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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Next generation of European Tour stars ready for Dubai Desert Classic

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The latest crop of young stars to emerge on the European Tour will be aiming to add to their burgeoning trophy cabinets as the prestigious Dallah trophy is once again up for grabs at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic from January 28-31.

Reigning Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Sami Välimäki will be joined by fellow first-time winners from the 2020 season; Robert MacIntyre, Romain Langasque, Min Woo Lee and Rasmus Højgaard, all looking to take the next step in their careers at one of the Tour’s most prestigious tournaments. Big-hitting South African Wilco Nienaber will also tee it up with the aim of emulating his illustrious compatriot Ernie Els by winning his maiden European Tour titles at the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic.

While the tournament can boast the likes of Tiger Woods, Seve Ballesteros and Colin Montgomerie among its past winners, the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic has been a breeding ground for upcoming talent, with Els (1994) and Rory McIlroy (2009) breaking through on the Majlis.

Välimäki’s ascent has been rapid. After earning his European Tour card through Qualifying School in November 2019, he won on his sixth start on Tour at last year’s Oman Open and went on to finish 11th in the Race to Dubai. Earlier this month he was named the ‘Breakthrough Athlete of the Year’ at the Finnish Sports Personality of the Year awards.

“Last season I achieved the main goal I had, which was to win and get a better category on Tour, and now I can’t wait to make my Omega Dubai Desert Classic debut this year,” said the 22-year-old from Finland. “To be able to progress to this point after only turning professional in 2019 is something I’m very proud of and I want to keep going and keep improving. I know this is an important event in the world of golf when you look at some of the past winners and it would be amazing to join them.”

MacIntyre was named the 2019 Rookie of the Year after he had three runner-up finishes and he broke through late on in 2020 with victory at the Aphrodite Hills Cyprus Showdown. Now the 24-year-old is ready to kick-on and underline his status as one of Europe’s rising stars.

“I finished eighth in my Dubai Desert Classic debut last year and felt good on the Majlis course throughout the week,” said the left-hander from Scotland. “As a whole, last year was up-and-down for me on the golf course, but I’m looking forward to a clean slate this year and hopefully making some more progress – and this will be a great test against a world-class field and I’m excited to return.”

Højgaard was one of the in-form players when the Tour resumed after the initial halt to the 2020 season to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The young Dane posted four top-tens in succession during the UK Swing last summer, ending that run with his second victory of the campaign at the ISPS Handa UK Championship.

“My debut at the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic last year didn’t quite go as planned as I missed the cut, but I enjoyed the tournament and the experience,” said Højgaard, 19, who was born a week after his compatriot Thomas Bjørn won the 2001 Dubai Desert Classic. “The golf course was hard but playable and now I know what to expect when I return so I’m looking forward to getting back there again.”

Australia’s Lee sealed his first victory on home soil at last year’s ISPS Handa Vic Open and he will be hoping to follow in his elder sister’s footsteps as a winner in Dubai after Minjee won the OMEGA Dubai Moonlight Classic in November: “Watching Minjee win in Dubai last year was special and I can’t wait to get out there and try and emulate her,” said Lee. “It felt great to get my first win early in the year and I’m feeling good about the new season and making my debut in the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic.”

Frenchman Langasque, who clinched the prestigious Amateur Championship at Carnoustie in 2015, won his first European Tour title with two-stroke win over Välimäki at the ISPS Handa Wales Open at Celtic Manor last August. Prior to the victory, the 25-year-old has posted nine top tens on Tour including a runner-up finish at the 2019 South African Open.  Meanwhile Nienaber has firmly established himself on Tour after a string of impressive performances last year. The 19-year-old launched a 439-yard drive en route to a runner-up finish at the Joburg Open in November and earlier in the season posted a 4th place finish at the English Championship after receiving a last-minute place in the field as an alternate.

“Last year went beyond my expectations and I can’t wait to see what 2021 has in store,” said Nienaber. “I’m really excited about being able to tee it up in events like the OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic for the first time, hopefully I’ll be able to play my best and write my name alongside some of the game’s greatest players who have won this famous event.”

An elite field has been assembled for this year’s OMEGA Dubai Desert Classic, with a host of Major champions and Ryder Cup stars including Collin Morikawa, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Poulter all set to mix it with the stars of tomorrow.

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