Nicolai Højgaard returns to Al Hamra Golf Club this week for the Ras Al Khaimah Classic and, following a stunning display which yielded a four-stroke victory last week, the big-hitting Dane is feeling confident he can claim back-to-back titles in the United Arab Emirates.
That impressive win at the Ras Al Khaimah Championship presented by Phoenix Capital only strengthened the 20-year-old’s reputation as one of golf’s brightest young stars – alongside his twin brother Rasmus.
Nicolai needs one more win to equal his sibling’s tally of three DP World Tour titles and, following a performance which – barring a stumble midway through the final round – was nigh on perfect, he feels he is in with a great chance of claiming wins in successive weeks.
Jordan Smith, meanwhile, has enjoyed a strong start to his 2022 campaign, with a top ten at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a tie for 12th at the Slync.io Dubai Desert Classic and then coming close to a second career victory last week – only to finish runner-up.
The Englishman is riding a wave of confidence, having won in Ras Al Khaimah on the Challenge Tour in 2016, and is hoping he can emerge victorious once again at Al Hamra.
Former Ryder Cup player Rafa Cabrera Bello makes his debut in Ras Al Khaimah this week, having claimed a share of second three weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, while Li Haotong’s tied third place finish last week continues his return to the kind of form which earned him two titles and saw him become the first Chinese player to enter the world’s top 50 in 2018.
Nicolai Højgaard: “I’m feeling pretty good. It was a grind out there and I had to dig deep so it felt really good and I’m really looking forward to teeing up again on Thursday.
“The phone has been buzzing the last few days so I haven’t talked or texted anyone yet, I’m trying to get into tournament mode now and focus on the week ahead, and hopefully play some good golf again.
“For me the most important part of this victory was that I was struggling quite a bit before coming here and then I struggled around 9 to 12. I had to dig deep, two shots behind with six to play. From there on I played some really good golf and that gave me some confidence. I think I can use that quite a bit in the future.
“It’s been one of my focus points after the first two weeks in Abu Dhabi and Dubai – my driving. It’s always been my strength it’s just about keeping it in play and last week it just clicked. I didn’t hit many fairways but you don’t have to hit many fairways here.
“I just tried to free up a bit more, just play golf instead of overthinking and navigate it to the fairways and that helped me a lot so that’s what I’m going to try do this week. If I keep my focus on the right things and free up and commit to what I have to do, I definitely have a chance again this week.”
Jordan Smith: “Really pleased with my start to the season. Been asked the question a few times, and there have obviously been some changes from previous years. I knew something needed to change and we had a look back at stats and performances and how I was feeling. We weren’t sure how it was going pan out this year but it’s worked out really well, I’m really happy with how everything is with the game and off-course.
“Obviously the last three years have not gone the way I wanted them to. Not making the DP World Tour Championship for the first time really annoyed me and I knew something needed to change. I’ve got a new caddie who’s been out here for a fee years and he’s a really good friend of mine – he was one of the ushers at my wedding. So we have a good relationship and I know he’s a good caddie, he was a good player too. Then there was a change of clubs and a lot of testing and finding out what worked for me.
“I feel like now I’ve got off to a good start, I’m really motivated to push on from where I am now. I’ve tended to have a pretty good start most seasons so I’ve got to keep it going and hopefully the schedule stays as it is for me as it’s looking exciting.
“Coming back I had good memories from 2016, obviously from winning here. So I came here with good memories and thoughts and I feel really comfortable around this course, don’t know what it is about it. It’s just nice and relaxed and a bit quieter than Dubai, I love the place.”
Rafa Cabrera Bello: “To be fair I’m happy with my start to the season, I made three cuts in a row. I had a really good chance in Abu Dhabi. The last two weeks I haven’t played as well at the weekends as I’d have liked to but I don’t feel there’s any reason for me to worry and to not see myself in contention this week.
“I like the course, I like the shape and the fact that the fairways can be a little tricky. You have to shape your ball a little, the more you play it the more you know when you can cut the corners and so forth.
“I can see there are some tricky pins there and a little bit of slope around the greens. I haven’t played it when it’s windy yet. I was talking with my partner and thinking, eight under in the Hero Challenge – these guys must have played really good, because we played well but we didn’t get close to that. I think it will be different with a little bit of wind though.”
Li Haotong: “It’s very pleasing to finish like that last week. It was a bit disappointing at the last hole but it was solid golf and I gained a lot of confidence from that.
“The last two years I haven’t been able to get home and then I finally got back for two months last year. I think that has helped a lot, to see a lot of old friends, my brothers and sisters. They have been very helpful, they’ve helped me to believe in myself and play good golf again.
“I just felt super-lonely, just myself and trainer. By the end my parents came out but it’s still difficult, I never had that experience before and I never thought golf would seem so tough. Normally if I have two weeks off I would fly back to China but the last two years I was based in Dubai a lot, so it’s been different.
“I felt I got the driver yips the last two years, but now I can drive the ball very well. It was one of my strengths before which I didn’t realise, it just became more enjoyable to play golf and enjoy everything then.
“I have had a good start to the season and my game is very sharp right now so hopefully I can win one and return to the winner’s circle.”