Golf expert Ben Coley has four selections for the Oman Open as the European Tour returns this week.
Of all the European Tour events now played in the Middle East - six at last count - the Oman Open is still the one which is trying to muscle its way into the conversation. Those played in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar are all established, while Saudi Arabia has deeper pockets. Here, in Muscat, things have progressed rather more quietly, a former Challenge Tour event now in its third year of elevated status.
Judge things solely on the quality of the course and reviews it receives, and Oman suddenly leaps to the top of the list. Al Mouj Golf, running alongside the Indian Ocean, is considered by some to be among the best layouts on the circuit, one at the behest of the wind but clever enough to prove challenging regardless. It might just be Greg Norman's best work yet.
In two editions of this event, we've seen the difference the wind can make. First, Joost Luiten and Chris Wood made class count at the expense of some less decorated players, the former reaching 16-under at a links-like course which is more about precision than power. One year later, conditions so much tougher, Kurt Kitayama managed to win despite making an eight at the first hole of round three, during which he was six-over through four.
The American, who had already showed a liking for seaside golf in Mauritius, got all of those shots back and one more, before holding his nerve better than others on Sunday.
Among those left to rue a missed opportunity were Clement Sordet, who won here on the Challenge Tour and looked set to double-up until three-putting the 72nd hole. J.B. Hansen, as some may painfully recall, led with nine to play but bogeyed the difficult 18th to fall into a share of sixth. Jorge Campillo, who made a nine on Friday, stalled when he hit the front; so did Max Kieffer and Fabrizio Zanotti, who made three double-bogeys in the final round and still only lost by one.
In other words, it was carnage, which began when the second round had to be suspended due to high winds. At the very same course where Luiten had reached 16-under and the top eight made it to double-digits under-par, Kitayama's seven-under was enough, with four-under cracking the top 10. Suddenly, a bit of wind made Al Mouj - a stock par 72 by other measures - seriously demanding. On Friday, Gaganjeet Bhullar, himself a winner in tough, coastal conditions in the past, labelled conditions "by far the toughest I've ever played in."
Writing on Monday, it's difficult to have total faith in weather forecasts, but as things stand we should be returning to something like Luiten's renewal. There will be a breeze here, that's almost a guarantee, but a maximum of 15mph is forecast and it looks set to die down over the weekend with a small threat of very late gusts on Sunday.
What that leaves us with is a tournament we can approach with some confidence, still focusing on those with the necessary tools without worrying so much that one shot could spell curtains.
GAVIN GREEN did us a good turn when finishing well for third in the Saudi International, and he looks ready to complete his graduation under conditions which could well be similar.
While big-hitting remains the key weapon at Royal Greens, despite Graeme McDowell's tenacious win, I was really impressed with the way Green coped in the breeze three weeks ago. In fact were it not for a clumsy three-putt or two, he might have given McDowell more to think about rather than needing an eagle-birdie finish to get us the full place return.
Nobody hit more greens than Green that week, while his driver continued to impress in what was indeed a continuation of the form he'd shown to start the season. The Malaysian star, who signed off 2019 in good shape, has followed 15th in the SA Open with finishes of 21st, 27th and third, all in the Middle East, to continue his progression.
Any concern that his best chances to win have come in Saudi Arabia and in Prague, on two of the most power-friendly courses around, is mitigated both by the visual impression he gave last time plus form such as ninth in the Irish Open and eighth in the Andalucia Masters last summer.
Back then, he bagged three top-10 finishes in a run of four events and his ability to cope well with breezy conditions is rubber-stamped by good performances in the Scottish Open and the British Masters, all of which confirms that he's got much more to his game than brawn.
Green's sole professional win to date came in Taiwan on the Asian Tour, two weeks after he'd finished runner-up, and I'm very hopeful he can pick up where he left off last time - especially as he spoke so well after the event.
"I just enjoyed the whole day," said Green, who spent it alongside Dustin Johnson in a real test of his comfort levels. "He doesn't slow it down. He just let's it go. It's something that I (will) learn from. I think being able to apply it next time I'm in this position will help a lot.
"(It was) really fun for me and see what happens in the coming tournaments."
Green is half the price now, but that's a reflection of the field and I'm not too worried about a missed cut here last year. He wasn't playing as well, and the wind which caused so much havoc exposed that fragility. A year on and he's rock solid right now.
The search for correlating courses or events leads you in the direction of the KLM Open, where Luiten and Wood have both been key features over the years. Though that event has been nomadic lately, almost every course in the Netherlands comes with the requirement that you control your ball in the wind, and many share links-like characteristics with Al Mouj.
That puts in-form Ashun Wu on the radar, especially as he handled tricky conditions so well in Dubai recently - for a while at least - and it also suggests that this is an excellent opportunity not only for Luiten himself, but for in-form Thomas Detry.
All are respected, but at a bigger price than Detry I prefer the claims of ADRI ARNAUS who, like Green, has already hit the frame for this column in 2020.
That came in Dubai, where he's now based, so the short hop out to Oman should set things up nicely for Arnaus, without question one of the brightest young talents on the European Tour.
Last season he finished 45th on his first look at the course, but he's improved his finishing position in Dubai and Saudi Arabia on his last two starts as he gets familiar with these events.
His Challenge Tour win came in the desert, and with tee-to-green rankings of sixth, first and fourth across his three starts so far in 2020, the only two players who can lay claim to such ball-striking prowess so far this year are the top two in the betting.
Like Thomas Pieters and Martin Kaymer, success for Arnaus this week may well depend on whether he can putt to just a decent level, and if that's the case he should improve hugely for that debut spin in 2019.
The way he stuck it out in Dubai to climb to third place on a tricky final day suggests that any breeze can be coped with, but the general stillness in the forecast should open things up for players like Green and Arnaus to make light work of the scoring holes here.
Truth be told the top six or seven in the market all look solid to me, and I was tempted to add one of the four who are currently priced above my selections, but at this level it's probably best not to get too carried away with players like Pieters and Kaymer at 11 and 16/1 respectively.
Instead, I'll make this all about potential with ADRIAN MERONK next on the list.
This Polish youngster really impressed on the Challenge Tour last year, and after a predictably slow start to his rookie campaign on the European Tour he took a nice step forward with 27th place in Saudi Arabia.
Meronk ranked eighth in strokes-gained tee-to-green there and was fourth in bogey avoidance, keeping things neat and tidy despite a lack of course experience and conditions which were tougher than many had expected.
Al Mouj is similarly dangerous when things go astray, with water lurking on holes such as the fourth, fifth and 18th plus a handful of others, and we could see several of those who played well in Saudi Arabia on the leaderboard again here.
The difference where Meronk is concerned is that he's played this course competitively before, finishing a good 11th in 2017, his first year on the Challenge Tour. If he strikes it as he did last time there's no reason he can't put that experience to use.
Sean Crocker is similar in profile to the above three and has done plenty right of late, with his contending effort in Qatar a couple of years ago enough to keep him on the radar. Soren Kjeldsen is his exact opposite, but the diminutive Dane has been holding his own so far in 2020, and his sharp short-game could keep him in the conversation here, too.
They're respected along with Kalle Samooja, who I expect to pop up at some stage this year, and Dubai-based Sebastian Heisele. He's definitely an improved player these days and two top-20 finishes in Oman give him something to work with.
However, I'll sign off with a real roll of the dice in the shape of SAMI VALIMAKI.
This young Finn won four times on the Pro Golf Tour last year, including on an exposed layout in Morocco, before sailing through Qualifying School. Given that he was among the best amateurs in the world before turning professional, it's fair to say he's highly promising.
Form figures of MC-64-51-7 are really solid for one so inexperienced, especially as he's been travelling to South Africa and Australia alternately as he gets used to life as a touring pro, and that effort behind Min Woo Lee last time reads really well.
Only four players scored better than Valimaki on a tough Sunday in the Vic Open, where four of the top five were quality locals, and finishing alongside Sam Horsfield and just behind Rob Sciot-Siegrist represents a good level of form.
Whether he can build on it remains to be seen, but Valimaki has been a quick learner so far and he barely made a mistake all week Down Under.
He's made winning appear fairly straightforward already in his young career and, at 250/1, I'm willing to speculate that he can back up his first European Tour top 10 in an event which doesn't look strong behind the front few.
Posted at 1855 GMT on 24/02/20
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