Rory hasn't finished worse than 21st in his seven starts since, with four tops. The eight starts from June's resumption to the arrival of his daughter returned zero tops, and he was outside the top 30 six times. Short-game trouble is the statistical explanation for how he played last summer, but I prefer a more subjective one: McIlroy just couldn't get into competition mode, with parenthood on the horizon and no fans at the course to help generate that energy he needs.
On that score, even a few thousand fans in Phoenix is a positive, but the key factors are that he's in a good place mentally and is driving the ball exceptionally again, his iron play has improved, and he's putted well in every single event since his wife gave birth. With his short-game holding its own, he looks back in the sort of form which, don't forget, had seen him win four of his 24 starts before the aborted PLAYERS Championship, hitting the top 10 in 14 more of them.
Scottsdale should be a great fit for McIlroy, especially if he can dial in his irons just a shade. He can go out and attack the course with driver, reducing all three par-fives to a mid-iron and knocking his three-wood onto the driveable 17th. And while much is made of his approach play - plainly, he's not as good a wedge player as Thomas - his relative struggles are exaggerated by where he is hitting it to. Put another way, it's quite difficult to gain substantial ground with approaches played from ideal positions, but McIlroy with a wedge is going to hit the ball closer than whoever else with a seven-iron.
Having led the field in greens hit last week despite ranking 68th in driving accuracy, he should be able to be more aggressive with his approaches at this easier course, where the greens have been softened by rain in the build-up. As for the surfaces themselves, he said it all himself at Torrey Pines: "I'm looking forward to getting on some truer greens.
Returning to the original statement: I think this course is McIlroy's dream. And thankfully, when I shared this idea a couple of years ago, a highly-respected data analyst who worked with Ryder Cup-winning consultants 15th Club at the time revealed that Scottsdale ranked as the number one fit for Rory on the PGA Tour. Let's hope we're both right. I put up Daniel Berger when last sighted in the Sony Open and he played solid golf for seventh, bemoaning easy conditions which he felt kept him out of contention.
Two wins at Southwind and another at Colonial confirm that the Floridian doesn't want a shootout, and the slight toughening of conditions from Waialae to Scottsdale is in his favour, a fact underlined by a strong record here. Im was the same price as Berger with most firms at the Sony, where he just never got anything going on the greens.
As such it was encouraging to hear him talk about a couple of small changes to his set-up and method going into the American Express, where he returned to his best and ranked second in putting. It was disappointing to see him make two huge mistakes in that event, having been atop the leaderboard at halfway, and the same can be said of Sunday's back-nine at Torrey Pines.
Briefly, Im got to within a shot of Patrick Reed, but bogeys at the 10th and 11th halted his progress and a double at the 12th ended his chance altogether. These mistakes are a little troubling from such an assured ball-striker, but closer inspection reveals his downward spiral in the Farmers began with two very short misses on bumpy, poa annua greens. As will be clear to regular readers by now, the Korean is a significantly better putter on bermuda and, having been compensated with a bigger price, I'm willing to trust him to cut out the errors in his long-game.
Matsuyama has to be considered given his flawless Scottsdale record bar withdrawing with an injury in , when he'd made a bright start as defending champion. Still, he was very disappointing last week, his long-game deserting him, and I can't take six or eight points shorter following a share of 53rd place at a course he does also enjoy. JB Holmes, Phil Mickelson and Matsuyama are the latest three to take this title more than once, Holmes beating Mickelson in a play-off two years after a seven-shot romp on debut, and Fowler looks to have his game back in the sort of shape required to complete his own double.
He should've won here in , a combination of misfortune, a lack of ruthlessness and Matsuyama confining him to one of the more painful runner-up finishes of his career. And he probably should've won it in , too, when a costly decision to lay-up at the 15th on Sunday saw Hunter Mahan take the title. Fowler then is a course specialist, with a win, two runner-up finishes, fourth and 13th place among his 12 visits. He's carded a round of 62 and even last year, when struggling and defending his title, he responded to a nightmare first-round 74 to shoot and climb to a position of respectability.
It was Fowler's driver which really hurt him in , but he ranked third in the American Express and sixth in the Farmers for his best two-week run since It's a hugely encouraging indicator and with his approach play solid and consistent, this one-time outstanding putter only needs that element to return to start contending once more. Here at Scottsdale, where he's led the field in putting on two occasions and has been inside the top 10 on four more, Fowler should leave behind a terrible display 70th of 79 on the bumpy greens of Torrey Pines, where he has struggled badly for a long time now.
In contrast he's gained strokes on these greens six years running and if he extends that to seven, while continuing to drive the ball so well, he has every chance. Four of Fowler's five PGA Tour wins have been on bermuda greens, as was his correlating victory in Abu Dhabi on the European Tour, and he signed off the Farmers with two quality approach shots to set up close-range birdies.
If he can get off to a good start on Thursday, I can see his confidence returning very quickly. For one reason or another, that course has seldom witnessed a first-time winner, with Rahm the only recent exception, so to finish inside the top 10 was a massive effort for this outstanding youngster. That's why I'm a little surprised he's only had his odds trimmed, rather than slashed, as Scottsdale has been much more open to a breakout performance such as those produced by Brooks Koepka, Holmes and Stanley in recent years.
In , Nate Lashley took third on debut, matching Louis Oosthuizen's performance in , and there's nothing all that complicated about the challenge here. Zalatoris should find the course to his liking, especially having won at altitude in Colorado on the Korn Ferry Tour and finished fifth in the Nevada desert at TPC Summerlin, where Simpson, Fowler, Koepka and plenty of other Phoenix champions go particularly well.
Crucially, Zalatoris has already established himself as a world-class iron player. He's probably second only to Thomas in this field the stats would say third, Russell Henley being right up there too , and if we do see another champion who leads the way with his approaches, he's an obvious candidate. With top-eight finishes in four of his seven starts on the PGA Tour dating back to the US Open, where he was sixth, he looks ready to win. Zalatoris appears to be of similar quality and this looks set to be a really good course for his abundant power and elite approach work.
As ever I've had a good look at some of those on offer at massive prices, but as none make the staking plan I'll spin through the pick of them. Matt NeSmith is a rock-solid ball-striker in the Stadler mould, he was eighth at Summerlin, and his approach play was really good again last week. He's respected along with Robby Shelton, who I really like, and who has shown flashes of what he can do over the last six to nine months.
Shelton is plainly more comfortable on bermuda greens so this is as good a test as there is for him on the west coast, a comment which also applies to Keith Mitchell who threatened to land the place money for us in Hawaii a couple of starts back. The two who I really considered however were Aaron Wise, a good desert player who is getting back to where he belongs and was undone by shocking putting last time, and Wyndham Clark, who has no putting issues, is closing in on his first win, has plenty of experience at altitude, lives in Scottsdale, and opened with a 61 here last year.
Burns has produced some disappointing rounds in contention lately, but the fact that he's been in one of the final two groups off on Sunday in three of his last seven tournaments tells you how close he is to a breakthrough.
Finished T21 at this event last season but was in the top-5 going into Sunday. Missed cut last weekend but opened with a Putting is a high variance part of his game but he's got upside. Won here in and only once over par in twelve competitive rounds at Waialae CC. Finished making six consecutive cuts and form is on the upturn, fuelled by a reliable putter.
With a big field to examine, we look at the trends of past champions for pointers. Paddy Power are paying 7 places at the European Masters. Coral are paying 7 places at the European Masters. Pebble Beach: Mark Hubbard. Golf Dubai Desert Classic. European Masters European Masters 7 Places.
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Sony took over as title sponsor in An interesting fact … read more…. The field is restricted to golfers who won a tournament on Tour during the previous season. This is the … read more…. The tournament is contested in Mexico and this year will be the fourteenth staging of the event. From — it was an … read more…. The Seaside Course is the headline course but in the Plantation Course entered the rotation.
Those teeing-it-up at the RSM Classic … read more…. The resulting schedule reshuffle caused … read more…. Lowry shouldn't have any trouble putting that behind him, and he returns to Saudi Arabia for a second go having finished 13th last year, a really unfortunate bogey at the final hole of round one leaving him with plenty to do.
The Open champion played beautifully for the most part, ranking third from tee-to-green, and it came after a similar start to the year having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and stepped up on that in Dubai. His approach play has really started to fire since the back-end of , and he drove it as well last week as he has since his Open-winning season, so if those putts start to go in his game looks good enough to win.
His form under links conditions and in the Portugal Masters correlates well - the latter through Lewis, Levy, Dean Burmester and more - and if he can win a WGC at Firestone, one of the longest par 70s on the planet, he can overcome a potential distance handicap here, too. It has been a quiet start to for the Belgian, who definitely remains on the Ryder Cup radar not least because a bit of muscle will help at Whistling Straits.
But 41st in Abu Dhabi was a decent effort given he was still struggling with his grip in a Rolex Series event he couldn't afford to miss, before he crept up to 27th in Dubai last week. Having fired a first-round 63 in the inaugural Saudi International and closed with a 65 for third place last year, Royal Greens looks as good a venue for him as there is in the Middle East and it definitely compares with Albatross Resort, where he's a two-time winner of the Czech Masters, when it comes to the leaderboards we've been left with.
A spot of wind isn't an issue as we know from his victory in Denmark, and while his iron play has dipped, it's his driving which I suspect will dictate his overall performance. On that score there's good news as having gone off the boil before Christmas, he ranked fourth in Abu Dhabi and 14th in Dubai, setting him up perfectly for a return here. Pieters has ranked third and 13th off the tee in two starts here and third and first from tee-to-green. It's simply been the putter holding him back 62nd and 69th , as he gave McDowell 12 shots on the greens and was beaten by three, a short missed putt for eagle at the 72nd hole underlining his struggles.
So this happened…. If everything goes well, chipping will be added next week. That's a chance we'll have to take, but for a couple of weeks during the break he could only practice putting, and his performance with the flat-stick last week was one of the best of his career. Was it a red herring, given that those greens increased the random factor?
Possibly, but if there's a course at which to chance him it's this one. Victor Perez is the other one at double-figure odds I looked twice at, largely because he's gone well in both starts here, he's established himself as a broadly excellent desert player, and his Dunhill Links win is a nice pointer. All that being said he has made a slow start to the year and I'm a little worried he'll be weighed down by the Ryder Cup, in a way similar to Alex Levy three years ago. Levy of course was aiming for a higher goal - to be the Frenchman on the team in Paris - but Perez has his own uniquely difficult burden, having been in A1 position to qualify before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
With performances worth more as we edge closer to September, Perez isn't quite back to square one but it may well feel like it. Clearly, Dubuisson is among the riskiest conveyances in the sport, partly because he might on a whim decide he'd rather spend the week fishing. So far in his career, Dubuisson has won twice - both at the same course in the Turkish Airlines Open, beating strong fields along the way.
His other standout European Tour performances have come in the DP World Tour Championship, where on three occasions he's been inside the top four. Then there's the Nedbank Challenge, where his last three appearances read , and Kuala Lumpur, where he's finished 11th and third in two goes. He also seems to quite like Binhai Lake , and has finished exactly ninth on three occasions at Doha. Most of these courses, Sun City in particular, encourage driver upon driver, and my overriding memories of both wins in Turkey are of him hitting it and finding it.
It would be fair to say he doesn't get wrapped up in the intricacies of the sport, and like the mercurial Bubba Watson albeit at a lower level, just how engaged he is, just how convinced he is that he can score, often sets him up for success or failure and in turn explains why he plays well at a select group of courses. May I just say how much admiration and respect I have for professional golfer Victor Dubuisson's Instagram page.
Last week's venue is not one of them - he's now played the Dubai Desert Classic seven times, missed five cuts, averages over-par, and has never made the top For that reason alone we can ignore it, or even take encouragement from the fact he was a shot from making the weekend. Before it, he defied a bad start in Abu Dhabi - his first competitive round in 15 weeks - and climbed to 25th at one of those courses he does appear to enjoy.
Throughout both, Dubuisson's ball-striking has been very good, especially at Abu Dhabi where he was eighth off the tee and hit plenty of quality approaches. Go back to and we again see encouraging signs, with two top finishes from just seven starts and a very respectable effort at Wentworth. While we all want to see him more often, when he has played, he has actually played rather well. And so we come to Saudi Arabia, and one of those courses.
Dubuisson sat 97th after the first round of the edition, then shot to climb to 18th. On his return, he started - that's under across those six rounds in succession - to earn a place in the final group, where his reunion with Ryder Cup pal McDowell only went to plan for one of them, Dubuisson faltering as he finished sixth. On both occasions, he's driven it brilliantly and that's what I think it comes down to. When he can stand on a tee and hit driver after driver, he remains a hugely capable player.
At the courses we know he likes, he has to be considered, and those past Ryder Cup, WGC and Rolex Series exploits offer some hope that he could even secure a hugely popular third professional win. If he actually wants to, that is. This big-hitting Kiwi also looks to have done nothing special so far this year, but he too was back from a long break when teeing it up in Abu Dhabi MC by one , and after an opening 73 in Dubai he showed signs that his game might be coming together.
Primarily, Fox's big strength is actually approach play, which has been of a very high standard for some time. That was in evidence on his final start of , at Wentworth, and he's moved through the gears since returning, ranking sixth last week over in Dubai. For such a powerful player, the fact he doesn't figure all that highly in the off-the-tee charts reveals that he struggles badly to hit fairways, and is prone to a big wide.
In fact it's nine starts now since he last hit more than half of the fairways, and that performance at Celtic Manor helped produce his strongest driving stats of the year. My hope is that here in Saudi Arabia, he can find that advantage without necessarily having to find the short stuff.
That underlines the reality of this course. You can stray, you can escape when missing by a mile, and you can make up a lot of ground by launching one to within a few yards of the green. Fox has proven it, and if he can make it three years in succession of big off-the-tee gains, there's no reason he can't extend strong form figures of The fact that his best high-profile form has come in Rolex Series events on links golf courses means that he should be able to adapt to whatever conditions we're presented with, and for the third year running I expect his best desert form to come at the course which should suit him above all others.
It's rare that I rely so much on course form as in generally I tend to think it does get overplayed, although it would've led to both winners last week. That said, the influx of overseas talent means we've a selection of candidates here who've shown they can score around Royal Greens, including the likes of Hao-tong Li and Gavin Green, and so many of them are on offer at huge prices.
As for Li, he's another who has thrived off the tee here, but is currently driving the ball very poorly and shooting some big numbers as a result. It's not impossible that he could remind us all of the class which saw him win the Dubai Desert Classic at Rory McIlroy's expense, especially as his iron play has improved, and he too is interesting. Wilco Nienaber has made a very poor start to the year but volatility is to be expected when you hit the ball as hard as he does, and if this does turn into a repeat of he could quickly leave behind a confidence-draining fortnight, but it was Francesco Laporta I found hardest to leave out.
In on a sponsor's invitation, Laporta struck the ball fabulously in Abu Dhabi only to miss the cut by one having had 67 putts.