Big guns set for Dubai battle

Emirates Golf Club will this week once again host one of the jewels in the European Tour’s crown – the star-studded Dubai Desert Classic.

With a field that boasts the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, the eyes of the golfing world will certainly be on Dubai as the Desert Classic prepares to celebrate its 25th birthday.

There are a number of interesting narratives to follow, primarily centred around the fortunes of the tournament’s big three.

Woods is coming off one of the worst rounds of golf of his entire career – a disastrous third-round 79 at, of all places, Torrey Pines, historically one of his favourite courses.

Was Tiger just rusty and will he bounce back quickly, or are there more serious issues with his game at present?

The Desert Classic is Woods’ most well-represented European Tour event, with the World No 1 having played in six previous editions, securing two victories and five top-10 finishes in the process.

That’s a strong enough record to see him installed as a 6/1 pick to walk away with the title.

And what of McIlroy? A disappointing and highly tumultuous 2013 finally seemed to turn around towards the tail end of the year, with victory over Adam Scott in Australia giving the Northern Irishman some much needed momentum.

McIlroy’s second-place finish at the the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship two weeks ago was further evidence that he has turned a corner, and a strong showing this week will surely drive that point home.

McIlroy can take heart from his performances at Emirates as well, with a victory in 2009 followed up by successive top ten finishes over the next three years.

The bookies seem to agree that McIlroy has exorcised his demons and is ready to win again, considering the two-time major champion is the 3/1 favourite to lift the trophy.

Then there is Stenson, who last year solidified his status as one of the best golfers in the world following a string of superb performances and victories on both sides of the Atlantic.

Stenson’s aims for 2014 are even grander. Challenge Tiger Woods for the world number one ranking, and pick up a first major win. Considering his performances throughout last year, that seems a realistic ambition.

The Swede appeared a bit rusty at last week’s Qatar Masters, but still managed a top-30 finish and will surely be in better shape with some competitive golf safely under his belt.

Stenson is also a winner in Dubai, having triumphed here back in 2007, and at 11/1, he is the third favourite this week behind McIlroy and Woods.

But golf is a fickle mistress, and it would be dangerous to think of the tournament as a three-horse race – especially with talented players like recent Nedbank Challenge winner Thomas Bjorn, last year’s surprise package Jamie Donaldson, veteran talent Ernie Els and exciting youngster Matteo Manassero also in attendance.

Els has an even more impressive record in Dubai than McIlroy or Woods. In addition to his three victories in 1994, 2002 and 2005, the South African has a further six top three finishes in just 11 appearances.

Els still holds the course record at the Emirates – a 12-birdie 61 posted in 1994, yet for all that history, he is still seen as an outside bet at 50/1.

Those odds seem less than generous, considering how much Els appears to enjoy playing in Dubai.

Whatever the result come Sunday, this year’s tournament is definitely one to watch, so get ready for four days of what should be some superb golfing action.