UAE golf 2016 in review: Fowler and Willett set the tone, Feng triumphed yet again
As 2016 wraps up and attention turns to the golfing action in the Emirates in 2017 with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship kicking things off next month, here is a look at the main golfing stories from the past 12 months.
Fowler swoops for Falcon
Expected to be a duel in the sun between the game’s two brightest stars, Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship debutant Jordan Spieth and UAE regular Rory McIlroy eventually played second fiddle to Rickie Fowler, with the American stealing the spotlight in January.
Fowler, then outside the so-called “Big Three” of Spieth, McIlroy and Jason Day, captured the Falcon Trophy at only his second attempt, finishing one stroke ahead of Thomas Pieters.
The victory, sealed in large part by two superb chip-ins on Sunday, lifted Fowler to a career-best fourth in the world rankings.
Compatriot Bryson DeChambeau courted some attention that week, too, with the emerging amateur, a physics whizz with a unique approach to the game, leading the event after the opening round.
Willett major credentials
Having already suggested he was fast becoming one of the European Tour’s leading lights, Danny Willett underlined his talent with a brilliant, one-shot victory at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February.
The Englishman, runner-up to Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai the previous season, holed a 15-footer on the 72nd hole to pip Andy Sullivan and Rafa Cabrero Bello to the coveted Coffee Pot trophy.
Within two months, Willett was a major champion, slipping into the Green Jacket following a three-stroke win at the US Masters.
The triumph at Emirates Golf Club had obviously built confidence and momentum.
What is more, in the week before Augusta, Willett welcomed into the world his first child. A pretty nice early-season treble, eh?
Dubai associates win big on Earth
There was a distinctly local feel to the prize-giving at the DP World Tour Championship this year. First, Matt Fitzpatrick was the lowest-scoring player around the Earth course, with the Golf in Dubai ambassador bettering Tyrrell Hatton by a single shot to win — his third professional title.
Meanwhile, Henrik Stenson, once a long-time Dubai resident, came home tied-ninth to seal the season-long Race to Dubai — his second in four years.
However, one of the most memorable moments at Jumeirah Golf Estates came from Rory McIlroy, but not as you would expect.
The four-time major champion was made to squirm in an amusing interview with the European Tour’s ‘Little Billy’, a no-holds-barred grilling that touched on his private life. The video quickly went viral.
Ladies golf bittersweet
Abu Dhabi welcomed the Ladies European Tour for the first time last month, when the inaugural Fatima bint Mubarak Ladies Open took place at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club.
Suitably, there was no shortage of star power, with all-time great Annika Sorenstam invited to the capital to help promote women’s golf among Emiratis.
It was an American who sealed the title, though, with Beth Allen winning by three shots — a result that contributed significantly to her Order of Merit success.
Then, at the Omega Dubai Ladies Masters, tragedy struck when caddie Max Zechmann collapsed and died during the first round, meaning play for the day was suspended and the tournament reduced to 54 holes.
Shanshan Feng eventually prevailed for a third successive time — and fourth Dubai win altogether.
Mena Tour progresses
The developmental tour, the brainchild of chairman Mohamed Juma Buamaim, enjoyed its finest year in its sixth season, growing to 17 tournaments in seven countries, including Morocco, Spain and South Africa.
In April, the circuit’s progress was endorsed by the OWGR, which awarded world rankings points and thus made it even more attractive.
Another landmark arrived in September at the Dubai Creek Open, when the tour celebrated its 50th tournament.
Yet arguably its greatest success story of 2016 was Rayhan Thomas, the Dubai-based teenager who triumphed at Dubai Creek while still an amateur — the first non-professional to win on Mena.
Thomas went on to secure the amateur Order of Merit crown.
A bright future lies ahead.
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Updated: December 27, 2016 04:00 AM