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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The players to watch at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic




By Michael Arkush


The DP World Tour’s Hero Dubai Desert Classic, which begins Thursday at the Emirates Golf Club in the United Arab Emirates, has delivered big-name champions over the past 35 years, including Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros, Ernie Els, Fred Couples, Colin Montgomerie, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy.


Will another marquee player walk off with the trophy this time around? Or will someone less heralded emerge from the pack to make an early statement in 2024?


Here are five noteworthy golfers:


Brian Harman


We’ll find out in the coming months whether Harman’s surprising victory in last year’s British Open, winning by six strokes at Royal Liverpool, was a fluke or if he’s able to prove that he truly is one of the game’s top players.


Harman, who turns 37 on Friday, tied for fifth at the PGA Tour’s season-opening Sentry tournament this month in Hawaii and tied for 18th a week later at the Sony Open.


“I’m excited to tee it up in Dubai for the first time,” he said in December. “It looks like a stunning venue that has identified great champions. I’d love to add my name to that list.”


The Open triumph couldn’t have come at a better time. Harman, with only two victories since joining the tour in 2012, had seemed to lose confidence.


“Earlier this year,” he admitted in 2023, “I was asking my agent about announcing jobs already. So we all get there, we all have those thoughts. Everyone’s in a place that we operated on these razor-thin margins.”


Rory McIlroy


McIlroy, believe it or not, will turn 35 years old in May. He turned pro when he was 18.


Even harder to comprehend is that his drought in major championships is approaching a full decade, his last coming in the 2014 PGA Championship.


He’s bound to pick up another major sooner or later. Isn’t he?


McIlroy, ranked No. 2 in the world, has won the Dubai event three times, including last year when he birdied the final two holes to edge Patrick Reed by a stroke. “It’s a great start to the year,” McIlroy said at the time, “and a really good foundation to work from.”


He won, however, only one more tournament in 2023, the Genesis Scottish Open in July, when he again birdied the final two holes to outduel Robert MacIntyre.


How McIlroy, who squandered an excellent opportunity to win last week’s Dubai Invitational, will be judged in 2024 will depend on how he performs in the four majors. In 2023, he missed the cut in the Masters, but recorded a top 10 in the next three, including a second-place finish in the United States Open at the Los Angeles Country Club.


Joaquin Niemann


Niemann, 25, is playing for a lot more than this week.


He is playing to qualify for the Masters Tournament.


To accomplish that, Niemann, who is currently ranked at No. 70, will have to be 50th or better during the week before the Masters in April. He tied for 16th at the event last year.


Niemann, a member of LIV Golf, in which players receive no ranking points for LIV events, had fallen to No. 87 until he finished fifth last month in the Fortinet Australian PGA Championship and won the ISPS HANDA Australian Open in a playoff over Rikuya Hoshino, which qualified him for the event in Dubai. He started the final round four behind Hoshino, but closed with a 66.


“This season wasn’t the best for me,” he told the media. “I wanted to play more golf. It was huge to come up here and play good golf and get a result.”


Niemann, the top-ranked amateur in the world for 44 weeks in 2017 and 2018, has won twice on the PGA Tour, including the Genesis Invitational in 2022. He joined LIV in summer 2022.


Cameron Young


Young, ranked No. 25, has been very impressive in his first two seasons on the PGA Tour with 12 top 10s. Four of the top 10s came in major championships.


Still, there has been one thing missing: a victory.


In the 2021-2022 season, Young, 26, finished second on five occasions, including in the British Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews and was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.


In 2023, he lost to Sam Burns in the final of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Texas.


“There might not have been anybody beating him today the way he played,” said Young, who was 41 under par for the week.


Young, whose father was the head professional at Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York, shot a 74 in the third round of the Sentry event this month, but rebounded the next day with a 65 to finish in a tie for 33rd.


Padraig Harrington


It is safe to assume that three-time major champion Harrington, 52, won’t make a serious run at the title. He hasn’t won on the DP World Tour since 2016.


On the other hand, Harrington has played well since turning 50. In 2023, he made the cut in three of the four majors, his best finish a tie for 27th at the U.S. Open. On the PGA Tour Champions, a senior tour, he posted 10 top 10s last year in 13 appearances, including victories at the DICK’S Sporting Goods Open and TimberTech Championship. There was even talk in the media of him being a captain’s pick for the Ryder Cup in Rome.


“I needed to push forward,” Harrington said in August, “but I just think I haven’t played enough events to give myself a better (chance).”


Harrington didn’t give himself much of a chance at last year’s Desert Classic in Dubai. He opened with an 81.


“It was one of those days,” he said afterward. “You get them hopefully only once a year when you are a bit of a klutz all day.” Harrington, who has three top 10s in Dubai, rebounded with a 65 on day two, but missed the cut.

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