The New Year
The brave new world of the DP World Tour had something of a slapstick start at the end of last year.
What was supposed to be a season-opening three-week South African safari turned into something akin to the mountain pass scene in Carry On Up The Khyber, with Ashley Chesters playing Private Widdle, pluckily hanging around while the rest of his regiment deserted their positions (specifically, they made a dash for the airport and then home).
Eventually, even Chesters beat a hasty 36-hole retreat, albeit rewarded with third place and a prized start in the Open this July.
Hopefully, the Carry On references can now be safely set aside as we look forward to a fresh start for golf outside the PGA Tour.
That said, further conflict is inevitable because week three of the Desert Swing will coincide with the Saudi International, once a part of the schedule, now an integral part of the looming threat of Greg Norman and Saudi Arabia’s quest to place pretending to grow golf before anything of any fundamental value to mankind, like democracy or human rights.
The Saudi shadow explains both the rebranding of the circuit and also the increased interaction with the PGA Tour, which will be another key feature of 2022. In July the Scottish Open will be a very different experience, with a co-sanctioned, and therefore higher quality, field. Journeymen this side of the pond have the consolation of two starts Stateside in the form of the Barbasol and Barracua Championships.
Those will not be the only changes to the schedule. There are returns (Covid-willing) to India, France, Cyprus, Belgium, and China, plus a new event in Japan.
And the highlight of the year? Undoubtedly, the 150th Open at the home of golf. The high jinks and fireworks anticipated that week can best be measured by the gulp-inducing cost of accommodation in and around the auld grey toun.
Frankly, the best chance of not being bank-breakingly out of pocket that week is to actually win an event on the DP World Tour – and who might be the next man to achieve that? Let’s take a look.
This year the tournament moves to a new course – the 7,200 yard Yas Links.
It lays claim to being “the first true links in the Middle East”, an assertion that is, on the one hand, somewhat flawed by the Paspalum grass, but, on the other, bolstered by the identity of the architect.
Kyle Phillips is a respected American creator of new courses and plenty of them have a) been inspired by the oldest form of the game, and b) proved popular with both players and fans.
Among his stable of designs are Kingsbarns and Dundonald Links (modern links designs), and also Verdura and Bernardus (“links-like” layouts).
There was a time when Yas Links hosted a regular pro-am tourney on a Monday during the Desert Swing, and when Graeme McDowell played it he said: “Kyle has created something special here. The way the greens roll, the way they’re shaped, the turf – authentic is a great word to describe it. A genuine links course in the desert.”
He added the slightly less insightful (but wonderfully batty): “Sometimes you can close your eyes and think you’re at Kingsbarns.”
Who might thrive this week? Well, second and third picks take heed of both the Phillips and links factor, but the first is inspired by a different thread of thinking, one that is actually the result of scratching a reminder to myself in the notebook during last November’s RSM Classic.
In Adam Scott’s pre-tournament chat with the press that week he explained that he’d been pretty low finishing at the Open earlier in the year, feeling that the Major season, and all his hopes, had passed him by.
He then added: “But it was around that time that I could see a few things changing. Equipment-wise at the time, but then I began to reap some good stuff. I lost a play-off at the Wyndham, made the top five in Vegas. I’m now more calm and feeling more optimistic than five months ago.”
He added an intimation that he’ll play more European Tour golf this year and then became really quite positive.
“Next year my goal is to win tournaments and hopefully big ones,” he said, before addressing the holidays: “A break will probably be good. I love playing golf (but) if you starve me of the competition, and the opportunity of playing for a little bit, you come out very hungry and in a good space to play another season. I think that’s important.”
It got me thinking: what’s his record like in the first start of a new year? Turns out, it’s very good.
He’s made 22 of them as a professional, registering two wins and another five top seven finishes. (And, for what it’s worth, he’s also got another win and a pair of runner-up finishes in his second start of the year.)
So, a break has done him good in the past, he’s spoken of being hungry this year, and he was feeling better about his game late in 2021.
He’s also a two-time winner in the Middle East (both in the Qatar Masters at Doha) and he’s far from a mug on the linksland, if that angle pans out (he’s a five-time top 10 finisher in the Open and he really should have won it in 2012).
He’s a solid each-way option to start the year.
The next two selections are long-shots, but the top of the market is strong (Collin Morikawa loves winning, Rory McIlroy likes the Middle East, Viktor Hovland adores Paspalum) and the links angle tempts me to give these two fellows a chance (note the reduced stake, however).
First up is Sweden’s Joakim Lagergren whose fondness for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship is remarkable. In fact, he’s teed it up there six times, finished in the top five four times and was T12th on another occasion.
Throughout his logbook is a string of good scores at Kingbarns, including a 66 to open his account in 2016 and a 62 in 2019.
Nor is his fondness for Phillips designs limited to that one track because Lagergren won the 2018 Sicilian Open at Verdura, six years after he thrashed a first round 66 there.
That win four years ago came a year after he very nearly claimed a maiden win at the Qatar Masters. He lost a play-off, but proved he’s capable of excellent golf in this part of the world.
He played quite nicely at the end of last year, making eight cuts in 10 starts before landing a top 30 in the DP World Tour Championship, and the highlight of the run was second in the Dunhill Links.
There’s no doubt he’s an outsider, but a very lively one.
The second leftfield option isn’t especially unlikely if the linksland plays any genuine part this week because England’s Matthew Southgate is never happier than when granted the opportunity to play that form of the game.
The bullet points on his links CV read: member at Carnoustie, winner on the Old Course in his amateur days, minor tour champion at Royal St George’s, regular Open qualifier at Royal Cinque Ports, two-time top 15 finisher in the Open, and runner-up in both the Irish Open at Portstewart and the Dunhill Links.
In and of itself, that record is excellent, but we need a little more before backing him in this part of the world.
The clincher comes in the form of his first-ever end-of-round lead on the DP World Tour which came in the 2018 Oman Open at Al Mouj. Like this week, that track is in the desert, by the sea, breezy and was inspired by the linksland.
His 2021 was heavily reliant on one result – second in the European Open – and he opted for a complete reset as early as late October.
But he’s been training in the Middle East for a while and has past experience of the track. I’m not suggesting his defeat of French tennis player Sandrine Testud in a bizarre pro-celebrity team match is worth a fig, but it does mean he’s not new to the test.
There’s enough in the rest of the package at this big price.