In the more than three decades that have passed since former Ryder Cup captain Mark James won the European Tour’s inaugural event in the Middle East, the population of Dubai has multiplied more than five-fold. Lengthy traffic jams are now far from unusual on the 10-lane Sheik Zayed Road that runs past the entrance to the Emirates Golf Club. And this week, despite COVID-19 gallery restrictions, things are just as congested inside those gates.
On the leader board at least.
With one round to play in the 33rd Omega Dubai Desert Classic, social distancing is being legitimately ignored. Paul Casey leads at 15-under 201 after a third-round 64 that has him one shot ahead of Robert MacIntyre, who in turn is one clear of Brandon Stone. A little further removed from contention, those tied for 10th are eight back of Casey but still just three strokes behind Sergio Garcia and Laurie Canter in fourth.
Holding those positions for another 18 holes will be no easy task for all concerned though. Sprinkled amongst the top-10 are four major champions (Garcia, Justin Rose, Shane Lowry and Padraig Harrington), a former World No. 1 (Lee Westwood) and a past European No. 1 (Tommy Fleetwood). So the likelihood is that even those with shots in hand will have to go low again over the 7,624-yard Majlis course. Which is nothing Stone, for example, hasn’t done before. Three years ago, the South African won the Scottish Open with a closing round of 60 at Gullane.
“Yes, there are birdies and eagles to be made,” said Harrington, who is seven under par and eight shots off the pace. “So there will be pressure on the leaders to maintain their pace, especially given some of the names that are piled up behind them.”
Still, so far on greens that are bare, bumpy and, in places, almost frictionless surfaces—“It’s like putting in a U.S. Open,” Harrington said. “Even short putts can run three or four feet past.”—the scoring was, with a few notable exceptions, exceptional.
Both Casey and MacIntyre made six birdies and an eagle, the three-shot difference in their Saturday scores covered by the young Scot’s dropped shot at the short fourth that preceded a double-bogey 6 at the fifth. Had the pair been playing head-to-head, the “match” would have finished all-square.
Not surprisingly, both were happy with their day’s work in the desert. Casey, who already has 14 European Tour wins to his name, was especially chipper after a birdie-eagle finish to his round.
“It was perfect club,” said the 43-year-old Arizona-based Englishman of his 3-iron approach over water to the final green. “It always helps when you have a nice number in there. It’s always been a glorious finish. It was a cool-looking shot when Monty [Colin Montgomerie, en route to victory in 1996] hit a driver off the deck without the skyline you get now. So it’s one of the iconic shots in golf. To have a perfect 3-iron in there and finish off with an eagle is pretty cool. I’m enjoying my golf, and that was an example of it today.”
MacIntyre was equally effusive—and confident in his ability to claim what would be his second title in three months on his home circuit.
“I played great golf,” said the 24-year-old Scot. “I controlled my ball as good as I have all week. The wind was up more today, but I was patient and committed to every shot. That’s something I struggled with last year. But this year, it’s been drilled into me: accept what comes. Just control what you can control. And it’s working well. My confidence is as high as it’s ever been. I’m driving it great. … And I’m striking my irons as well as I did late last year. I’m looking forward to tomorrow. I’m not going to hang about. I’m going to put it all on the line whether it’s good or bad.”
Speaking of the latter, things didn’t go swimmingly for everyone. As many accelerated up the leader board, the highest-ranked player in the field slid into reverse. PGA champion and World No. 4 Collin Morikawa made seven bogeys in his four-over-par 76 and sits a distant T-69. Out early on Day 4 alongside Miguel Angel Jimenez, at least he’ll beat the traffic.