THE European Tour has served up final-day turnarounds at the South African Open and the Abu Dhabi Championship to make for a compelling start to the 2015 season.
History suggests the tight finishes and drama will continue at the Qatar Masters, starting today.
Spanish star Sergio Garcia has been at the centre of dramatic finales in Doha over the past two years, losing out to Chris Wood’s 72nd-hole eagle in 2013 but returning in 2014 to win a play-off with Mikko Ilonen after shooting a closing 65.
Garcia is back for the second leg of the desert swing for his 2015 debut, meaning he is behind Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson – fellow members of the world’s top six who were both in competitive action in Abu Dhabi last week and will also play in Qatar.
“I have been quite fortunate to do well here for most of the years I’ve played,” said Garcia, who is looking to become the first champion to successfully defend his title.
“I came close to winning a few times, so it was nice to get over the line last year.
“Two years ago I was close to winning, one shot back, and last year it finally happened so I’m excited to continue the trend.
“I want to play as well as I can and put up a good defence of my title. I’ve started my season in Qatar for the last few years, and I always enjoy coming back. I have some good memories and hopefully they can inspire me to have another successful week.”
World No 2 Stenson seems to thrive in the Middle East and his four wins in the region tie him with Ernie Els for most European Tour titles in the region.
“It has been a good hunting ground – I guess I’ve figured out a decent way to play the course, and I’ve done some good scores over the years in windy conditions, as well,” said the Swede, who goes out with Els and Garcia in the opening rounds having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi last week in his first appearance of the year.
“I’ve got a strong pairing with Ernie, second week now playing with Ernie, and Sergio is back in action, so we’ll have good fun out there. It’s a good group, so looking forward to it. It’s just a good way for me to start off the season and I enjoy playing these weeks.”
While Stenson missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, Rose recovered from a scrappy first 18 holes to post rounds of 69, 69 and 65 for a 12th-place finish and show he is finding his form after extended time off over Christmas.
“I’m here these two weeks to obviously compete as best I can but also to get a read of where my game is,” Rose said.
“I felt I made rapid improvements as the week went on. I’ll be more competitive [in Qatar], for sure.
“I’m going there with a bit of confidence now.”
Rose plays on the PGA Tour but has chosen to play his opening events of the year on the European Tour to get some points stored up in the Race to Dubai.
The No 5-ranked Englishman is looking for his first win since back-to-back victories last summer at the Quicken Loans National and the Scottish Open.
Top-ranked Rory McIlroy is taking a week off ahead of the Dubai Desert Classic, as is US Open champion Martin Kaymer, who blew a ten-shot lead during the final round in Abu Dhabi to lose to France’s Gary Stal. It’s been an early-year theme on the European Tour, with Andy Sullivan coming from seven shots back in the final round to win in South Africa the week before.
Stal arrives in Doha ranked a career-high No 103 and still wondering how he managed to claw back the big deficit to Kaymer to claim his first title on the European Tour. French golf is on the rise, with Victor Dubuisson in Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning team last year and Alexander Levy winning twice in 2014.
“It’s just one [player] pulling the other, basically,” Stal said of the French resurgence. “Hopefully, it will be more after me.”