x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Classic encounter was learning experience for Jake Shepherd

The Englishman tells John McAuley about how he benefitted playing alongside 18-time winner from the European Tour.

Jake Shepherd won the Mena Tour Order of Merit last year.
Jake Shepherd won the Mena Tour Order of Merit last year.

That Miguel Angel Jimenez was not in a particularly good mood did not bother Jake Shepherd in the slightest.

The Mena Tour champion had been rewarded for finishing top of the inaugural tournament's Order of Merit with a place at February's Omega Dubai Desert Classic, and was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Having qualified for the weekend following rounds of 73 and 70, the young Englishman posted a three-over par 75 on Saturday to set a date with Jimenez, an 18-time winner on the European Tour and the champion at Emirates Golf Club just two years earlier.

The usually affable Spaniard, not often seen without a Vegas Robaina cigar in hand, seemed unsettled on this dark Dubai morning.

"We had a 7.21am tee time, it was pitch-black warming up and then Miguel gets to the first tee, is playing with someone he doesn't know, and asks his caddie for a cigar," said Shepherd as season two of the Mena Tour concludes this week at the Tour Championship in Al Ain.

"And the caddie couldn't find them. So Jimenez was exceptionally grumpy for some time. It took him a couple of hours to lighten up but once he did he was great fun.

"It was awesome. He found out it was my first European Tour event only on the 18th tee, so we chatted on the fairway and then afterwards in the scorer's hut.

"He gave me some really nice, wise words of encouragement, which was fantastic to hear from someone who has had a career like his."

Shepherd carded a 75, two shots better than his preeminent playing partner, to finish the tournament five-over par and tied-74th. The €2,825 (Dh13,400) was undoubtedly a welcome bonus, but it was the experience of competing with some of the world's best golfers that resonated strongest.

"To play in that was a huge experience, alongside those players and competing against them," he said. "And making the cut was something I needed as proof of my ability, because you always think you're good enough but don't know until you face these guys.

"The whole thing was immense, not just the week of the event but build-up the month before. When I arrived at the Classic on the Sunday before I was literally the first one on the tee.

"The tournament has everything - you're practising beside Rory [McIlroy], [Lee] Westwood and Freddie Couples.

"I floated through that week not knowing what was going on, but having a heck of a lot of fun."

Shepherd earned his place courtesy of a fine 2011 Mena Tour. The then-21 year old, nine months into his professional career, secured one of the three Desert Classic places on offer to the top trio of professionals with a joint-third finish in Ras Al Khaimah and then a play-off victory at the Tour Championship, the circuit's climax.

Unfortunately, a recent neck injury curtailed his title defence and limited his contribution to only three rounds from a possible 18 - "it's massively disappointing but I've accepted it" - but Shepherd, now based in Dubai, plans to confine to storage his clubs and commit to rehabilitation.

Qualifying schools for the Asian Tour (January) and the Canadian Tour (March) serve as considerable incentives to regain fitness, although Mena is never far from his thoughts.

"Without doubt the field has got stronger and is at a higher level with ex-European Tour guys like Ross McGowan and Stephen Dodd," Shepherd said.

"I'm glad the tour has kept the carrot of the Desert Classic. I'm sure the guys who qualify this week will have an unbelievable time next year, and I'm convinced eventually someone from Mena will really capitalise and have a great week and maybe make their mark on the Tour because the standard is getting that high.

"[Order of Merit leader] Zane Scotland's there and he's capable of anything. Mena will eventually produce some fireworks."

jmcauley@thenational.ae

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