Dubai home for Stephen Gallacher as he seeks missing spark
It's his Bathgate in the desert. 'It is like coming to your home club,' declared Stephen Gallacher, standing in the Dubai sunshine nearly 5,000 miles from where he cut his golfing teeth in West Lothian but feeling confident that a return to his happiest hunting ground on the European Tour can provide the 'spark' he's looking for to end a frustrating run of form.
There was definitely a swagger in the 41-year-old’s step as he marched into The Emirates Golf Club on Monday - and rightly so. Gallacher, after all, has a record on the Majlis Course here in recent years that is second to none. The Omega Dubai Desert Classic fell to the Scot in both 2013 and 2014, that historic double being sandwiched by a second and third place in the traditional third and final event on the European Tour’s Desert Swing.
It’s a classic case of a course suiting someone’s eye. Gallacher would probably say the same about the Old Course at St Andrews, where he recorded his breakthrough win on the circuit in the Dunhill Links Championship on 2004. But it’s this layout in the shadow of the skyscrapers in the nearby Dubai Marina that light up his eyes like no other.
“I think the weather first and foremost has helped me do well here,” Gallacher told The Scotsman after picking over the bones of his beloved Celtic losing to Ross County in the League Cup semi-finals on Sunday with another Hoops fanatic, Craig Connolly, who caddies for Martin Kaymer. “It’s not humid and it is generally breezy, which suited my game when I first came here. Since then it’s always been a place that I feel I can play well on.”
For his last 16 rounds here, he is a combined 71-under-par, 11 of those scores being in the 60s and the worst being a level-par 72. “You get some courses where you have to work harder to get round and change strategy,” he added. “But that’s certainly not the case with me here. This is a course where I know exactly what I am going to do.”
In contrast to the last two years, when he was centre of attention as the defending champion, Gallacher has arrived here on this occasion in the middle of a torrid spell. His hopes that a new year would bring better fortunes after a disappointing 2015 campaign have, so far at least, proved unfounded following missed cuts in both the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship and the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
“I’m not panicking at all as I know what golf is like,” he insisted. “You go through peaks and troughs and I’m in a trough at the moment. I’ve been here before. Everyone has been here before. Two years ago Rory [McIlroy] wasn’t playing as well as he can. You just need a spark to boost the confidence then you are flying again.
“I’d like to think that simply coming back here can give me a boost. I’m having an indifferent time, I know that. But it is one of those courses where I feel I can get something going. I know it well and I think that form coming in here doesn’t really matter.
“Finishing third [behind McIlroy] was one of my best performances last year. I’ve also got my family out, which is nice, and hopefully I can find a spark this week to get some momentum going for the rest of the year. I know I’ve won round here, so it’s a case of trying to get off to a good start, get myself in a good position heading into the weekend then take things from there.”
Gallacher shot rounds of 63, 70, 62 and 71 as he landed the spoils by three shots in 2013. Twelve months later, as the event celebrated its 25th anniversary, efforts of 66, 71, 63 and 72 were equally impressive as he came out on top again, this time in a field that contained McIlroy and Tiger Woods.
“I think winning when Rory was world No 1 at the time, and playing with him in three rounds out of four will always be a special memory,” recalled Gallacher. “When you’re doing something like that, it gives you great confidence as you know your game is in a decent place.”
Gallacher was due to join McIlroy in the Yas Links Invitational on Sunday, but decided at the last minute to skip the glittering pro-am in Abu Dhabi. “I’ve still got a niggling injury in my left hand,” he said, a problem that forced him to pull out of the BMW PGA Championship last May at Wentworth.
“I had a couple of injections in it then had two weeks off, But coming back and hitting balls for three weeks it has stiffened up a bit. I didn’t want to take any chances as far as competing here is concerned, so I pulled out of the Yas Links Invitational.”
As always, head greenkeeper Craig Haldane and his team have the Majlis layout in pristine nick, though, according to Scotland’s representative in the last Ryder Cup, it will present a slightly different test to recent years.
“The three courses we play on out here at this time of the year are all very different,” noted Gallacher. “Abu Dhabi is long and the rough is thick there with unbelievably fast greens. Qatar is generally windy but the greens were slow because of that.
“Here is a mixture of both. There’s rough, yes, but it’s not as thick as Abu Dhabi. It’s been set up hard and fast, so is going to be almost linksy this week. They’ve taken a lot of moisture out of the fairways and cut them down a grain one way.
“It’s a totally different layout this year, so you are going to have to think a bit more about the danger of running through fairways. If you add in a bit of wind, it will be a great test.”
Despite his recent struggles, no-one is relishing it more than the man who feels as though this is his home from home.
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