By Yash Mudgal/Doha
He has turned 50 and many at this juncture of their careers switch to seniors golf. But when it comes to playing at the Doha Golf Club, Paul Lawrie is still a force to reckon with.
The former Open champion is back at his favourite course aiming to become the first golfer to complete a treble of Commercial Bank Qatar Masters titles when the European Tour tournament begins today.
“I’ve always enjoyed the course and the firmness of it. You have to shape the ball a little more than most courses,” said Lawrie, who is paired with former champion Robert Karlsson and his young protege, Sam Locke, for the first two rounds.
Lawrie’s son, Craig, missed out on a spot at the tournament by two shots (in Qatar Open qualifier), but will caddy for his illustrious father.
“You have to be in control of your ball flight when the wind picks up. If you’re not in control and hitting little knock-down shots and hold-off shots, you’re going to be in trouble.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing golf like that. I was brought up playing golf on links courses in Scotland and knocking a five iron 120 yards has never been something I’ve struggled with, and you need that when the wind blows around here.”
History also beckons as the Aberdonian made his return to competitive golf in Oman last week after a foot surgery and failed to make cut. In 1998, Lawrie went under the knife and played poorly in the week before winning his first title in Doha in 1999.
The eight-time European Tour winner has a fondness for both the layout and the expected windy conditions at Doha Golf Club, and is looking forward to a good week. He won the second title here in 2012.
“Both my wins were different,” the former Ryder Cup star said. “(Before my win) in 1999, I had an operation in the winter of 1998, played terribly the week before. In 2012, I was in the middle of an unbelievable run of success and good weeks.”
Lawrie is also joined by his Scottish compatriot Stephen Gallacher who is no stranger to winning in the Middle East with two victories at the Dubai Desert Classic to his name. Gallacher played in the victorious 2014 Ryder Cup team on home soil at Gleneagles.
Belgium’s Thomas Pieters also hopes to build on his good show in Oman Open.
“My game has been feeling really good for a long time now,” said the Belgian.
“I’m playing tournaments again and getting my confidence back is the main thing. I haven’t had a bad tournament yet, but last week is the first time I’ve contended in a long time and it felt great. Winning the World Cup (of Golf) last year was different — in an individual tournament I hadn’t been in contention and it was frustrating. I hope I can keep this feeling going.”
Pieters has finished inside the top 30 in his last nine starts worldwide and also won the ISPS Handa Melbourne World Cup of Golf with compatriot Thomas Detry in November.
One of the most popular stops on Tour, the field for this week’s Commercial Bank Qatar Masters is also full of young stars hoping to add the iconic Trophy to their silverware collection.
England’s Jordan Smith finished sixth in Doha on his debut two years ago and is looking to bounce back after missing the cut last year.
“I always enjoy coming to Doha Golf Club,” said Smith. “The first year I played here I had a really good performance but unfortunately I missed the cut last year so hopefully I can make that right this time around. I love the course; it’s tricky because of the windy conditions but I really enjoy the challenge.”
Doha Golf Club also holds fond memories for Challenge Tour graduate Erik Van Rooyen, who enjoyed a fine rookie campaign on the European Tour in 2018.
“I played really well over the first two rounds here last year but struggled at the weekend so I’d like to change that this year and continue to play well for all four rounds,” said the South African.
In the absence of last year’s winner Eddie Pepperell, Oliver Fisher is also hoping to go one better than his runner-up result. The Englishman, who carded the first ever round of 59 on the European Tour at the 2018 Portugal Masters, finished just one stroke behind Eddie Pepperell in 2018, recording his best result in ten appearances in Qatar.
Former Qatar Masters champions in the field include victorious 2018 Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn and 2016 Ryder Cup player Chris Wood.
Bjorn masterminded Europe’s 17.5-10.5 defeat of the United States and is ready for his 15th appearance in Qatar, having won the event in 2011.
Bjorn, who appeared in three Ryder Cups, played in the very first edition of the Qatar Masters back in 1998, and so, too, did fellow past champion and Ryder Cup star Robert Karlsson. The tall Swede won the Mother of Pearl trophy in 2010, two years after he made his second Ryder Cup appearance at Valhalla.
With 144 players blending an intriguing mix of youth and experience, this year the Peter Harradine-designed course would be a big challenge for the players.
“Since the start is a bit late compared to the last year, we had a lot of time to roll the course. The greens are very firm and in fact in much better shape than 2018. The players will have to be very careful with their approach shots,” said the Doha Golf Club general manager Gary McGlinchey.
“Another challenge could be the wind this time. We have the prediction of gusty weather. Last week in Oman, the play had to be suspended due to strong winds. I just hope that the wind doesn’t affect the play. Overall, we hope to have tough battle on all four days at Doha Golf Club,” he said.
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