Golf expert Ben Coley likes the chances of Julian Suri as he previews the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
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While the introduction of the NBO Oman Classic can already be considered a success, last week's inaugural edition having introduced us to a course which has been called the best in the Middle East, there's no doubt that the knock-on effects include a weakened edition of the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters.
When this event was staged as part of the year-opening Middle East swing, it could attract a strong field. Even last year, when Branden Grace chose not to bid for a third title in succession, the line-up included Tommy Fleetwood, Alex Noren and Rafa Cabrera Bello. In 2016, Grace was joined by those three plus Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen and Matthew Fitzpatrick. Rewind further and names like Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen appear on a roll-of-honour littered with major winners.
This time, only 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie and 2011 hero Darren Clarke carry the latter status and just a small handful of the world's top 100 are in attendance, none ranked higher than 70th. Moving the event just a few weeks in the schedule has had a huge impact on the field strength, as the likes of Fleetwood and Noren continue their Masters preparations in Florida having graduated beyond this level.
All this presents a problem for the European Tour, as Doha GC is a fine layout which deserves the best players. They should be tempted here not just by prize money, appearance fees or even the course itself, but the knowledge that victory in Qatar can ultimate prove a key stepping stone on the journey towards major championship success.
For us, however, it probably makes things easier. We saw last week in Oman that there are so few golfers at this level who are comfortable in contention, while even the supposed lottery of the World Super 6 in Perth went to a class act various others just could not put away. The season may have started with four first-time winners in five events, but only one of them carried battle scars; focus should remain on those who we either know or suspect have what it takes, especially in these more prestigious tournaments.
Such a policy would've helped pave the way towards Jeunghun Wang last year as the Korean got the better of Jaco Van Zyl and Joakim Lagergren in a play-off for his third European Tour title, and I'm hopeful it might prove a valuable starting point once more with Julian Suri considered much the best bet.
Suri is the highest-ranked player in the field at 70th in the world, and whatever the merits of the system there's little to suggest he isn't deserving of that position. The cocksure American raced from the Challenge Tour onto the European Tour last season, winning on each, before top-10 finishes behind Justin Rose in Turkey and Jon Rahm in Dubai. In the context of this event, he is firmly among the class acts.
Following what's now known as The Koepka Path (poor old Peter Uihlein), Suri now has his sights set on the world's top 50. Victory here would see him achieve that goal, thus earning a place in the WGC-Mexico and following WGC-Match Play and, ultimately, a route to the PGA Tour for an American who, in electing to play the long game, may get there sooner than many of his former classmates.
There's no reason he can't be right in the mix to do that on Sunday. Doha is a course which first and foremost favours players who are comfortable in the wind, and Suri's four-shot victory in Denmark last year, coupled with the fact that he's now residing in Florida, suggests that he's very much in that category.
Indeed were it not for what appears to be modest form lately, he might well have been favourite for this yet I see his recent play as nothing short of positive.
Suri has been taking advantage of PGA Tour invites and his finishing positions (63-MC-68) underline the chasm between events like the Farmers Insurance Open, won by Jason Day, and those such as Oman last week and Qatar this. It's no surprise that he's struggled over 72 holes as he adapts to a new challenge, but sitting fourth after round one at Torrey Pines and third at halfway at Pebble Beach suggests his game is ultimately there.
Last week, Suri carded a round of 67 in what was a competitive Monday Qualifier for the Genesis Open at Riviera, missing the play-off by a shot, and the work he put in after that missed cut in Phoenix - particularly with the putter - appears to have paid off.
His European Tour form shows four top-10 finishes in his latest five starts, latterly second place in Hong Kong where his class relative to the field proved key rather than any perceived suitability to one of the tightest tracks on the circuit.
Doha is much more forgiving off the tee and that'll play into the hands of this supremely powerful player who should be expected to land a second European Tour title very soon - if indeed he does find himself playing here, rather than in the United States.
"When I got my game to where I wanted, it didn’t matter where I played because I knew I’d get to the top," said Suri earlier this year and his confidence is supported by results. At 25/1 and upwards, he is worth backing to show that he's a cut above most of these.
While Suri just stands out at the top of the market and is backed accordingly, I do wonder whether those who played in Oman last week will be at an advantage here. Like Doha, Al Mouj is an exposed, coastal course in the Middle East and the consistent wind provided a challenge throughout the week, ultimately favouring players like Joost Luiten and Chris Wood who have been there and done it before.
Wood is into 22/1 from as big as 100s on the back of that return to form and is short enough despite being a former winner here, with ready preference for Stephen Gallacher at three-times the price.
The Scot finished ninth last week, leading the all-around ranking for the first time since he finished third in the 2015 renewal of the Dubai Desert Classic, an event he's won twice to showcase his love for desert golf.
It's easy to wonder what might have been for Gallacher in Oman, as he was two-under towards the end of his opening round only to make a complete mess of the par-five 16th hole, making eight on his way to what was ultimately a disappointing 74.
For a player who has had his share of injuries and off-course setbacks, Gallacher's response was impressive as he fired bogey-free rounds of 67 and 68, before making just one mistake in an otherwise solid final-round 70 for a top-10 finish - his first for over a year.
"Apart from two lost balls of the tee - at the fourth and 16th - on the first day, I drove it so well after and to go 54 holes with just one bogey is pleasing,” he told The Scotsman.
"I never really took my chances and, all in all, ninth was probably the worst I could finish. But I’m really looking forward to carrying on this sort of form to next week in Qatar."
Once upon a time, he'd have been a player to follow when finding form and it's not as if Oman came out of nowhere - he'd made all three previous cuts this year as the off-season rust gradually disappeared and it could well be that, now he's feeling healthy again, he can get competitive at this sort of level.
Gallacher's record at Doha doesn't quite match up to what he's achieved in Dubai, but he was third through 54 holes on two of his first three visits and has regularly been towards the top of the ball-striking charts here.
It certainly should suit, as there are obvious ties with some of the links courses he grew up on as well as Gleneagles, where he established a fine individual record before struggling a little on his Ryder Cup debut there.
With all of that in mind, 66/1 looks like a price worth taking.
Back to the head of the market and I'm afraid a Captain Obvious selection in the shape of George Coetzee.
Here we have a genuine course specialist, who was a tad unfortunate not to at least get a crack at a play-off here five years ago when Wood's walk-off eagle denied him that opportunity.
All told, Coetzee's record at Doha shows five cuts made in six, a second, fifth, seventh and 12th among those efforts, and he was in dire form when finally missing out on the weekend here one year ago.
This time around, Coetzee has had a little more time to shake off the off-season rust, which helps when you're hardly considered one of the more dedicated golfers on the circuit.
And, while there was little to write home about through his first three starts, he recovered from an opening 78 to climb 140 places to 13th in the Dimension Data Pro Am last week.
That event is played at Fancourt Links, which could be a nice little guide to Doha. Not only has Grace won there, but so has two-time Qatar Masters champion Lawrie, 2003 winner Darren Fichardt and last year's runner-up, Van Zyl.
Whether or not it proves a genuine form pointer, playing there certainly should've helped Coetzee build confidence ahead of his return to an event he loves. His dynamite putting has always been a major weapon on these greens and if we go back a few years, he boasts that correlating Gleneagles form (10-2), too.
"It's a good golf course," he said in 2016. "It suits my eye pretty nicely. It's just a question if I'm sharp or not."
After a nice prep on home soil, my hope is that Coetzee's game is peaking at just the right time as this is exactly the sort of field in which he is capable of winning.
South Africans in general have a fine record here, a fact which further strengthens the above case, and it's tempting to chance Erik van Rooyen on his first visit following a similar performance to Coetzee's last week.
However, he still has a little to prove when it comes to competing at European Tour level away from home while Nicolas Colsaerts, who has Fancourt and links form in abundance, is just not quite trustworthy enough to support at the prices quoted this time.
Instead, it's Colsaerts' young compatriot Thomas Detry who earns the vote.
Here's a 25-year-old who is clearly going places, having won in outrageous fashion on the Challenge Tour, adapted quickly in his rookie season on the European Tour and, more recently, contended in much stronger fields than this one.
Detry now has the added advantage of playing events for the second time and it worked in Hong Kong at the start of the season, where he left behind a missed cut on debut to finish in a share of 10th as he builds towards his inevitable breakthrough.
Since then, Detry has bagged ninth place behind Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi before finishes of 22nd, 23rd and 31st on courses he hadn't seen before, so it's not asking a lot for him to get seriously competitive here in Doha, where he was a fine 28th on debut following a bogey-free 67 to start the week.
At bigger prices, Chris Hanson was sixth in Dubai last month and struck the ball superbly when 18th here last year, which alone is enough to stir temptation, while Max Kieffer is flushing the ball at present and has the game for this test even if his course record doesn't suggest it.
But my final vote goes to Jordan Smith, who was a big eye-catcher last week.
The Englishman - like Detry, a standout rookie last year - faded to 26th after a bright start in Oman, but his long game was back in the sort of shape which saw him beat Alex Levy in a play-off for the European Open last summer.
From there, Smith bagged a top-10 finish in the PGA Championship and while his form since has been erratic, there have been one or two health issues which are now behind him.
Last week's effort was his best since 25th place in the DP World Tour Championship and I'm really encouraged by the way he built his score. In a nutshell, I believe that any player can pop up on any given week, but when it comes as the product of quality long-game numbers (1st in ball-striking), it's more likely to preempt another big performance.
In Smith's case, this is particularly encouraging as he was sixth here a year ago, speaking at the time of how comfortable he is under the conditions. At 40/1 and bigger, he can show that he's moving back in the right direction and, among these, ranks alongside Suri and Shubhankar Sharma as one of the best prospects.
Posted at 1315 GMT on 20/02/18.