x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Desert Swing is hot, hot, hot

The European Tour can be justly proud of three thrillers in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai as the stage is set for an exciting season ahead.

Spectators watch from in front of the leaderboard during the Dubai play-off between Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lee Westwood.
Spectators watch from in front of the leaderboard during the Dubai play-off between Miguel Angel Jimenez and Lee Westwood.

The European Tour campaign is only eight weeks old but if it can sustain over the next nine months the quality and excitement that has been witnessed in these parts during the last three tournaments it is going to be a season to remember. Given a gentle warm-up by the South African Swing in which Charl Schwartzel put down an early Race to Dubai marker by winning back-to-back tournaments in his homeland, a host of the world's leading professionals roared into overdrive when greeted by the conditions at three Middle East venues.

Sunday's thrilling twilight finish to the Dubai Desert Classic, when the veteran Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez edged out Lee Westwood by prevailing in a three-hole play-off that he always looked like losing, was the crowning glory of a Desert Swing which opened with a fiercely contested tournament in Abu Dhabi and continued with a vintage Qatar Masters in Doha. One of the region's most prominent administrators enthused as at least six players remained in contention to win the Classic with only a few holes remaining: "The Desert Swing has been far better than the West Coast Swing."

It would be inappropriate to attribute that remark to a badge of office as officials who help European Tour events run successfully are frowned upon if they show disrespect to what is still acknowledged as the superior US PGA Tour which last month was based in California, but few would argue with that bold assertion. Not many of the non-major and non-World Golf Championship events on the western side of the Atlantic can match the charismatic line-up presented by the organisers of the Abu Dhabi Championship which gave the Desert Swing a fantastic opener.

Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy, resuming their Race to Dubai rivalry, were the main attractions on the National Course. But they were in top-class company as previous champions Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey returned to happy hunting grounds along with Australia's top player Geoff Ogilvy, Spain's best Sergio Garcia and the UAE's adopted son Henrik Stenson, of Sweden. England's Ian Poulter joined that elite band in claiming world top 10 status by going within a whisker of denying Kaymer a second triumph on the National Course.

Poulter gave everything over four entertaining days in the capital but was powerless to prevent the German from making the decisive swoop for the distinctive Falcon Trophy by nailing a three wood to the 72nd hole to set up a winning birdie. It had proved equally hard to forecast the eventual champion from another star-studded line-up in Qatar the following week going into the final round in Doha. Westwood looked to have got to grips with the club problems which led to a missed cut at Abu Dhabi and was homing in on another Gulf honour until Sweden's Robert Karlsson hit a stunning purple patch.

Karlsson, who preceded Westwood to European Order of Merit honours in 2008 but was badly handicapped last year by a damaged retina, romped out of a tightly bunched pack for an emphatic three-shot victory and announce: "I'm glad to be back." Jimenez made similar pleased-to-be-back noises at the Emirates club on Sunday night as his persistent efforts on the Majlis Course over the last two decades were belatedly rewarded with a Classic victory at the ripe old age of 46.

The cigar-smoking, pony-tailed Spaniard, who holed the bravest of 15-footers to stay with Westwood before settling the play-off at the third extra hole, is a comparative youngster compared with Tom Watson, a true legend of the game who was making his career debut in the Middle East. Watson, 60, echoed the words of his 49-year-old compatriot Kenny Perry, the world No 13, who had enjoyed a similar experience in Doha the previous week in expressing how perfectly suited the region is for professional golf at the top level.

The eight-time major champion did not travel over merely for the ride, though. He dealt impressively with unfamiliar terrain and led in the Dubai clubhouse for much of the final day, rekindling memories of his extraordinary performance at Turnberry last year when he came within one eight-foot putt of a sixth British Open title. Players of the status of Watson and Perry do not issue gratuitous compliments to their European counterparts just for the sake of it. They were enthusiastic in their praise because high praise was thoroughly justified.

The Desert Swing will do well to surpass next year what it provided to golf lovers this time round. If it does then a wonderful three-week extravaganza is in store as more famous names strive to relieve Kaymer, Karlsson and Jimenez of their richly deserved and splendidly achieved honours. @Email:wjohnson@thenational.ae