THE top two players in the official golf world rankings will be teeing it up in classy desert events some 8,500 miles apart this week, both hoping to cast aside missed opportunities on their last outings.
While number one Scottie Scheffler was right in the mix at the halfway point in the The Sentry in Hawaii the week before last, at least a poor third round meant he knew well in advance of the finishing line that he wouldn’t be adding another trophy to his burgeoning cabinet.
Rory McIlroy’s near miss in Dubai on Sunday will have been a fair deal more painful, coming as it did after a mistake on the final hole, when he stood on the tee with a one-shot lead and the first event of the DP World Tour season under his control.
However, a drive into the water led to a bogey which, combined with a birdie from Tommy Fleetwood, meant the top two in the pre-tournament betting finished as the leading pair, but not in the predicted order.
It was a strange opening to 2024 for McIlroy, who was clearly the best player in the Dubai Invitational field but paid the price for a number of errors, including a quadruple bogey seven at a par three on Friday, as well as a three-putt from two feet on Sunday afternoon.
Without those mistakes he would have been over the hill and far away before his drive on the last, but the man himself was anything but deflated afterwards (below), the blow softened by the fact it was Ryder Cup partner Fleetwood who pipped him to the silverware.
It was also not lost on McIlroy that the main focus of his season-opening trip to the UAE has always been the Hero Dubai Desert Classic, which gets going tomorrow morning.
A Rolex Series event, the calibre of field at the Emirates Golf Club has gone up a level or two, with Tyrrell Hatton joining McIlroy and Fleetwood, while Open champion Brian Harman and Cameron Young add the big-name American presence that has become the norm in the Desert Classic.
With Adam Scott also in the field, and Joaquin Niemann making the most of down-time from his LIV commitments to try and gather world ranking points, the winner come Sunday will have earned their chunk of the $9m prize-fund.
Anyone who finishes above McIlroy on one of his favourite courses will surely go very close to picking up the cheque, as the Majlis layout has been a playground for the Holywood man, going back to his first win as a professional here in 2009.
The winner again in 2015, he made it a hat-trick last term, birdieing the par-five last to pip old rival Patrick Reed.
The defending champion will take some stopping, and the bookies have not been put off by his late slip on Sunday, mostly marking him up at 3/1 yet again.
There is every chance he goes in for title number four, but those odds in a far deeper field than last week make no appeal as he could easily find one or two better again.
And despite the presence of the likes of Hatton and Harman, who have both made the journey from Hawaii after top-20s in the Sony Open, it is Fleetwood who is the best bet of those at the very top of the market.
It’s not easy to go back-to-back, but the world number 11 has gone close a number of times, with each of his last three victories being followed by a top-six the next week.
On one of those occasions he was sixth in the Desert Classic after winning in Abu Dhabi, while he was second in the DP World Tour Championship in 2019 after taking the Nedbank title in South Africa.
Playing as well as he has ever done, Fleetwood was second in the season finale last term before making the most of living in Dubai by winning on Sunday.
The fact he was able to go to his own bed after that will stand to him with this week in mind, and although he has a mixed record at Emirates Golf Club, five top-20s in his last six attempts show he knows his way around.
He is a great each-way bet at the very least at 10/1 with William Hill, and after saying in the close season that he needs to win more, there is a big chance he grabs the first two titles of the DP World Tour season.
Meanwhile, I can’t get away from Adrian Meronk after he just missed out on the place money in 10th on Sunday.
The Polish star was brilliant off the tee at Dubai Creek, and that is a basic requirement for the Majlis course, which offers a bit of room but really rewards powerful driving and precise approach play.
Meronk’s long game is as good as anyone in Europe, and while he gave up a bit of ground to the leaders on the greens last week, his putting has been improving.
Fourth here on debut in 2022, he has built a solid record in the Gulf region and has made his home in Dubai, so all the signs are he could go close and should be backed at 18/1 with Boylesports, who are one of a few firms paying eight places.
Niemann is not familiar with the Desert Classic, but he is an intriguing presence in the field and I can’t help but thinking he might do well at 20/1.
He was average on the LIV front last term but burst into life in DP World Tour events at the end of 2023, finishing fifth in the Australian PGA Championship before winning the Australian Open at the start of December.
A great driver, the Chilean is one of the best young players in the world, although he might never really get to underline that unless LIV and the PGA Tour can come together.
While Dubai is new to him, Niemann has a bit of Middle-East form to his name, with top-10s in the last two Saudi Invitationals and a fifth in Oman last year.
He is one of the classiest players in the Desert Classic field, and could easily win this if close to his best.
Finally, Laurie Canter is back on the DP World Tour after a couple of years on the LIV scene, and the signs are that he will be more comfortable in familiar surroundings.
Brilliant off the tee, the Englishman was fourth in the Australian Open and then second in Mauritius before Christmas and has shown a liking for Dubai in the past.
He was fourth in the Desert Classic in 2021, a couple of months after finishing fifth in the DP World Tour Championship, so the region holds no fear, and while he has been cut to 40/1 (Ladbrokes) after being flagged up in a number of other places, there is still some juice in the price.
As for the PGA Tour, 11/2 chance Scheffler heads a field that also includes Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele for the The American Express, a quirky pro-am played across three desert resort courses in Palm Springs, California.
It’s a low-scoring contest that isn’t one to get too involved with, but a small each-way interest in JT Poston at 30/1 with Sky Bet might be worthwhile after he flew home with a 61 in Hawaii for a share of sixth in the Sony Open.
On the back of fifth in The Sentry, the 30-year-old has now recorded seven top-10s in 10 events either side of the Christmas break and was sixth in this one last term, so he has every chance of at least getting a slice of the place money.
HERO DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC SELECTIONS
Tommy Fleetwood, e/w, 10/1 (William Hill);
Adrian Meronk, e/w, 18/1 (Boylesports);
Joaquin Niemann, e/w, 20/1 (General);
Laurie Canter, e/w, 40/1 (Ladbrokes)
THE AMERICAN EXPRESS SELECTION
JT Poston, e/w, 30/1 (Sky Bet)