Extra-girthy leaderboard developing here in the Middle East on Saturday afternoon, just in time for everyone back stateside to roll out of bed, grab some coffee and flip on the tube. Sky Sports has the coverage on site. Beemer and Wayne Riley roaming the grounds. Put it in my veins. What a pleasure rubbing shoulders with these cats all week – the coverage they provide is spot-on and should be an example of what networks should aspire to in the US.

One update on the vibe front before we get to the golf: heard some rumors prior to seeing it in person, and they all turned out to be true: the Friday brunch scene here is legendary. There are a staggering number of ex-pats from all over the world here and they truly live the work hard, play hard mantra. To the golf…

Scouting Report

Is Thomas Pieters making the leap this year? It sure feels that way Keeps a suuuuuper low profile and slumped since Firestone (was 23rd in OWGR at that time, has since fallen to 40th). Feels like he needed an adjustment period to get his feet under him, figure out how he wants to build his schedule, and now he’s ready to roll. He’s the antidote to people who complain about Euro Tour guys being unfairly rewarded in OWGR. Take a look at Jhonny Vegas, who is currently one spot ahead of Pieters. Vegas won the Canadian Open back-to-back the last two years but hasn’t done much of anything in majors or top-tier events, while Pieters hasn’t won yet in the states he’s bagged three wins in Europe and keeps stacking top-fives in Majors and WGC’s. Don’t want to read too deep into one showing, but the sense here is that he’s putting it all together. One thing that will need to improve is his consistency – missed seven cuts last year.

Another guy who has good things in store this year is Martin Kaymer: bring his name up to anyone out here – players, caddies, officials, agents, etc. – and everyone raves about him. His game is tidy, he’s won massive events, and he’s criminally underrated stateside. By all accounts he has even more game off the course (#fuqs).

One of the reasons for this trip was essentially a fact-finding mission to scout out prominent Europeans who don’t play often in the states but are very much relevant on the world stage. Some notes on that front: Still need to get out and see Ryan Fox today or tomorrow – he’s the one guy on my list who I have not yet seen play. Thus far the guys who I was keen to see have impressed – Jordan Smith and Lucas Bjerregaard seem to be polishing off some rust, however both possess swings that scream “high ceiling.” Thomas Detry is filling it up today (7 under thru 13 today, two behind his countryman and fellow Illinois alum Pieters) and has a buttery swing, sharp disposition and exceptional Hugo Boss threads. Paul Dunne’s also been quite impressive – he reminds me of a more athletic version of McDowell (no offense GMac). “Uncle” Joost Luiten, on the other hand, seems to be getting by with grit and superior course management – his swing and stature equate to a souped-up version of Billy Hurley. Fabrizio Zanotti and Dylan Fritelli both fly under the radar and possess silky tempo. Caught a few holes of Richie Ramsay yesterday – he’s indistinguishable from Westwood from a distance (speaking of whom, shocking/sad to see Lee ditch the “Air Westy’s” and make the switch to Nike – he’s not the same without them).

Tommy Fleetwood is marvelous – couldn’t be more engaging with the fans. His energy level and disposition are a example for other guys to follow. He’s defending this week, has an infant at home and his travel schedule over the last few years has been nutty – the guy is getting pulled in a million different directions and yet he manages to put on a ballstriking clinic and not miss a beat. Poise, man.

Golf in the UAE

Got deep in some capital J Journalism yesterday and got the backstory on Ahmed Al Musharrek, who shot 86-80 to miss the cut by 24 strokes. He is the first Emirati golfer to turn professional and is based out of Dubai. He plays mostly on the Euro Tour’s Middle East/North Africa version of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica. He received one of three spots afforded golfers with UAE ties. I discussed golf’s trajectory in the Emirates with some of the gentlemen responsible for #growing the game here, along with one of my partners in the Pro-Am, an Emirati national named Saef who plays on the country’s Eisenhower Cup team. The focus seems to be more on getting kids involved in the game at a grassroots level rather than incubating up-and-coming talent. Need to build the pipeline from scratch.

On that front, I relished the opportunity to speak at length with the tournament organizers and was shocked to learn how few exemptions they’re working with. They have eight total, three of which go to the aforementioned UAE-tied guys, and then the remainder on Dechambeau (past US Am champ, which they like to recognize here), Bjorn (current Ryder Cup captain), one on Olazabal (legend), one on Rock (past champ), and one on McDowell (who is no longer exempt on the Euro Tour). Beyond that, they were able to get Kuchar and DJ in via their spots in the top 50 in the world. Otherwise everyone here is pretty much here on his own accord, owing to the fact that its a great season opener in a comfortable setting. The European Tour schedule fascinates me. This year, the shift of the Qatar event to February to pair with the new Oman event is a boon for this tournament, as now Abu Dhabi are in back-to-back weeks. Many European players will then head over to the states to play either/both Riviera and Honda. By utilizing appearance fees and exemptions effectively (particularly since the price of oil started slumping) this event has surpassed that of Dubai, despite having a much shorter history.

#NSFW pic.twitter.com/Pdx7t5xEhB

— Tron Carter (@TronCarterNLU) January 20, 2018

Odds and Ends

Got to meet Steiny this week. He’s been out here ferrying Kuch around…props to the big Dane Thomas Bjorn for flashing some game during a Ryder Cup year, he made the cut and keeps climbing up the board – pretty impressive considering all of the extra time and energy required of the captain…Trying to dig a little bit on Seungsu Hahn, who was a prominent junior player in the states during my formative years and then attended UNLV – he then faded into obscurity for almost a decade before reemerging the past couple years on the Japan Tour and now sits comfortably inside the top 100 in the world. Was quite shocked to see him bouncing around and am fascinated to see if his game translates outside of Asia…Speaking of the top 100, some interesting takeaways just running through it: Patrick Cantlay is up to 35th in the world despite only having 15 events on the books (his divisor is 40 events, so even if he plays mediocre golf this year he should continue to rise). Meanwhile, Bubba is down to 93rd in the world and dropping like a rock…speaking of rocks: Robert Rock’s hair is as spectacular in person as one could hope…I went deep down the Eisenhower Cup wormhole after playing with Saef in the pro-am – the 1994 iteration at Le Golf National in France featured Big Cat, Allen Doyle, Todd Demsey and John Harris. Doyle ended up winning low honors – need to do a deep dive on him, seems like a legendary cat….Last but not least, we simply don’t deserve Kiradech Aphibarnrat. He’s in form this week and should be primed for a big 2018. Currently 49th in the world and rising rapidly.

If you missed it yesterday, here’s what we were up to Monday through Friday this week. Enjoy the coverage today…