The Calm After the Storm

I think the best way to describe the annual European Tour “Desert Swing” is to liken it to an energetic sandstorm. You know it’s coming, but nothing really prepares you for the impact it’ll have when it gets here. And just as soon as it seemed to arrive, it’s gone, leaving nothing except bewildered witnesses asking “what just happened there?”.

The Desert Swing – three European Tour events hosted in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai – might not be the opening events of the season, but in many respects it is here that the European Tour really starts to get going. With its blend of beautiful weather, great hospitality and perfect courses, the UAE is a favourite destination for most tour professionals. Add to the mix large prize pots, strong fields and in some cases very lucrative appearance fees, and it becomes the perfect recipe to attract the best players in the world.

And this year was no exception. For the second time, fans’ favourite and 2013 Open Champion Phil Mickelson wowed the crowds in Abu Dhabi. 2013 PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner made the trip to Doha. In-form superstar Henrik Stenson played in all three Middle East tournaments. Rory McIlroy spent almost a month in the region, working on his game and playing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. And a certain T. Woods, a two-time Dubai Desert Classic winner, was again in town to entertain his many fans on the stunning Majlis Course.

Each year, the Desert Swing gets stronger, and the Swing period remains one of few on the European Tour calendar that can compete with the equally-attractive tournaments being played on the PGA Tour at the same time. Granted, a few European Tour stalwarts, such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, missed the Swing altogether this year, which is a real shame for the fans, but their loss was certainly made up for with the quality and strength-in-depth of the Swing fields in 2014.

Up first was the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championships. Played on the lush green fairways of the National course, the championship is famed not only for what happens on the course, but also for the superb off-course entertainment. The championship village, with various attractions for kids and adults alike, grows each year and serves as a great way to attract non-golfers to the event.

On the course, an-opening day scoring blitz saw the field shoot a combined 391 birdies and 51 players finish under par. The best of these, Matthew Baldwin, Rafa Cabrera-Bello and Romain Wattel, shot 67. Phil Mickelson, struggling with his driver, showed why he’s a multiple major winner, carding a respectable 73 (17 pars and a bogey) despite visiting almost every part of the course on his wayward round.

But it was in round three that the tournament really heated up. Phil Mickelson found his form, and a little bit extra, to fire a nine under par 63. Rory McIlroy shot what at first appeared to be a bogey-free 68, only for the Northern Irishman to be retrospectively penalised 2 strokes for an infringement on the 2nd hole. To the disappointment of fans (and to Rory as well, I image!), this relegated McIlroy to 6th place and out of the final group, which would consist of Phil Mickelson, the favourite at this stage, and two relatively unknown players in Craig Lee and Gaganjeet Bhullar, both seeking their maiden European Tour victories.

Bit it would be likable Spaniard Pablo Larrazábal who would walk away with the Falcon trophy, and in doing so continue a fine run of form for Spanish golfers in the UAE. He follows Miguel Angel Jiminez, Alvaro Quiros and Raffa Cabrera Bello, each of who have enjoyed recent success in Dubai. With the favourites faltering, Larrazábal shot a composed final round 67 to finish -14, one shot clear of both Mickelson and McIlroy, to claim his third European Tour Victory.

So after the fun and games in Abu Dhabi, the Swing made the short hop to Qatar, for the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters. And it didn’t take long for records to start being broken. In fact, it took just two shots. Englishman Steve Webster, starting his tournament at the 10th hole, saw his 254 yard 5-wood approach to the 548 yard par five disappear into the cup. This was the second albatross of the European Tour season, but it was the first time a player had made an albatross on his first hole of a tournament. So amazingly, Webster went to the 2nd tee with a score of 3-under par. But it was South African George Coetzee who led the field at the end of day 1, needing just 21 putts in a total of 64.

Going into the final round, an extremely congested leaderboard meant that 19 players were within 4 shots of the leading pair. Englishman Steve Webster had followed-up his fine start to share the lead at 12-under par with Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello. But it would be another Spaniard, Sergio Garcia, who could claim the title. The then world number 11 shot a closing 65, crucially missing an eight feet putt for a birdie on the last hole. He then watched on as Fininish star Mikko Ilonen birdied the 16th and 18th to complete a 66, and force extra holes. It would be on the third play-off hole that Garcia would secure victory, his first on the European Tour since October 2011 and his eleventh in total.

Garcia had not finished outside the top 25 in his previous seven visits to Doha, so his victory came as no surprise, but perhaps his victory in a play-off did: in his previous 6 play-offs, he has a relatively poor record of 2 wins and 4 losses.

And so back to Dubai, for the 25th instalment of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic. No expense or thought had been spared at the Emirates Golf Club to mark this remarkable milestone. A couple of days before the tournament began, the organisers staged the “Champions Challenge”, inviting all previous Dubai Desert Classic winners to participate in a one-off showpiece round. The only previous winner not present was Spanish legend Seve Ballasteros, but in a very nice gesture, the organisers invited his son, Javier, to represent his father. On the day, former Dubai resident Henrik Stenson used his knowledge of the course to card a 66, and he was joined on that mark by an in-form Rafa Cabrera Bello. This was a terrific day for both players and fans, and a fitting way to mark the 25th anniversary of this famous event.

And so to the main Event, the Dubai Desert Classic, and event big enough to draw the world’s best players; literally, in this case. World number 1 Tiger Woods, back to his very best after a stunning 2013, was in town looking to capture his 3rd Dubai Desert Classic title. He would be paired in the opening round with Rory McIlroy and defending champion Stephen Gallacher. And it was McIlroy who came out firing on day 1, shooting 7 birdies and an eagle to card a quite stunning 9-under par 63. Woods was unable to capitalise on a strong opening 9 holes that included 4 birdies, making 9 straight pars to finish on 4-under.

And so to round three, where once again the Desert Swing provided action and drama the likes of which are rarely seen on tour. With 10 holes remaining to play in round 3, defending champion Stephen Gallacher was 7 shots off the lead, and 1-over par for his round. But the Scotsman then embarked on what has been dubbed “the best 9 holes in Tour history”, shooting 7 birdies and an eagle to complete a record-equalling back 9 of just 28 strokes (against a par of 37). Add that to the birdie he made on the 9th hole, and his run was 10-under par for 10 holes.

Entering the final day with a 2 shot lead over McIlroy, Gallacher got off to the worst possible start, bogeying the first two holes to lose the outright lead. At times, this looked like a tournament that nobody wanted to win, and with the final groups struggling to find form, it was Emiliano Grillo who posted the club-house lead of 15-under. He closed his final round with a quite outrageous putt across the width of the 18th green, to the delight of the huge crowds.

With an outbound 4-over par 39, Stephen Gallacher seemed to have undone all of the good work he did on the final holes of round 3. But with three par 5’s on the back 9, and with no-one else making significant progress to the top of the leaderboard, Gallacher knew that if he held patient, his chance would come. And so it proved. Gallacher made 4 birdies in the final 9 holes, including holes 16 and 17, and he came down the final hole needing a par for victory. Despite his approach almost spinning back into the water, and his first putt leaving him a knee-knocking 4ft from the cup, Gallacher did survive the final test to become the first player in the history of the Dubai Desert Classic to successfully defend the title, and in doing so picked himself up a cheque for €303,268.

It is testament to the hard work and dedication of the governments, golf federations and golf governing bodies that the Middle East is able to host four significant events on the European Tour; the three Swing events and of course the season-ending DP World Championships, hosted at Jumeirah Golf Estates. These events attract the best players in the world, enabling golf fans in the region to witness their mesmerising skills up close and personal. And of course, it’s not just local fans. These tournaments attract many holiday makers to the area, who look to combine a week in the desert sun with the opportunity to watch world-class golf.

All the events held in the Middle East are superbly organised. The players are treated to wonderful hospitality and genuinely look forward to this time of the year. For the fans, it’s a month of wonderful sporting action, an opportunity to get close to the players and to walk some of the best manicured courses in the world.

Congratulations to Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Doha Golf Club and to Emirates Golf Club for their excellent hosting of the Desert Swing events, and of course we can’t forget the various sponsors who help make it all happen.

Roll on November, when the professionals come back to town for the final event of the season, the DP World Championships.