Martin Dempster: Mirage of the Desert Swing

The Abu Dhabi Golf Club remains an elusive target. Picture: Getty
The Abu Dhabi Golf Club remains an elusive target. Picture: Getty
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It carries a total prize pot of $7.85 million and will feature Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler, as well as several other players from the world’s top 50. It also promises to be an enthralling three weeks which will whet our appetites for bigger battles that lie ahead in 2016.

For some, however, the European Tour’s Desert Swing is a stark reminder that securing a foothold on the circuit is one thing but getting opportunities to actually play is another. In short, precious few of the graduates from either the Challenge Tour or Qualifying School in 2015 will feature in the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship, the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters or the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.

At the end of last week, the red cut-off line on the entry list for the first of those events, which gets underway in the shadow of the magnificent falcon-shaped clubhouse at Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Thursday, was sitting in a position where not a single player from either of those categories was in the field.

Admittedly, that will have since moved to allow the likes of Spaniard Nacho Elvira, a three-time winner on the second-tier circuit last season, and Road to Oman victor Ricardo Gouveia from Portugal to test themselves against the big boys.

For the likes of Andrew McArthur and Jamie McLeary, though, there is little chance of them making the starting line for this week’s event after the Scottish pair found themselves standing as 12th and 14th reserves respectively last Friday.

Twelve months ago, nine players from category 13 – the top 15 from the previous year’s Challenge Tour campaign – got into the Abu Dhabi event, a list, incidentally, that included Korean Ben An, who, of course, went on to win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth later in the season.

Based on that, it seems as though McArthur was being over-optimistic when he seemed relaxed about deciding not to start his 2016 campaign in either the Alfred Dunhill Championship in South Africa before Christmas or the BMW SA Open and Joburg Open over the past fortnight.

Both Glaswegian McArthur and McLeary, from Edinburgh, will almost certainly get into next week’s Qatar Masters in Doha but, again looking at where the all-important red line fell last year, it is going to be very tight as far as their hopes of joining McIlroy in Dubai when he defends the Desert Classic at The Emirates the week after that.

In McArthur’s case, he is probably only to get one chance over the next three weeks to get his season off to the sort of flying start that can make all the difference when it comes down to the business end of the schedule, with players scrapping away like boxers to stay inside the top 110 on the Race to Dubai to hang on to their card for the following year.

It’s only natural, of course, that sponsors want as many of the game’s big names as possible in their fields, with Spieth’s presence in Abu Dhabi providing that particular event a huge boost as the world No 1 follows in the footsteps of both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in recent years by locking horns with McIlroy.

Spectators at both that tournament and the one in Dubai will also enjoy getting a glimpse of Bryson Dechambeau, Spieth’s slightly eccentric but hugely-talented compatriot, as he embarks on what is surely his final season as an amateur.

It has to be soul destroying, though, that the players supposedly moving up the ladder, either as a Challenge Tour graduate or by securing a card at the Qualifying School, just don’t get the starts their endeavours deserve and let’s hope that Keith Pelley, the new European Tour chief executive, has that particular thorny problem as one of the things to look at on his “to do” list.

It’s impossible, of course, to accommodate everyone and that’s why a category system is in place, though why there are three separate medical ones does seem extreme, with no fewer than six players – Simon Khan, Jin Jeong, Brett Rumford, Steve Webster, Matthew Baldwin and Simon Dyson – all in the Abu Dhabi field through one of those brackets.

Spare a thought, therefore, for Chris Doak, who was struggling badly with a wrist injury as he lost his card at the end of last season and now, just 12 months after playing in all three events in the desert, finds himself in the golfing wilderness. Definitely one to look at in more detail here in the near future.

March of time brings along another admirable Syme

It is not only Jock MacVicar, doyen of Scottish golf writers, who is now being reminded that life is ticking on, by reporting on the sons of players about whom he once penned tales.

It doesn’t seem too long ago that I remember writing about a lad from Ladybank called Stuart Syme as he secured Scotland honours as an amateur, yet his 20-year-old son, Connor, has just become the Australian Amateur champion.

I don’t know Connor as well as his father, the current PGA in Scotland captain who has breathed new life into the Drumoig Golf Centre since taking it over, but I can safely say he’s not just a talented young man but also someone who looks as though he won’t let a noteworthy early-season success go to his head.

Towards the end of last year, Syme paid a visit to Turnhouse for the South East District Open, an event that features precious few Scottish internationals these days, yet there was not even a hint of him acting like a “Big Time Charlie”.

Like Paul Lawrie with his two sons, Craig and Michael, Syme snr is not a “pushy parent”. He’s been a huge influence on Connor and will continue to be, but not in a way that will suffocate him as he bids carve out his own career in the game.