When the current Open champion is overshadowed by another player you know something special is about to happen. This week at the Dubai Desert Classic it is the first appearance of Tiger Woods in a European Tour event for the first time for 18 months. The former world number one missed the cut in the Farmers Insurance Open in the States last week but there were no signs of the old magic and 50/1 this week may prove to be a massive overreaction to his injury problems.
Henrik Stenson won the Open Championship at Troon last year after an epic head-to-head with Phil Mickelson over the fourth round. Mickelson is on one of his old stomping grounds this week in the Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona. The event is famous for attracting huge crowds and Mickelson relishes the raucous atmosphere. It would make for a great double if he won the event while his old nemesis Woods picked up the trophy in Dubai. The Transatlantic double on the two over forties pays 1325/1 and even the place element comes in at 65/1.
The Dubai Desert Classic has been a European Tour event in a number of guises since 1989 but one common factor but for two years in 1999 and 2000 is the host venue, Emirates Golf Club in the UAE. Woods won the event in 2006 and 2008, Stenson was the champion in the year between and Rory McIlroy is a two times winner. The cream often comes to the top but in this case Stenson is ignored in favour of Thomas Pieters who has an ideal game for the course. Bernd Wiesberger is another leading contender based on current form and course experience.
The Emirates is an American style course with water in play on 10 holes. The fairways are fairly generous and the greens are large, fast and very flat. The four par 5s provide eagle and birdie opportunities including the 18th which is a risk/reward hole with water protecting the green. Accuracy not length can win the tournament but overall the key skills for good scoring are driving distance, greens in regulation and putts per round. In his day Woods would be tailor made for the challenge and he could spring a surprise and win on the course for the third time.
Despite the fact there are many ifs and buts to consider with Tiger I would not put anyone off backing him this week. However, a less speculative play is backing Pieters at about two thirds the odds. He is the only player in the field who was in the top 50 for the relevant skills in Europe last season. He is a proven winner at this level but can take his career to a new status by beating Stenson, Woods and the rest of the field. Pieters won back-to-back events in Europe in 2015 and had a brilliant Ryder Cup, delivering under the most intense pressure to win four points from five matches.
Mickelson is now at the veteran stage but showed in the Open that he can still compete at the highest level. Stenson had to play the round of his life to beat him and in many other years Mickelson would have done enough to win his second Open and sixth major in total. The US Open has been elusive and it looks like Mickelson will be just one major shy of the career Grand Slam. He would probably swap ten Phoenix Opens for one US version but he’ll happily take another win this week.
The TPC of Scottsdale is a stadium course in the desert. There are lots of bunkers and waste areas and water is in play on several holes. The exposed stretch around the turn is the most difficult, particularly if the wind blows. The famous 16th is a challenging par 3 where vast crowds create a bear pit atmosphere which Mickelson loves. Overall the main attributes required for contending are driving accuracy and then scrambling and putting which makes Mickelson suited to the challenge. Any waywardness off the tee is compensated for with a brilliant short game which can get him out of trouble.
Mickelson was a top 10 player for putts per round and scrambling last season. Zach Johnson is the only player in the field for the three most important skills but his form has dipped since winning the Open Championship at St Andrews in 2015. Two other Open winners in Mickelson and Woods will get many headlines but Pieters can scupper the outrageous double.