Ryder Cup star Paul Lawrie has confirmed he will attempt to win a record third Commercial Bank Qatar Masters title next month to add to his victories in 1999 and February this year. The 43-year-old is only the event's second two-time champion, following Australian Adam Scott who won in 2002 and 2008.
The 16th Commercial Bank Qatar Masters will, for the first time, be played from Wednesday to Saturday, January 23-26, at Doha Golf Club, positioning the US$2.5 million event at the heart of the 2013 European Tour's three-week Middle East swing.
Now enjoying a 'second wind' in his career, Lawrie won two European Tour titles in 2012, finished 10th in the Race To Dubai with over EUR 1.9 million (about USD 2.5 million), reached a career-high world ranking and beat Brandt Snedeker in the singles to help Europe retain The Ryder Cup.
Although hot off what he describes as the most 'consistent' season of his career, the 1999 Open Champion has tempered expectations of another victory in Doha.
"It's a tournament I enjoy, where I've not only won twice but had a lot of good finishes. It'll be my third event of 2013 so I should be game sharp, more than I would be if it was my first event," said Lawrie, who will head to Doha after competing in European Tour events in Durban, South Africa and Abu Dhabi, UAE.
"I know the course well, as we've played there many times. I look forward to going back, but there are very few people who go to tournaments and successfully defend. Obviously you go there with good feelings, but sometimes that holds you back a wee bit, makes it harder to win again."
Although strong winds on the Friday reduced this year's Commercial Bank Qatar Masters to 54 holes, Lawrie was in his element on the 7,374-yard Championship Course. Adept at keeping the ball low and nicknamed 'Chippy' for his short-game prowess, the Scot chipped-in twice during a closing 65 that gave him a 15-under-par total of 201, blowing the field away with a four-stroke win and leaving the likes of Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Martin Kaymer in his wake.
Aberdeen born and bred, Lawrie relishes the winter conditions in Qatar as they combine with Peter Harradine's all-grass design at Doha Golf Club to resemble the golf he's used to playing in Scotland, where he turned pro in 1986 as a 17-year-old before joining The European Tour in 1992.
"I just like playing in Doha. It's 'linksy', it's windy, you've got to knock the ball down, you've got to think a wee bit more. It's not just stand up and give it a 'batter'," said Lawrie, who won the first of his eight European Tour titles in 1996.
"I enjoy it that way. You've got to play the ball, shape the ball a wee bit, which is unusual these days. You don't have to do that very often, but Qatar's got that. It's always breezy, but even though it's windy, scoring's always good because there are chances and the greens are firm, which we like. But you've got to keep the ball down."
Lawrie's victories in Doha arguably kick-started his two most successful seasons ever. His win in February 1999 was followed five months later by his Open Championship win at Carnoustie, launching him into the international golfing spotlight and helping him finish sixth on The European Tour money list. After winning further titles in 2001 and 2002, each year finishing in the top 10 on the money list, Lawrie then went through an eight-season winless streak.
In March 2011, victory at the Open de Andalucia in Spain highlighted a resurgence in form and was followed by two top-fives in May and a runner-up finish at December's lucrative, season-ending Dubai World Championship.
However, his play moved to a new level in 2012 as he teed off the season with top 10s in Durban and Abu Dhabi before victory in Doha vaulted him back into the world's top 50 for the first time since July 2003 and set him on course for a memorable year. The win helped secure starting spots in the WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship, WGC - Cadillac Championship and the Masters Tournament over in the US.
"Doha was a huge week for me, as I was just outside the top 50 and it was one of my last chances to get top 50 for the Match Play and to get into the Masters," Lawrie said. "I enjoyed the week as I played beautifully, especially on the last day, when I was seven-under at a canter. I could have been a few less than that. I played really well."
Lawrie reached the third round of the Accenture Match Play in late February and tied 24th at the Masters in April. In May, he reached the semi-finals of the Volvo World Match Play Championship in Spain, losing to eventual champion Nicolas Colsaerts on the second extra hole, then finished joint runner-up to Luke Donald in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Club in England.
In late August, he delighted home fans in Scotland by winning his eighth European Tour title with a four-stroke victory at the Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, then finished joint sixth in the following week's Omega European Masters in Switzerland.
Rising to a career high of 27 in the Official World Golf Ranking ahead of The Ryder Cup, Lawrie played a key role in the 'Miracle at Medinah', beating UA PGA Tour Championship winner Snedeker 5 & 3 early in the Sunday singles to help inspire Europe's phenomenal fightback. In November, his joint-10th finish at the Hong Kong Open meant he finished this year's European Tour with an impressive nine top 10s from 25 starts.
"I think consistency wise, 2012 has been my best season. I've been top 10 in about a third of the events I've played in, had two wins, won over EUR 1.9 million. I've played lovely this year. At 43, I feel as though I'm getting better, as though my game's improving. Things are in good shape," said Lawrie, who turns 44 on January 1 and is relishing his return to the top ranks.
"This is how I would have expected to have played after The Open [in 1999], but it's just so difficult when you win something as big as that. Your time is not your own. It's very hard to practise. It's very hard to get minutes to yourself, as you're kind of busy all the time. I'm not knocking it, because you want to be the Open Champion, but there are so many more things you've got to do and playing golf almost gets in the way of everything else.
"However, these last two or three years, I've been able to get back to doing what I want to do, swing the way I want to swing, and relax and just go to tournaments and chill, so it's been a nice run."
Lawrie will aim for the run of form to continue next month in Doha, where few would bank against the Scot again contending - especially if the wind gets up.