Champion McDowell defends Saudi International title against ‘Desert Swing’ winners as local hopefuls look to make their mark

Champion McDowell defends Saudi International title against ‘Desert Swing’ winners as local hopefuls look to make their mark
Champion McDowell defends Saudi International title against ‘Desert Swing’ winners as local hopefuls look to make their mark

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: The wait for the third Saudi International powered by SoftBank Investment Advisers is over and for the world’s top-ranked golfers, returning legends, and Saudi newcomers it is chance to kick-start the new year after the disruptions and cancellations of the 2020 campaign.

Among those hoping to blow the cobwebs away will be last year’s winner Graeme McDowell, who has had a disappointing start to 2021 so far.

Last year, the Northern Irishman had triumphed at the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club by two shots over 2019 champion Dustin Johnson, finishing on 12-under-par, at the second hosting of the $3.5 million European Tour event.

The momentum gained from winning in Saudi was set to propel McDowell to a stellar season, particularly as it was Ryder Cup year too. But the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic put an end to his and many other plans.

He said: “It was a nice victory at the time. I felt like I was starting to get a little bit of a head of steam up and starting to create some nice momentum and move in the right direction. Obviously that momentum didn’t get a chance to last very long, unfortunately.

“Obviously that four-month break, it broke my momentum a little bit, and I didn’t respond well when we came back in the summer.

“But it’s nice to come back. Always nice to come back to a golf course where you have great memories. And like I say, I would love to get some of that momentum back again this week. That would be really, really awesome,” he added.

McDowell has missed the cut in the two European Tour events he has taken part in already this season – the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and the Omega Desert Classic – and he will be hoping a return to form in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) can kickstart his 2021 and his push for selection in this year’s European Ryder Cup team.

“(It was my) first time here last year. Nice, windy track. Good golf course. Great facilities here. It fit my eye pretty well and like I say, it was really important to me at the time. The win got me back in the top 50 in the world and got me in Augusta and opened a lot of doors for me,” McDowell said.

“So, I’d love to try and find something this week. It’s been a disappointing Middle East so far. I would dearly love to play well this week and get my season kicked off.”

The 41-year-old golfer can expect serious challenge for his title from two Englishmen who have enjoyed the “Desert Swing” so far; world No. 5 Tyrrell Hatton, winner in Abu Dhabi two weeks ago, and 27th-ranked Paul Casey, who claimed his 21st career win at Emirates Golf Course in Dubai last weekend.

And that is before the likes of Masters champion and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and reigning US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau are factored in.

Hatton said: “This week we’ve got huge World Ranking points on offer. It’s an added incentive, I guess, a little bit more motivation. We’ve got Ryder Cup points to play for. So, there’s plenty of things this week that you’re motivated for, and it will certainly be a great event to have a really good week.”

Casey, a newcomer to the Saudi International, praised the strength of the field taking to the Red Sea coastal course.

He said: “Cracking-looking golf course. I’m here to try and play and beat an unbelievable field. Even today, learning about some of the guys who are here this week. I’m not one to necessarily look at entry lists to see who is playing week-in, week-out, but it’s stacked. We’re going to have huge World Ranking points. I’m excited to get stuck in.”

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia National Team coach Jamie McConnell has been weighing up the form and strengths of the three leading Saudi Arabian players competing at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club.

Saud Al-Sharif

Form: Saud played the most competitive golf in 2020 out of the three before the first COVID-19 lockdown hit. He won the amateur prize in Bahrain on the MENA Tour, shooting a phenomenal 66 and also got into a playoff later on in the year in the Bahrain Amateur.

It has been really difficult coaching wise for all the national team with the restrictions, so I have been coaching him via Zoom and FaceTime remotely – sending video and training plans to keep him improving and on track.

Last week he arrived in Dubai to do a tournament prep week with us and we linked him up with a new caddie, Luke Joy. We pushed him hard to see how he would react, and he did brilliantly. I am excited to see what he does in the tournament.

Strengths: Ball and distance control are phenomenal. Solid ball striker.

Faisal Salhab

Form: Faisal had a really interesting year as he has been stuck in Saudi Arabia and been unable to travel and play. We got him a good golf coach from Abu Dhabi called Grant Smith, who joined the Saudi team in Riyadh. Grant’s really inspired him to work harder, practice harder, and focus.

His invite was quite last minute, and he was really working toward 2022 – but we were delighted with the news of his inclusion and he has really ramped up his preparation since. He has been at Royal Greens well in advance of the tournament, preparing and building strong momentum for a good showing.

Strengths: Without a doubt it’s his power. He has a huge amount of swing speed and if he can keep it in play, he will make it a very short golf course indeed.

Othman Almulla 

Form: Othman remains the only professional player still in the Kingdom. Like the other guys he has been working remotely for the year. He went back to Saudi Arabia before the last lockdown and has stayed there since.

The last couple of months he has been working hard to make a couple of swing changes which seem to be settling in just in time ahead of this week where his preparation has been really solid.

He seems really excited for his career going forward and where he might take his game. Hopefully, this week will give him some momentum for a good year which will pay off in the long run.

Strengths: An ability to get the ball ‘around’ the course, plays the conditions well, and can make a score. He is very steady and not much phases him out there.

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