Stricker makes Middle East debut in Qatar

Steve Stricker

DOHA, Qatar – American Steve Stricker says the growing strength of the European Tour has convinced him to make his Middle East debut at the Qatar Masters.

Stricker follows Phil Mickelson, who made his debut in the Middle East last weekend at the Abu Dhabi Championship. Tiger Woods will return to play in the Dubai Desert Classic next week.

A nine-time winner on the PGA Tour, Stricker is ranked No. 7. Stricker acknowledged some of the best golf is being played on the European Tour, adding that he’s looking forward to competing against No. 1 Lee Westwood and No. 2 Martin Kaymer on Thursday.

“You’ve got a strong field here,” the 43-year-old Stricker said. “Now you’ve got Westwood and Kaymer who have been playing some great golf over the last year. I think it kind of goes in cycles. But right now, obviously the top players are over here in Europe and part of the reason why I came here.”

It will be the first time since 1993 that the top two golfers go head-to-head in a European Tour event.

Westwood replaced Woods at the top in October and needs to finish second if Kaymer wins the tournament to stay at No. 1. Kaymer, who won at Abu Dhabi, could claim No. 1 for the first time with a second-place finish if Westwood finishes no higher than 22nd.

“It’s obviously nice for us and for European golf that, you know, that 1 and 2 in the world are here at this tournament and both European,” Westwood said. “That just shows the strength of the European Tour now, the kind of fields that we have attracted in the first few weeks of the year.”

Westwood finished 64 in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, and was third in Qatar last year.

“The rough is up, and the greens certainly are very firm this year. So I think they have set it up well and it looks like a tough test ahead,” he said. “Obviously, I played well last year. I have to contend with a few different things. Smashed my driver on Saturday when I was just in the lead. Hopefully, it will all go to plan this week and I’ll do better than third.”

Defending champion Robert Karlsson said Stricker would be most dangerous around the greens.

“He’s very good at putting and wedges, probably one of best ones in the world,” said Karlsson, admitting the American remains a bit of an unknown quantity because he rarely plays on the European Tour.

Kaymer downplayed the tussle for No. 1, saying he wants to keep up the good play that resulted in an eight-shot win on Sunday. That propelled the German to No. 2, and Woods dropped to third.

“You know to be honest, it doesn’t really change anything,” he said. “My goal is not to become the No. 1 in the world right now. For me it’s just important to play tournaments, to play as good as I can in those tournaments.”

Still, the understated Kaymer admitted it would feel great to become the top-ranked golfer.

“It would make me proud to be No. 1, because yes, you can say what Lee can say nowadays, no one in the world, no one is better than you,” he said.

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