The European Tour spends the last three weeks of January in the Middle East for its lucrative “Desert Swing.” Three consecutive tournaments will be played over lush and manicured courses in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai. With sizeable prize funds and plenty of rankings points on offer, each of these events attracts a strong field of international stars. Here we take a look at what to expect from the Desert Swing 2015 – the courses, the players and the history.
Dates: Jan 15 – 18
Venue: Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Course stats: par 72, 7,600 yards
Defending Champion: Pablo Larrazabal (Spain)
Players to watch: Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer
The Desert Swing begins with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. First contested in 2006, this will be the 10th running of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship and the tournament returns, once again, to the fabulous Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
Two players dominated this event in its early years – Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey. The Englishman won in 2007 and 2009 while the German has been the champion three times – 2008, 2010 and 2011. Kaymer will be looking to secure a fourth title this year.
“I always feel comfortable in Abu Dhabi and after the success I’ve enjoyed it would mean a lot to win again in its 10th year,” he said. “Who knows, I might be lucky enough to break more records along the way.”
Last season, Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal came out on top after a thrilling final day. The Spaniard began the last round three shots behind Craig Lee of Scotland. But Lee stumbled early in his round with bogeys at the 4th and 5th holes, throwing the tournament wide open. He eventually closed with a disappointing 77 to end the week in a tie for 10th place.
Larrazabal was one of a number of players in contention through the front nine, before 2013 Open champion Phil Mickelson took the lead with three birdies in his first 10 holes.
But Mickelson came unstuck at the 13th when he attempted to play back-handed from under a bush. He caught the ball twice with that stroke then required a penalty drop. In the end he walked off the hole with a triple-bogey seven.
Larrazabal took advantage of Mickelson’s slip and closed with a birdie four to set a clubhouse total of 14-under-par. The American fought back valiantly and gave himself a chance to tie Larrazabal with an eagle at the 72nd hole. He found the par-5 green in two but was unable to convert the eagle putt and finished one shot back.
Rory McIlroy also came up just one shy and was left to consider what might have been after a string of missed birdie efforts. He’ll be back this year to try and go one better.
“After playing in Abu Dhabi for so many years and having come so close in the past, I would love nothing more than to win at the event’s 10-year anniversary. That would be something very special and would mean a lot to me,” he said.
Designed by renowned desert course architect Peter Harradine, the course at Abu Dhabi Golf Club is long and challenging with plenty of water hazards to negotiate. Stretched now to 7,600 yards, it’s a venue that suits the power hitters. This course has been the host for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship since its inception in 2006.
The home hole at Abu Dhabi Golf Club is particularly distinctive. Played directly towards the iconic falcon-shaped clubhouse, it’s a par-5 that’s been extended to 567 yards. It’s still reachable in two for the longest hitters and that means the Desert Swing tournament could swing at the death.
Dates: Jan 21 – 24
Venue: Doha GC, Doha, Qatar
Course stats: par 72, 7,400 yards
Defending Champion: Sergio Garcia (Spain)
Players to watch: Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson, Sergio Garcia
Week two of the Desert Swing 2015 sees the Tour head for Qatar and Doha Golf Club. Sergio Garcia of Spain will be defending champion at the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters
This will be the 18th running of the Qatar Masters, first won by Andrew Coltart back in 1998. Since then the event has produced some notable champions. In 1999 Paul Lawrie was a winner here before going on to claim the Open Championship that summer at Carnoustie. He won again in 2012. Tony Johnstone secured his final European Tour victory here in 2001. Adam Scott has twice been a winner, in 2002 then again in 2008. Swedish players have also enjoyed some success at Doha – Joakim Haegmann won the event in 2004, Henrik Stenson lifted the trophy in 2006 and Robert Karlsson triumphed in 2010. England’s Chris Wood was champion in 2013.
Last year, Spain’s Sergio Garcia defeated Mikko Ilonen of Finland at the third hole of a sudden-death playoff to take the victory. It was the Spaniard’s 11th European Tour title.
Garcia will be back in Doha this year, but he’ll face stern competition from a number of big-name players. 2013 U.S. Open Champion Justin Rose will tee it up for a sixth time and is hoping to use the tournament as a springboard for the season.
“I finished last season playing really well and I want to build on that in Doha,” he said. “I enjoyed myself at the Qatar Masters a couple of years ago and I’m looking forward to returning.”
Rose’s Ryder Cup teammate Henrik Stenson will also start in Qatar. The pair formed a supreme pairing at Gleneagles last September, winning all three of the matches they played together.
“I much prefer playing with him than against him!” Rose joked.
Like Abu Dhabi Golf Club, and many of the courses in this part of the world, the layout at Doha GC is a Peter Harradine design. Opened for play in 1994, water comes into play on six holes and natural outcrops of rock are also a feature.
Dates: Jan 29 – Feb 1
Venue: Emirates GC (Majlis Course,) Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Course stats: par 72, 7,316 yards
Defending Champion: Stephen Gallacher (Scotland)
The final leg of the Desert Swing 2015 takes the players back to the United Arab Emirates for the famous Dubai Desert Classic. This is the original Gulf event and one that has witnessed some great winners over the years.
First played in 1989, this will be the 26th running of the Dubai Desert Classic. Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Jose Maria Olazabal and Tiger Woods have all lifted the trophy in years gone by. Last season, Stephen Gallacher of Scotland became the first player to successfully defend the title in this event. Gallacher came through a testing final round to win by a single shot from Emiliano Grillo of Argentina. The Scot is excited at the prospect of making it three wins in a row.
“To defend the title in 2014, which was the 25th anniversary of the event, was special. Dubai is one of my favourite stops on the European Tour because there is always a lot of strength at the top of the field,” said Gallacher. “But I’m not getting ahead of myself. I hope to play well again and see where that leaves me.”
The Majlis Course at the Emirates Club was the first all-grass layout in the Gulf and it’s still recognised as one of the finest tracks in the Middle East. Travelling through the desert dunes, fairways pass seven lakes, desert areas, indigenous flora and the “Majlis” themselves. Arabic for meeting place, these tent-like structures are a distinctive feature sitting between the 8th and 9th holes.
Look out for that 9th hole: At 463 yards it’s one of the longest par-4s on the course. Add the complication of the water waiting all down the left side to an awkwardly shaped green and you have a real brute.
The history of the Dubai Desert Classic dates back to 1986 when His Highness General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum approved the construction of a golf course in the desert. The Emirates Club opened two years later and the next season Mark James was winner of the inaugural Karl Litten Desert Classic (the competition was originally named after the designer of the course.)
By the end of these three thrilling weeks in the Middle East, the 2015 European Tour will be off and running. We’ll have a good idea of the form players, and those who have performed well will have gained a great deal of confidence to take further into the season. Bring on the Desert Swing 2015!
If the Desert Swing inspires you to take a golfing holiday to the Middle East, make sure you’ve got adequate golf travel insurance in case anything happens to you or your clubs. With Golf Care’s worldwide golf travel insurance, if there’s a problem with your clubs, you’ll get replacements straight away so that your golf holiday isn’t interrupted and you can quickly get back out on those beautiful courses.