Matt Cooper

Across the Pond

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Monday, February 12, 2018


 
A new destination, tournament and course for the European Tour, but far from a novel test for many of the field who will have played it, in some cases several times, on the Challenge Tour.
 
What was once the NBO Golf Classic, and then became the NBO Golf Classic Grand Final (the second tier's end-of-season championship), is now the NBO Oman Open, with the Sultanate joining the U.A.E. and Qatar as part of what is now a two-stage Desert Swing.
 
The host course is Al Mouj Golf in Oman's capital city Muscat and in the five years that the Challenge Tour visited the likes of Lucas Bjerregaard, Byeong Hun An, Brandon Stone, Ricardo Gouveia and Nacho Elvira all prospered.
 
Most players will continue to next week's Qatar Masters, which means the field strength is good, if not as high-powered as January's U.A.E. sector of the Desert Swing (the purses are down from $3 million to $1.75 million). 
 
The extent to which that Challenge Tour form plays out will be an intriguing sub-plot for the week and as such it might pay to understand a little about the atmosphere of that event. In the immediate aftermath of the tournament a graduation ceremony takes place on the 18th green, an emotional occasion for many and returning there might inspire a few. 
 
 
The Course
 
Al Mouj Golf is a Greg Norman design situated right on the edge of the Indian Ocean. A few of the holes are, visually at least, startlingly links-like, both with the sweeping nature of the fairways and greens, but also the raised sand dunes through which some holes twist and turn. Add in the wind, which can be strong, and you might be thinking: "British seaside specialists". Whilst that maybe no bad strategy, it has to be remembered that the grass is Paspalum SeaDwarf, so however much a 40-yard shot around the green might look like a linksland chip-and-run, with grabby grass it won't exactly play that way. There are also as many holes which play like resort courses, with water hazards to cross or steer clear of. 
 
Jens Dantorp, who has three top seven finishes on the course, told me at last November's Grand Final: "It's a ball-strikers course. You need to be strong off the tee and you need to place smart shots into the greens. You have to be strategic here, you can't just bomb it down the fairways. There are bunkers making landing areas narrow and rough where you almost can't find the ball. I see myself as a ball-striker and a thinker on the course; it fits my game pretty well."
 
 
Top Finishers at Al Mouj on the Challenge Tour
 
2013: 1st (-14) Roope Kakko, 2nd (-12) Lucas Bjerregaard, 3rd (-10) Daniel Im, T4 (-7) Matt Ford, Brandon Stone
2014: 1st (-7) Max Orrin, 2nd (-5) Jason Palmer, T3 (-3) Jason Barnes, Mark Tullo, T5 (-2) Michael Jonzon, Byeong-hun An
2015: 1st (-13) Ricardo Gouveia, 2nd (-12) Joachim B Hansen, T3 (-11) Jeff Winther, Callum Shinkwin, Nacho Elvira
2017: 1st (-15) Clement Sordet, 2nd (-13) Marcus Kinhult, T3 (-12) Erik Van Rooyen, Scott Fernandez, T5 (-10) Jens Dantorp, Thomas Linard
 
Notes: Some decent names amongst those high finishers, but also heed the wild differences in scoring. This is a track that can be defined by the wind, the prevailing direction of which is across almost every hole. If it blows (as it did in 2014), scoring will be tough. In 2016 it didn't and the field went low.
 
 
The Weather
 
In terms of rain and sunshine it would be remarkable if the forecast is wide of the mark. Rain is close to a zero chance and the temperature will be in the 80s all week. The wind is a little more tricky to predict. However, as of Monday (when this preview is written), the prediction is that 11mph will be as blowy as it ever gets.
 
 
The Leading Contenders
 
Ahead of January the Frenchman's name was one you'd be easily tempted to scrawl a line through when in this part of the world. His 17 Middle Eastern starts had reaped a best of T20, distinctly average for a man who knows how to win. But he was T7 in Abu Dhabi and T4 in Dubai, genuinely contending through the week at both. T55 on his last outing in Malaysia, having been T4 after R1's 67.
 
Raised hopes for the Englishman after a sluggish 2017. The hint was T6 at halfway in Abu Dhabi (T53 at week's end), the confirmation T6 in Dubai and he backed it up with T17 in Malaysia. A first visit to the course but he has a fine record in the desert. He was T9 on debut in Qatar and first at halfway there 12 months ago, plus he has been the runner-up in both the Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championship.
 
An interesting challenge for the Indian golfer who has experienced a real leap in interest since pegging his second win of the year at the Maybank Championship. At home in India, and also around the world, his profile has risen, and with it will come greater pressure. The nature of his two wins can do nothing but impress. In terms of desert golf his T48 and T61 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and Dubai Desert Classic are all we have to go on.
 
His Middle Eastern adventures so consistently reap rewards it would be utter foolishness to overlook his chances. In late 2014 he led the Asian Tour's Dubai Open after 54 holes before finishing second, he was T17 on debut in the DP World Tour Championship in 2016 and T28 there last year, won the 2017 Qatar Masters on debut, has been T11 and T15 in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and was T6 in this year's Dubai Desert Classic. And also? A links-like track on sticky grass and right by the Indian Ocean? It also describes the track he won the Mauritius Open on.
 
The Dutchman has plenty of experience playing in the Middle East and is mightily consistent there, racking up 15 top 30s finishes in 27 starts. That said his three most recent efforts there are amongst his worst: T44-T48-MC at Jumeirah, Abu Dhabi and Emirates in the last few months. Either side of that run he's shown some spark. He was second at Valderrama, pushing Sergio Garcia for the title and T11 last time out in the Maybank Championship.
 
His sole visit to the course at the end of his 2016 Challenge Tour season didn't indicate a wild affinity for the course. He pegged 74-74-70-74 to spend all week hovering around the edge of the top 40 before ending it T41. T9 and T22 in Abu Dhabi and Dubai last month suggesting he maybe getting to grips with the Middle Eastern challenge.
 
Pablo Larrazabal
Wasn't impressed that Abu Dhabi and Dubai were set up to suit long hitters who putted well and copped a bit of flak on Twitter for voicing those concerns, but responded in style by notching T3 in the Maybank Championship, a week when a more nuanced long game was required. If the wind stays away this week he might be in for another desert disappointment. On the other hand he's won at Le Golf National, another links-like track with un-links-like water hazards, and a past winner in the desert, at Abu Dhabi.
 
It's been a strong start to the 2018 campaign by the Spaniard who resides at 7th on the Race to Dubai after finishing second in the Maybank Championship, T14 in Abu Dhabi and T12 in the South African Open. In addition to contended in Malaysia, he was T2 at halfway in Abu Dhabi. Close to his maiden win on the European Tour. 
 
Earns his place in the field off the back of his stunning effort last week in the World Super 6 Perth, where he finished third and impressed all with his long hitting and aggressive golf. Yet to experience the European Tour outside of Australia and Fiji, but does now boast three top tens from just seven starts. He also now has five top eight finishes in his last six starts. 
 
A Lake Karrinyup specialist so he maybe kicking himself that he fell one shot outside the matchplay rounds last Saturday in the World Super 6 Perth. However it's often the case that a player with fine course form will have too high expectations and might "coast" to a better effort the week afterwards. His T6 in last month's Dubai Desert Classic vaulted him to 33rd on the Race to Dubai.
 

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