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On the Road with Ernie: Qatar Masters

Ernie recaps last week's action at the Qatar Masters and previews a very busy week in Dubai which includes a visit to the new "desert links" course he's designing, a unique charity golf event and the defense of his title at the Dubai Desert Classic.

You know, I was hoping for something better than five-under par, tied-13th at last week's Qatar Masters. But being realistic, I guess it wasn't a bad week's work. Could have been better, could have been worse. I mean, I actually played okay - maybe a few too many mistakes, but that's to be expected when you're a bit rusty. The main problem, though, was my putting. I felt like I was struggling to make putts all week. And when I checked the tournament stats, it backed-up that theory. I was down in the bottom half of the field, which basically says it all. That's why I couldn't get myself into contention - I wasn't converting enough birdie chances and, when I missed greens, I didn't get up and down to save my par often enough. Hats off to Henrik Stenson, though. I pipped him last year, but he really delivered the goods this time and didn't even look like letting this one slip away. A round of 68 on a day like that was a strong performance from him and he deserved the win, no question.

Anyway, going back to the start of the week I made a pretty slow start to my first round. The front nine is the tougher and the longer of the two here at Doha, and I played these holes a bit scrappy, to be honest with you. But I slowly got myself into my round, and played a solid back nine. There are a few more opportunities for birdies on that side although it's a bit more varied and the course can bite back if you're not careful. I hit some good solid shots and it could have been a bit better, because I had two makeable putts on 17 and 18. Still, 71 wasn't a bad effort.

Friday gave us similar scoring conditions; enough of a breeze to make you think a bit about your shot-making. Starting on the 10th, I'd dropped back to level par for the tournament after six holes. But I got things going again around the turn, with birdies on the 16th, 18th, 1st and 4th holes, to get to four-under par for the tournament. In a way I'd done the hard bit, getting my round back on track, which made it all the more frustrating to finish the way I did, with bogeys on two of my last three holes to shoot 71 again.

That put me eight shots behind the leader. But looking on the bright side I was there for the weekend, which meant I'd equalled the European Tour record, with 69 consecutive cuts made. I had a lot of work to do, though. It was down to the real business at the weekend, trying to somehow get myself into contention with a low score on Saturday.

For the third round the wind switched 180-degrees, so the course was playing totally different. It was a little stronger than in the first couple of days, too, so that made it a challenging day. My round was one of those 'nearly' days. I really felt like I had a score in the mid-60s in me, but as it was, I had to birdie two of the last three holes just to break 70. As I looked at the scoreboard walking off the 18th green, I had a feeling I was going to be a little too far back on Sunday.

The Final Round

That's the way it turned out. By the end of the day Stenson was in a great position. It's obvious he likes the course and he was looking solid. I figured it would be half-a-miracle if I had a chance on Sunday. But you have to go in with the right frame of mine, because you never know; that's the thing with golf. I was five shots behind at the same time last year. This time it was six shots. I just set myself the goal to try and shoot as low as I could and see where it goes.

I knew that a lot would depend on the weather. As it turned out, Sunday was by far the toughest day of the week with a really strong, gusting wind blowing across the golf course. A lot of the holes out there were playing cross-wind, which is always tricky; you basically have to aim your tee shots into the rough on one side and hope the wind does its job.

It was always going to be a difficult day to make a big move and I got off to an iffy start, two over par after five holes. I battled hard to get it back to level. But that was that, basically. Before I even reached the turn I knew I had no chance of winning. It was just a case of having to grind it out all the way to the 18th and try to finish as high up the leaderboard as I could. Like I said at the start of this report, tied-13th isn't as high up as I want to be, not any week of the year. But it is what it is. It was the best I could possibly do last week.

Believe me, I'll be expecting much better things this week in Dubai.

Coming up this week...

In jet plane terms it's just a drive-and-pitch from Qatar to Dubai, for this week's Desert Classic, one of my favourite tournaments on the European Tour schedule. I'm defending the title I won in 2005, where I finished the tournament off in style with one of the best shots of my career, a 6-iron from 178 yards over water to make eagle on the 18th and win by a shot. And Tiger's here this year, of course. It should be a hell of a week.

My New Course at Sports City

On the way here I made the most of having what is basically a 'bonus' free day by paying a visit today to the golf course I'm designing at Sports City. It's called The Dunes, at Victory Heights. The design is fabulous on paper, and now that construction is fully underway I am really happy with how things are going. It's great when you come back to a site and see that so much progress has been made, not only in terms of the golf course, but within the overall Dubai Sports City project. The Dunes is going to be a world-class facility aimed at amateurs and professionals, families and individuals, and will set the standard of golf course design in this region. There's really nothing else like it in the world today.

In terms of the design, I'd call it a desert links - a combination of a links golf course and traditional 'classical era' design. You'll have broad and gently rolling fairways, giving everyone an opportunity to rip their driver! I like a golf course to offer a bit of space off the tee; that's the fun part.

Coming into the greens is going to be a real challenge; we'll have steep greenside bunkers, grassy swales and imaginatively designed greens. I want to make golfers think about their approach shots. Not just hit and hope. We're going to have a fine-textured Bermuda grass on the greens, which is conducive to maintaining smooth, fast putting surfaces all year round. They'll be as much a joy to putt on as those we're used to seeing in tournaments over here in Qatar and Dubai.

The course will measure 7,452 yards from the tips, but there will be five sets of tees allowing players a selection of different lengths from which to play the golf course. You can play it as tough as you like!

I tell you, it's going to be an amazing development when it's finished. Not only is there a great golf course, with beautiful villas and townhouses set in and around the links, there'll be a Butch Harmon School of Golf, his only facility outside of the US. Visitors will also be able to make use of a 100,000 square feet chipping and bunker area, state-of-the-art video equipment and instruction by top teaching professionals, including special appearances by Butch himself.

Chipping In for Charity

Anyway, back to golfing matters. It's obviously great to be back in Dubai again. I just love everything about this place. Before the serious business begins on Thursday, I'm playing again in the Jebel Ali Golf Resort & Spa Challenge on Tuesday. The match features three pairs of golfers, this year consisting of three of the world's top-5 and with 17 major championship victories between us. It's quite a gathering. Tiger is teamed-up with Mark O'Meara; Thomas Bjorn is playing with Darren Clarke; and I'm paired with my good friend Retief Goosen.

The format is nine holes, greensomes. For those not familiar with that type of competition, what happens is both golfers from each pair hit a drive on every hole and you then select the best one of the two and play alternate shots from there, until the ball is in the hole. I've played in this event lots of times over the years and it's always a lot of fun. As you can imagine, there's a competitive edge to it. And the good news is every birdie, eagle and (if someone's lucky) albatross, raises money for charity. It's a nice way to kick off the week.

Defending at Dubai

I have a great record in the Desert Classic and I'm really looking forward to it. The Emirates golf course is in perfect shape, as always, and we've got a strong field assembled. As a side issue if I make the cut here, it will be 70 events in a row and that will be a new record (sorry Bernhard!). As it happens, I'm also currently leading the list for consecutive cuts made on the PGA Tour, as well, on 24.

These are satisfying achievements, especially the European record which goes way back to the Johnnie Walker Classic in 2000, but it's certainly not the extent of my ambitions this week, nor any other week. I'm here to win this event again, for what would be the fourth time. If I can sort out my putting between now and Thursday, I've got a great chance, so that's going to be the main focus of my attentions in the build-up.

Win or not, I'll be writing again next week to tell you how things went.

Bye for now, then.

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