The Omega Dubai Desert Classic is the longest-established tournament on the European Tour’s ‘Desert Swing’, which occupies the end of January and the first part of February. It began in 1989. The two preceding events on the 2016 schedule – in Abu Dhabi and Qatar – were respectively inaugurated in 2006 and 1998. There was a fourth event for one year, the Volvo Golf Champions in Bahrain in 2011, for which Paul Casey was the first and last champion before political issues and civil unrest caused the cancellation of the golf tournament even though nothing has derailed Formula 1 in that particular kingdom.
The happiest hunter over Dubai’s Emirates golf course has historically been a four-time major championship winner, Ernie Els. He has won there three times – in 1994 (when he set the course record of 61, 11 under par), 2002 and 2005. He arrived in Dubai in good heart, not so much because of past glories but because he seemed to have conquered a recent gory episode. The TV pictures of him missing a seemingly unmissable putt at a tournament in South Africa three weeks previously made for distressing viewing for any golfer, but in Dubai Els was talking up his on-green game.
“I used the anchored putting method all last year,” he said (a method that has been banned since the start of this year), “and had some good weeks. But I had others where I couldn’t hole anything. My right hand gets a little lively.” Consequently, he had gone to a cross-handed grip, with the left hand below the right, and in Dubai the stroke held up well enough that he was in the final group out for the third round. Then – golf being golf – the three-putted the 4th and 5th and fell out of contention, even if a final round of 67 showed that there’s still life as well as fight in the old campaigner.
Attention then focused, as it usually should, on the younger campaigners. Specifically, the outcome here was determined between three golfers: Yorkshireman Danny Willett (aged 28), Rafa Cabrera-Bella from the Canary Islands (31) and Andy Sullivan (29) from Nuneaton. Heading to the first tee on Sunday, Willett led RCB by one and Sullivan by two. Come the climax of proceedings, he led them both by one, having holed a 15-foot downhill putt at the last for a birdie four after Cabrera-Bello had narrowly missed an eagle and Sullivan had birdied two of the last four holes and made a sensational par-save on the 16th.
The pre-tournament favourite, as usual, was Rory McIlroy, aged 26 and already with four majors to his name. He’s also played in three Ryder Cups, whereas the first three home in Dubai this year have yet to make an appearance between them. McIlroy’s problem this week was the front nine. He played it in level par over the four days. He played the back nine in 15 under, which therefore was his final total. He tied for sixth, four shots behind Willett, the man whom he pushed into second place in the Race to Dubai last season. Rory remains the man to beat. This time in Dubai, Willett did just that.
Robert Green’s ‘Seve: Golf’s Flawed Genius’ is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter @robrtgreen