The 21-time DP World Tour winner and 2002 European Ryder Cup Captain reflects on his memories of the long-standing event, the growth of golf in the Middle East and why he expects Rory McIlroy to win the title for a third time.
It is extraordinary to think that in 1988 I played in the opening tournament at the Emirates Golf Club, The East-West Challenge. What a place. It really was like an emerald oasis surrounded by desert on all sides; the aerial views of the golf course and the clubhouse were just out of this world. You could see it from miles away. There was literally one building between the airport and the golf course. I think the Emirates Towers was the only one and you could see the iconic clubhouse from a distance. When you walked down a hole and stood in the rough, it was almost scary. All you saw was miles of sand. Everything about the club was magnificent – as players, we just couldn’t believe how good the place was.
Today, 35 years later, Dubai is now probably the most developed city in the world. Everything about the area is even more extraordinary. From the outset, everyone was enterprising and wanted everything to be first class.
The first Dubai Desert Classic was staged in 1989 and I finished sixth. I played it another eight times as a professional. Even then, the practice facilities were out of this world. A lot of players went out there to practice in the winter. Everyone was so welcoming – I just love the Majlis Course. The ninth hole is fabulous and has always proved a great challenge. My memories over the years of this event are one of enjoyment. You know as a player that the course is going be in perfect condition. You really look forward to getting there.
Over the years, there are several moments at the Dubai Desert Classic that stick out from my time as both a player and as broadcaster. One is Colin Montgomerie’s driver that he hit off the deck on the 72nd hole to win in 1996. To this day it is one of the best shots that I have ever seen. Monty required a birdie to secure victory and hit his driver over water to around 25 feet, before two putting for his four to win by one shot from Miguel Ángel Jiménez. Another was Rory McIlroy’s up-and-down from the back bunker at the 18th to win his first Tour title in 2009. We all knew Rory was going to be special but to see him make his breakthrough was brilliant. Mark James, who is a great friend of mine, winning the first edition is also a fond memory. I never did too well but that is irrelevant!
As with most courses it is fairways and greens that are required to conquer it. The par fives are all reachable and the players can certainly play them in quite a number under par with the right execution. It is a rewarding course and therefore often leads to low scores.
This week marks the second Rolex Series event of the 2023 DP World Tour schedule. A lot of players arrive early in the new year and practice to get their game in shape for the Middle East swing. There is no finer place honestly at this time of the year.
Rory McIlroy is my favourite for this week. I can’t pick anyone else. I think he is incredible; he is getting better every year, and I am sure more Majors are going to come very shortly. I would definitely put him as a hot favourite to win his third title. He knows the course like the back of his hand.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, I would like to see Europe regain the Ryder Cup, which would be very sweet. We have got the potential for a great team to be built. I watched some great stuff from the players who featured in the Hero Cup in Abu Dhabi. There are some great young players with hearts of gold.