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After a brief visit to South Africa last week we move continents as the European Tour heads to Asia and the start of the regular 3-event desert swing. Abu Dhabi plays host this week before we move on to Qatar then Dubai for what are always strong events with decent fields as many of the higher-ranked players make their post-Christmas return to competitive action.
The pre-event news has been all about Rory McIlroy's late withdrawal after an MRI scan confirmed that he'd damaged a rib and he'll now be out of action for a few weeks while it mends. Even with Rory missing, the richest of the 3 Middle East events in terms of prize money (as well as some hefty appearance fees no doubt) has still managed to attract a very strong field this year though headlined by World No.3 Dustin Johnson, No.4 Henrik Stenson, defending champion Rickie Fowler and 3-time event winner Martin Kaymer plus the likes Alex Noren, Thomas Pieters, Branden Grace, Danny Willett and Matt Fitzpatrick. On top of that a very strong showing from the cream of the European Tour adds to the quality feel and it's clear we have a decent event on our hands here in Abu Dhabi.
Over on the PGA Tour Steve Bamford previews the CareerBuilder Challenge - you can read his thoughts on that event here.
Event Guide. This is the 12th successive year for this event at the Abu Dhabi GC on the European Tour and from the 11 previous events we have 8 different winners - three times for Martin Kaymer and twice for Paul Casey, with Chris DiMarco picking up the inaugural trophy in 2006, Englishman Robert Rock holding off Tiger et al in 2012, Jamie Donaldson edging to victory in 2013, Pablo Larrazabal recording an impressive victory over McIlroy and Mickelson in 2014, Gary Stal picking up the pieces in 2015 after Martin Kaymer surrendered a 10-shot lead and Rickie Fowler holing out twice in the final round 12 months ago to win by a stroke from Thomas Pieters.
Abu Dhabi GC. Designer: Harradine, 1998; Course Type: Desert, Technical; Par: 72; Length: 7,583 yards; Water Hazards: 9; Fairways: Paspalum; Rough: Rye; Greens: Tifdwarf Bermuda, 12 on the stimpmeter.
Course Overview. The 7,583 yard Peter Harradine track is flat and exposed, however with tighter fairways, additional bunkers in key landing areas and thick rough I'd err slightly more on the side of accuracy since the 2012 tweaks, although packing a decent punch off the tee certainly isn't a disadvantage. You'll need to be in the fairway to attack the pins here and good shots will ultimately be rewarded; the course can play tough though and there'll be no respite for players who aren't striking the ball well, however birdies can still be made when greens are found in regulation. The greens are fast Bermuda Tifdwarf with a fairly significant grain, however they are of top quality and reward good putts.
Tournament Stats. We've published some key player statistics for this week's Abu Dhabi Championship that will help to shape a view on players who traditionally play well at this event: Current Form | Tournament Form | First Round Leader Stats | Top 20 Finishes.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
DraftKings Predictor Model: For those of you who play DraftKings there's now a dedicated predictor model available here.
Winners & Prices. 2016: Rickie Fowler, 16/1; 2015: Gary Stal, 150/1; 2014: Pablo Larrazabal, 125/1; 2013: Jamie Donaldson, 66/1; 2012: Robert Rock, 150/1; 2011: Martin Kaymer, 8/1, 2010: Martin Kaymer, 14/1. For a summary of winners odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the completed 2016 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Abu Dhabi region is here. The tournament should enjoy warm (high 70s, low 80s) and dry conditions throughout the 4 days with light winds picking up just a little each afternoon, although nothing too taxing for the professionals.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 5 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
It's interesting to note that all 5 winners arrived with pretty consistent form without anything overly spectacular with last year's winner Rickie Fowler showing the most tangible form before lifting the trophy here. All 5 had decent weeks on the greens with Fowler showing excellent control from tee-to-green throughout the 4 days which was reflected in the fact that he made just 3 bogeys and a double over the course of the event. Stal in 2015 also had a solid week from tee-to-green and offset 6 bogeys with 25 birdies; Larrazabal scrambled fantastically for 4 days (78.3%) and made just 5 bogeys on the week on a tough track. Donaldson also scrambled well (77.8%) and made 6 bogeys on the week, whereas Rock made just enough birdies (21) to offset his 8 bogeys (50% scrambling).
On a track such as this, minimising mistakes is likely to be as critical a making birdies which makes a player's performance around the greens important this week. That said, the course is long and demanding off the tee so every aspect of a potential winner's game will be examined here and a top quality all-round performance may well be the answer to this riddle.
Digging deeper into the stats, the one common factor that links all 5 winners is that they'd produced a strong total putting performance in one of their most recent performances to suggest that they were approaching this event with some considerable confidence in their flat stack:
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner. All 5 winners listed above had recorded a top-10 finish in their previous 4 starts and that trend can be extended back for all of Kaymer, Casey and DiMarco's victories also. The past 5 winners hadn't mustered a single top 10 between them here in this event though prior to victory, so for all of Casey and Kaymer's domination a sparkling event history doesn't look to be a pre-requisite.
For me the winner of this is a player in reasonable recent form who's comfortable on tougher tracks where bogey avoidance is key, can excel on Bermudagrass greens and has produced some impressive form with the putter in a recent outing.
Bookmaker Offers: Latest offers and extended each-way places are detailed below. New customers can also get a free £10 no deposit required bet with Sky Bet - perfect for covering off one of the favourites this week:
My final selections are as follows:
The withdrawal of tournament favourite Rory McIlroy on Monday evening had bookmakers scrambling to re-price their books and the inevitable sea of blue that followed has meant that the prices about some mid-division players are a little less attractive than before, however with McIlroy out of the way - and let's face it, a fully fit Rory could have won this, no doubt whatsoever - the event suddenly becomes more winnable for all. Dustin Johnson and Henrik Stenson move into pole position as far as the bookies are concerned, however I'm happy to swerve on the basis that firstly DJ is yet to record a top-5 finish on a regular European Tour event on his travels and Stenson has missed the cut here on 3 of his last 4 attempts when this event has been his first competitive action since the festive break. With the in-form Rickie Fowler having the additional pressure of defending here this week, I'm happy to dig a little deeper down the list this week and Tyrrell Hatton gets my vote.
2016 was undoubtedly the breakthrough season for Tyrrell with victory at the Alfred Dunhill Links the icing on the cake of a year that also saw his first top-5 Major finish (Open Championship) and runner-up finishes at the Scottish Open and DP World Tour Championship. That final result of the season will have left a sour taste in the mouth of the 25 year-old as the tournament was there for the taking before Matt Fitzpatrick snatched victory, however it's all part of the learning curve for a young player with a huge career ahead of him. "Obviously it's a bitter pill to swallow," he said in interview afterwards, "but it's been a great week and for me it's been the best year of my life. So I can't get too downbeat, but these things happen. You know, it is what it is and I'm happy with how the week went. I'm sure hopefully in the future, I'll take my next chance."
The High Wycombe man has played competitively here at Abu Dhabi 3 times now and after finishing 10th on debut, ranking 3rd for putting in the process, he followed that up with a 6th place finish a year later. Last year's tie for 46th masks an excellent tee-to-green performance that saw Hatton fully get to grips with the demands of this layout ranking 1st for both Total Driving and Ball-Striking and if he can continue the excellent Bermudagrass putting performances we saw last year - including finishing top for total putting at the Earth Course on his last start - then I see no reason why he can't seriously contend here this week having been out in Dubai since last Thursday preparing for this week.
There are plenty you can make a case for this week: Alex Noren finished 2016 in incredible style although doesn't have a good record here, Thomas Pieters is a classy operator who was runner-up last year and Rafa Cabrera-Bello will surely build on his Ryder Cup performance this season and start converting some of the countless opportunities to win that he produces. Closest to my final team was Branden Grace who showed a marked improvement at the Sony Open over his opening effort in Kapalua, however a trip directly from Hawaii when most of his competitors have either come from South Africa or have been practicing locally isn't ideal and I'll reluctantly swerve this time in favour of Byeong-Hun An.
Although 2016 wasn't as productive for Ben as he would have liked, 6 top-10 finishes globally was far from disastrous and a tie for 5th last year backed up the assertion that he gets on very well indeed with this track here in Abu Dhabi. 12th on debut in 2015 featured an impressive GIR performance of 84.7% which was 6th in the field; 77.8% (10th) on the same count 12 months ago was coupled with a better putting performance on these greens of 1.66 which was 4th in the field. Something similar this year should see a contending performance from this talented South Korean who hits the ball a long way, is a supreme ball-striker, scrambles well and can putt magnificently when the flat stick warms up.
As for wider desert form, An has produced finishes of 5th in Qatar (2015), 13th/4th at the Dubai Desert Classic and 4th/13th at the DP World Tour Championship over the past 2 seasons to suggest he's more than comfortable in this part of the world. Last season he dedicated a fair proportion of his time to playing in the US and this year he's vowed to take that a step further, so it's interesting to note that he's retained this event on his schedule on a track that clearly suits his eye. End of year form of 10th (Turkey) and 13th (Dubai) wasn't bad at all and he produced his joint-best GIR performance of his entire season on that last start to suggest his long game is in good health.
Given the prevalence of 3-figure winners over the last 5 years - Stal, Larrazabal and Rock all obliged at between 125/1 and 150/1 - taking on the more fancied players with a couple of outsiders seems like a sensible ploy and a couple that I fancy to go well are Scott Hend and Andrew Dodt.
First up Scott Hend and the Australian is rapidly becoming a player who I seriously consider backing whenever he's a decent enough price and the course even partially suits. 150/1 is the kind of payback I'd want for a punt on the 43 year-old and as unfashionable as he is with the bookmakers, I don't personally see him anywhere near that far down the betting. A career high of 59th in the OWGR was how the 2-time European Tour winner finished 2016 and that ranking tells no lies after wins at the co-sanctioned True Thailand Classic and the Asian Tour's Queen's Cup, both of which were played on his favourite Bermudagrass putting surface. Those victories extended his winning streak to 5 consecutive seasons in all competitions and for me he's perennially overpriced when seemingly out of form, if you can call 5 top-10 finishes in his last 13 starts that. Renowned for his driving distance first and foremost - which certainly won't hurt on a track close to 7,600 yards - he's also a streaky putter who's well capable of producing 4 days of brilliance on the dancefloor now and then (1.54 putting average in that Queen's Cup victory, for instance) and when he does he's capable of winning all manner of events. Two consecutive paid weekends here in Abu Dhabi might not look much on paper, however Hend is rarely a player who telegraphs his victories and he recorded his best European Tour effort in the Desert at the Dubai Desert Classic last season to suggest to me that he's well capable of contending in these parts.
Finally another unfashionable player when it comes to the bookies in the shape of Andrew Dodt. Like his compatriot Scott Hend, Dodt is moving forwards in the OWGR and whilst he's not in as lofty a position overall he's still in the ascendancy following a sparkling end to 2016 with finishes of 8th at the NSW Open, 2nd at the Australian PGA and 3rd at the UBS Hong Kong Open. 2 wins on the European Tour - the 2010 Avantha Masters and 2015 True Thailand Classic - were both on Bermudagrass greens, the former being on exactly the same strain of grass as here. Both wins came early in the year for the 30 year-old and both followed recent runner-up finishes to suggest that he was in contending - and potentially winning - form. In fact I can find very little not to like here given the price on offer about the man who currently sits 2nd in the embryonic Race to Dubai rankings. When on his game Dodt is a long, accurate striker of the golf ball and when he's in contending form he combines that with a putter that performs at its best on grainier putting surfaces. 1.68 putting average in Australia and 1.65 in Hong Kong were both good enough for top-5 rankings in that category and both were on Bermudagrass putting surfaces. Has a much better chance than the bookies suggest in my opinion.
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