Danny Willett aims to capitalise on absences at Turkish Open
Pádraig Harrington hopes new style of putting will bring him back-to-back wins
Roof with a view: Andrew Johnston hits a shot from the 16th tee which is on top of a villa during a practice round at the Turkish Open. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
There’s bulletproof glass in the villas around the golf course here at Regnum Carya, the plush golf resort which is playing host to the Turkish Airlines Open.
It’s a legacy of last year’s G20 leaders’ summit and nothing to do with any of the perceived security issues that have deprived this first tournament of the European Tour’s “Final Series” of many of its marquee names.
Only three players from the current top 10 in the Race to Dubai standings have made the trip. US Masters champion Danny Willett, who is struggling with his game after swing changes necessitated by an ailing back, will be aiming to benefit from the absence of Henrik Stenson, the man above of him in the standings, and Rory McIlroy, the player immediately below him.
McIlroy’s absence has hurt the event most of all. Lee Westwood, for one, is “disappointed” that his Ryder Cup team-mate and world number three didn’t travel. In doing so, McIlroy effectively ruled himself out of the Race to Dubai title race.
“Rory brings an awful lot to a golf tournament. He’s a former world number one and defending the money list and he has pretty much taken himself out of that by not playing this week,” Westwood said.
“On his day I like watching Rory play golf more than anybody else really, just how naturally good he is and he has been like that since he was 13 or 14 years of age when I first played with him at the Forest of Arden; it is a shame [he’s absent]. I guess he didn’t feel the way I feel about the place and the security of it all.”
On one point, though, Westwood sung from the same hymn sheet as McIlroy. In a podcast with the US-based No Laying Up, McIlroy said the European Tour should adapt its Ryder Cup qualifying rules so that players, as happened with Paul Casey, shouldn’t be ruled out of playing for Europe if deciding not to take up tour membership.
Westwood said: “It’s unfortunate when you have clearly world-class/Ryder Cup experienced players missing out because they have chosen to live in America or play golf solely in America. I can always sympathise with them because I don’t see why that personal decision should affect whether you can play in the Ryder Cup or not.”
That issue is not at the front of Willett’s mind, as the Masters champion seeks to address a poor run of form in his attempt to regain the lead in the order of merit from Stenson.
The Swede had never included the Turkish event in his schedule. Stenson resumes tournament play at next week’s Nedbank championship in Sun City, but Willett is playing all three up to the showdown in the desert in Dubai.
“So far this year, I’ve been the leader for a long, long time. Unfortunately last week [in Shanghai] I had probably my worst event on tour for the years I’ve been on. This is a pretty big week. Henrik’s not here, it gives me a chance to close that gap or hopefully leapfrog him again and make it interesting coming down to the last two,” said Willett.
Since winning the Masters, Willett has had only two top-five finishes, most recently as runner-up in the Italian Open in September.
In that time, he has also missed four cuts. He talked of being “stale” and of lacking “confidence”. And, in a case of rather curious timing, he has sought to incorporate some swing changes in the middle and height of the season.
“Unfortunately golf’s a strange game and you’re trying to get better and better. You’re trying to push your game forward and, at times, that leads to taking a few steps backwards . . . I’m on a bit of a stale run. The focus isn’t on the short-term goal, it’s the long-term goal and you have to make changes and do something differently if you want to get better,” said Willett.
Willett is the only player in the field who can leapfrog Stenson in the Race to Dubai standings. For everyone else, it is about chasing a title which, even allowing for the diluted field, promises to be hard won.
Victor Dubuisson, the defending champion and winner on two occasions in the past three years, will try to bring that form to the new venue at Carya.
A winner of the Portugal Masters two weeks ago, Pádraig Harrington, the only Irish player in the 78-man field, has attributed his return to the winner’s enclosure to his new putting.
“I played with a few of the younger guys and they all use this black line and just hit the ball down the black line. I fought against it over the years and never really liked it,” he said.
“I just wasn’t putting as well as these guys so I said, ‘look, I’ve got to do what they do’, and I kind of took a while to break through the barrier of getting comfortable with that. But it’s improved my putting no end. Just simply putting a little black line on the ball and rolling it. That was probably the biggest key to the putting.”
So, can he go back-to-back on tour? “I think my attitude doesn’t need me to win this week. It needs me to take the same approach I took into Portugal and keep doing that every week and be patient and wait for the wins to come.”
Course: Regnum Carya is hosting its first Turkish Airlines Open. The tournament was staged at the Montgomerie Maxx Royal for the past three years where Frenchman Victor Dubuisson was a winner in 2013 and 2015.
Prize money: €6.3 million (€1,065,388 to the winner)
Course guide: Notable for being the first golf course in Europe with floodlights, this course – designed by Thomson, Perrett & Lobb, the course architect company founded by former Open champion Peter Thomson – has heathland characteristics.
More than one million heather plants were added to add to the heathland feel. It is set on undulating sand hills which run through a pine forest. One of the more unusual features is that the 16th tee – on at least one of the rounds – will be located on the rooftop of one of the villas on the resort.
The Final Series: This is the first of the European Tour’s season-ending run-ins known as the “Final Series” with the Nedbank championship in Sun City and the DP World Tour championship completing the run over a three-week stretch.
Irish in the field: Alone he stands: Pádraig Harrington. The Dubliner had originally intended playing the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas on the PGA Tour until his win in the Portugal Masters earned him a place in all three of the Final Series tournaments.