STEPHEN Gallacher may have work on his hands before there is a golf club in these parts bearing his name but Ernie Els, a man who boasts such a claim – complete with “The Big Easy” restaurant – already believes the Lothians player has arrived in golf’s “top echelon”.
As Gallacher bids to join Els and only four others as a European Tour hat-trick winner by lifting the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title for the third year running, he has been paid a huge compliment by the South African four-times major champion.
“Stephen is one of the top players now,” said Els as he prepared to partner Gallacher, together with his compatriot Branden Grace in today’s opening round at the Majlis Course at the Emirates Golf Club. “He is in the top echelon – right at the top of the group.”
Twelve months ago, on the 25th anniversary of the event, Gallacher became the first player to record back-to-back wins in the “Major of the Middle East”, beating a star-studded field that included both Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy.
That was one of eight top-10 finishes for Gallacher during his 2014 campaign, the last of which, third in the Italian Open in the final qualifying event for the Ryder Cup, helped secure the 40-year-old one of Paul McGinley’s wild cards for September’s match at Gleneagles.
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“When you make the Ryder Cup and start winning on a regular basis, you separate yourself from the rest and Stephen has definitely done that,” added Els, who is in a good position to offer such an opinion, having racked up close to 50 victories between the European Tour and PGA Tour.
Only Els, Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, Ian Woosnam and Colin Montgomerie have won the same European Tour event three years in a row. Els, in fact, has achieved the feat twice, first in the PGA Championship at Wentworth (1994-96) then the Heineken Classic at Royal Melbourne (2002-04).
He’s also won this event three times – his maiden European Tour victory in 1994 then again in 2002 and 2005 – so is in exactly the same boat as Gallacher when he talks about feeling comfortable on every tee on a course that has one of the most spectacular backdrops in the game.
“Here is where I also feel the course suits my eye better than anywhere else, although Royal Melbourne and, of course, Wentworth are others,” admitted the 45-year-old. “I’ve won three times here but also had three second places and been third another three times.
“When you have good first experiences of a course, it leaves you feeling good about it. I came here in ’93 and finished eighth in my first event in Dubai, then won it in ’94.
“That gave me good vibes about the place. It’s the same if you have a nice girlfriend. You keep having good thoughts about her, too,” he laughed.
While aware of how well Gallacher has played here in recent years – his double triumph came after finishing tenth in 2011 then runner-up 12 months later – the two-times Open and US Open champion had a word of warning for the Bathgate man heading into this year’s event.
“You know what, you don’t think about it,” he said, recalling his hat-trick successes. “When I did it, I went there knowing I liked the courses and you feed off those nice vibes. You just can’t go into an event thinking: ‘I’m going to win this for the third year in a row’.
“But Stephen has a great touch around here, so he has every bloody chance of doing it. I believe his scoring average is 67 and I’m sure he’ll be going out again with exactly the same gameplan. Stephen is right when he says it’s like an old-fashioned course. There are a lot of draws out here and a couple of fades as well here and there. It’s a shot-makers course, absolutely. The greens are unbelievable and, if you are on your game, you can really score out here. Length is a good factor and Stephen has that, so it will be an asset for him again this week.”
In addition to Els – and the Springbok fancies his chances of chalking up win No 4 after showing some good early- season signs after looking at old footage of his swing along with coach Claude Harmon – Gallacher’s title rivals include world No 1 Rory McIlroy and second-ranked Henrik Stenson, as well as the likes of Sergio Garcia and Graeme McDowell.
McDowell lost to Gallacher in a play-off when the Scot made his European Tour breakthrough at the Dunhill Links Championship in 2004. The Ulsterman has since become a major winner after landing the 2010 US Open, but he also believes Gallacher is starting to fulfil his true potential.
“Stevie maybe didn’t kick on the way he might have expected after beating me in 2004, but careers kind of mature at different rates,” said McDowell. “But to make the Ryder Cup team in the style he did last year was fantastic and he’s certainly growing as a player and going from strength to strength.
“His talents are there for all to see. Obviously history beckons this week with a possible three-peat and he’s an exceptional player. He hits it a long way and has got a great attitude.”
Joining Gallacher in the final leg of the “Gulf Swing” are seven compatriots – Paul Lawrie, Marc Warren, Scott Jamieson, Richie Ramsay, Chris Doak, Craig Lee and David Drysdale.