Golfing great Colin Montgomerie feels European golf is on the cusp of a special new era as they prepare to wrestle the Ryder Cup back from famous foes America.
The United States will come into the 2018 tournament as defending champions in September for the first time in eight years – having stopped a three tie losing streak at Hazeltine two years ago.
Much of the talk over the past two years has centered on the US being heavily fancied to retain the title in France for the first time in a quarter of a century – since they backed up their 1991 triumph with victory at The Belfry two years later.
Backed by world number one Dustin Johnson, there are eight Americans ranked inside the world’s top-20, five of whom are in the top-10.
But there are nine Europeans in the top-20 and European legend Montgomerie is anticipating a thrilling spectacle in Paris.
“I think we are beginning to see one here (a strong European era),” said the Scot at Emirates Golf Club on Tuesday ahead of appearing at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic – starting on Thursday.
“Thomas Bjorn must be thrilled with the state of European golf right now, as we all are.
“We’re all great fans and love the European game, and I think that he can only be delighted about what’s happening at the weekend there with Sergio (Garcia) winning and Tommy Fleetwood proving himself yet again.
“I just saw Tyrrell Hatton and I believe Paul Casey has rejoined the [European] Tour and you’ve got Jon Rahm, as well. The four guys I mentioned are going to be a real asset to Thomas’ team come September.”
Montgomerie enjoyed a winning stint as European captain, leading the continent to a thrilling 14.5–13.5 victory at the Celtic Manor in Wales in 2010.
He also appeared in eight Ryder Cups as a player, winning five times in the span of six events (1995, 1997, 2002, 2004 and 2006).
And while Bjorn will likely lean on the experience of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Henrik Stenson and Garcia, he feels the team will be refreshed by the new, young wave of talent.
“I think that the Americans fancy themselves as they always do, you know, as favourites coming in here with success recently,” said Montgomerie, a winner here in Dubai in 1996 – the seventh staging of the tournament.
“But I tell you what, that will be game on in France. It will be very, very interesting to see how we go there. Those four players I mentioned will really be a huge asset to Thomas, that Darren (Clarke) didn’t have last time.
“These two years is a long time in sport and it’s moved on greatly in those two years. The likes of Fleetwood, Hatton, Jon Rahm, have appeared, really from nowhere on to this world stage. And Paul Casey, thank goodness, has rejoined the Tour because he’s always been a world player.”
As birthday presents for golf-mad teenagers go, enjoying a round in the Dubai sunshine with Rory McIlroy would probably be right up at the top of the list.
Promising Dubai-based talent Rayhan Thomas celebrated his 18th birthday back in November – but his best present arrived two months later as he teed it up with world number 11 McIlroy on Tuesday ahead of both players featuring at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic – starting Thursday.
The Indian amateur, born in Dubai, competes at Emirates Golf Club on a sponsor’s invite this week, enjoying nine holes with McIlroy on the Majlis course in preparation.
It’s one both players know well. Thomas, ranked 1,039th in the world, has grown up playing there, while McIlroy has fond memories having earned his first professional win here at this tournament back in 2009, aged 19, when he was only a year older than Thomas.
There are plenty of talented young golfers in the world today. But four-time major winner McIlroy believes Thomas has what it takes to make it to the top, because he has the right attitude, to go along with his talent.
“I would always go up to practice at The Els Club [at the Butch Harmon School of Golf] and he’s worked with [instructor] Justin [Parsons] and I remember everyone talking about this little Indian kid who’s got a really bright future,” recalls McIlroy of encountering a nine-year-old Thomas when McIlroy himself was emerging as a precocious talent back in 2010.
“It’s funny. He was nine? He looked 14 or 15 then. That’s unbelievable. “He’s come along so well since I first met him and everyone was talking about him then.
“I’ve always had time for him, he’s a really nice kid and he’ll do well. He’s got the right attitude to do well and I think that’s the most important thing. You see loads of kids with a lot of talent and they can do a lot. But if you don’t have the right attitude or work ethic it can only take you so far.
“He’s got his head screwed on and was obviously brought up the right way, and that will serve him well as he hopefully progresses in the game and goes from strength to strength.”
McIlroy added: “He’s doing really well in the amateur ranks, he’s played in the Sir Michael Bonallack Trophy which I played in 12 years ago, so he’s going to do great as long as he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself and enjoys it.
“He’s progressed so well and he’s a great player. He does all the right things, he practices hard, he works on the right things and he’s got a good attitude, and it’s good to see him get opportunities like this, at some top class events with some top class players.”
McIlroy admits he was happy to offer any advice or answer questions for a player now a regular on the MENA Tour, although he remembers just simply enjoying similar opportunities to play with iconic players, such as compatriot Darren Clarke, when he was Thomas’ age.
“Not much,” replied McIlroy when asked what advice he game to Thomas.
“He’s playing a practice round just like I am. If he wants to ask me questions he’s more than welcome to and I’ll happily answer them, but I just let him do his thing.
“If he picks things up and asks me some questions, great, but I try never to impose or offer advice, because some guys don’t like that.
“Because I was like that. When I was out here playing with Darren Clarke (as a kid), I just wanted to enjoy the experience, I didn’t really want them to offer advice. I just wanted to experience it and see how they prepare for tournaments. But I’m happy to help.”
Clarke, winner of the 2011 Open Championship, described Thomas as “a huge talent” last September after the prodigy fired a magical 10-under 61, highlighted by a world record-equaling nine birdies in a row, in a stunning display of golf in the second round of the Dubai Creek Open.
And whether Thomas asks for help or not, McIlroy feels nurturing the younger generation is a vital role the world’s top golfers play.
“Whether it’s here or wherever I always try and play some practice rounds with the guys who are upcoming because I don’t feel like it was that long ago that guys were doing the same with me,” he said.
“They helped me a lot and it’s easy for me to say to Rayhan ‘look, let’s go and play nine holes’. His game looks in great shape, he obviously knows this place really well, so as long as he doesn’t put too much pressure on himself, he just goes out and enjoys it, he should do fine.”
Fresh off their brilliant victories last week, Sergio Garcia and Tommy Fleetwood will look to keep the momentum going when the European Tour rolls into the city for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic starting at Emirates Golf Club from Thursday.
Playing 5,892-km apart, the sizzling duo set the tone for the season with Masters winner and defending champion Garcia racking up an emphatic five-shot win at the Singapore Open and 2017 Race to Dubai winner Fleetwood carving out a dramatic two-shot victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
The two will have their work cut out when they join a star-studded field headlined by 10 major winners and three Ryder Cup captains among other European Tour elites, including Ross Fisher, runner-up to Fleetwood last week, and seasoned campaigner Lee Westwood.
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Coming off a three-month break from competitive golf as he recovered from a lingering rib injury, McIlroy showed no signs of rust, finishing a credible tied third last week and he will be a nailed-on favourite to match Els’ long-standing record of three wins at Emirates Golf Club.
With multiple players capable of erupting at different times, including ‘The Volcano’ Pat Perez, packing the field, the potential storylines are strong as ever, befitting the ‘Made for Greatness’ tagline of the tournament, now in its 29th year.
Having cracked the top 20 in the world for the first time in his career after his victory at the CIMB Classic in Malaysia in October last year, Perez is determined to keep his resurgence steaming ahead on his debut at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
“I have always wanted to see Dubai because of how much it has grown over the years. I have just wanted to see what it looks like. And I have always wanted to play the tournament,” said the 41-year-old American, a self-confessed late-bloomer.
Plotting a way to regain their aura of old will be 2018 European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn, Colin Montgomerie and colourful Miguel Angel Jimenez — all former winners of the iconic Dallah Trophy — as they will be joined an exciting crop of youngsters led by Matthew Fitzpatrick looking to match their success.
The tournament has a tradition of encouraging emerging talent and 2018 will be no exception. The top three MENA Tour professionals (Jamie Elson, Henric Sturehed and Luke Joy) along with the leading amateur (Todd Clements) have earned special invitations and they will be joined by Dubai-based Rayhan Thomas, the top ranked amateur in the region, and Moroccan ace Ahmed Marjan.
“All of them will relish the prospect of competing with the world’s best and measuring their skills against players of such proven quality as Garcia, McIlroy and Henrik Stenson,” as Peter Dawson, chairman of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic said.
Setting the mood for an action-packed week will be global superstar Niall Horan, who will be featuring in the Wednesday’s Pro Am alongside his good friend McIlroy in the afternoon shotgun.
The multiple-award winning performer caddied for McIlroy at the Par-3 Contest at the Augusta National in 2015, Niall, but it will be the first time he will be showing off his golfing skills in a curtain-raiser to a major European Tour event.
Meanwhile, a series of activities planned on and off the course will help keep the atmosphere buzzing, giving the event the energy of a Major.
The tournament will wear a ‘Pink’ look on Friday to create breast cancer awareness, especially amongst young people, with the aim of promoting healthy lifestyles in addition to supporting initiatives of Al Jalila Foundation Research Centre, the UAE’s first independent multi-disciplinary medical research centre.
Day tickets for the Omega Dubai Desert Classic are priced at Dh 175. A season pass, which provides access all week, is available for Dh 500. Under-16s gain free entry when accompanied by an adult who is holding a valid ticket. Visit www.omegadubaidesertclassic.com