Muscat: The ceremonies, practice days and Pro-Ams are out of the way and it’s time for the real business to begin as the NBO Oman Open, the biggest professional sports event in the country’s history, gets underway at the stunning Almouj Golf on Thursday.
An all-star cast of European Tour players will cross swords on the exquisite Greg Norman-designed track, over the next four days to contest the $1.75 million event as the eyes of the golfing world fix firmly on the Sultanate.
Among field is current Race to Dubai Rankings leader Shubhankar Sharma who has taken the European Tour by storm in his rookie season with wins at the Joburg Open and the Maybank Championship.
“This is my first time in Oman and it’s such a fantastic golf course,” said the 21-year-old Indian who revealed that he has been impressed by what he’s found in Oman, both on and off the course.
“I had heard a lot of good things about it before I came from some of the Challenge Tour guys and it certainly lives up to expectation. I played nine holes the past two days and I’m really impressed with the whole course.
“I’ve had such a great welcome from the Omani people, they have been very kind. We are in a lovely hotel so I can’t complain about anything, it’s been fantastic.”
The NBO Oman Open, which offers free entry for spectators, will mark the first time Oman has hosted a European Tour event following five successful years of hosting tournaments on the second tier European Challenge Tour and Sharma believes that this week’s event is a worthy upgrade and one that he would dearly love to add to his rapidly growing collection of titles.
“I’m surprised this is the first time Almouj Golf has hosted a European Tour event as it’s such a great course,” he said. “It’s a tough, long course that can get windy; I definitely think that it’s a championship course. Now they have the event here I’m sure it will continue for many years to come.
“It would mean a lot to win an event in the Middle East especially at such a great course as Almouj Golf. I’m playing well at the moment so hopefully I can have four good rounds and we will see what happens. Every win is special to me so hopefully I can keep going and pushing my career on.”
Hoping for a repeat
One player who will be hoping that history repeats itself this week is Clement Sordet. The Frenchman roared to a two-shot victory in the Challenge Tour’s season-ending NBO Golf Classic Grand Final at Almouj Golf last November to take second place on the Road to Oman Rankings, which saw him graduate to play on this season’s European Tour.
“It’s great to be back here in Oman,” he said. “I have great memories here after my victory here in November. I don’t know if I can win again, but I’ll certainly try my best!
“You have to be really good with your course strategy to do well on Almouj Golf. I think the course can be difficult to get around if you don’t pay close attention to where you are hitting it and it can get really windy which makes it tricky.
“I don’t really want to concentrate on trying to win the ‘Oman double’. All I can do is try and play my best and we’ll see if that’s good enough to win a European Tour title.”
The field is jam packed full of former Ryder Cup players such as Darren Clarke, Robert Karlsson, Stephen Gallagher and Jamie Donaldson, not to mention European Captain Thomas Bjorn, who said: “The golf course condition and setting is stunning. We are all looking forward to a great week in Oman.”
Among those players hoping to rack up some Ryder Cup Points this week in a bid to make Bjorn’s team for the showdown with the USA in Paris this September is Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal.
“I’m amazed by Almouj Golf, it’s a really nice course,” said the 2008 European Tour Rookie of the Year. “I never expected it to be as good as it is. We play all over the world and this is the first time we are visiting Oman as a European Tour event and it has produced one of the best courses we will play on. The course is in peak condition and if the wind gets going as it has done in the past then it’s going to be a really tough test.
“I started the year very slowly and missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and Dubai but I made the cut in Malaysia and had a great weekend shooting 64 and 66 to finish tied third so I’m going in the right direction.
“I’m hoping to get as many Ryder Cup points as possible before the Rolex Series events start around spring time. If I want to get in the Ryder Cup then I’m going to have to be playing the best golf of my life from May to August so let’s see what we can do and hopefully I can keep the momentum going this week.”
Pro Am event
Englishman Jordan Smith, who was crowned Road to Oman Rankings winner at Almouj in 2016 and won his maiden European Tour title in his rookie season at last year’s Porsche European Open, helped his team to victory in Wednesday’s morning Pro-Am.
“I have fond memories of Oman and I’m delighted to be back with the European Tour,” said Smith. “The golf course at Al Mouj Golf is in excellent condition so special thanks must go to Steve Johnson, the Golf Course Superintendent at Almouj Golf and his agronomy team.”