and earlier in the week he tweeted how much he liked this venue.
"On the Way to Dubai! Looking forward to my favourite course of the Desert Swing."
But the really big plus is that he's hooked up with his coach, Phil De Busschere, again this week. Prior to both his wins last year he spent time with him the week he won and it's got to be a huge positive.
As stated, the link between this event and the Portugal Masters looks a strong one and Shane Lowry could well improve on his to date ordinary record here. He's another that will relish the tough windy conditions and he looks a very fair price at [75.0].
I'll be back later with my preview of the week's PGA Tour event, the WM Phoenix Open.
Dubai Desert Classic Selections:
Ben Curtis @ [70.0]
Berndt Wiesberger @ an average of [70.0]
Shane Lowry @ [75.0]
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