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After a frustrating couple of weeks in South Africa with 4 selections finishing inside the top 13 but only 150/1 shot Jacques Blaauw salvaging any kind of return, 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 richest of the 3 Middle East events in terms of prize money (as well as some hefty appearance fees no doubt) has managed to attract a very strong field this year headlined by World No.1 Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and 3-time event winner Martin Kaymer plus the likes of Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Benny An, Russell Knox, Victor Dubuisson and Matt Fitzpatrick. On top of this 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 11th successive year for this event at the Abu Dhabi GC on the European Tour and from the 10 previous events we have 7 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 and Gary Stal picking up the pieces 12 months ago after Martin Kaymer surrendered a 10-shot lead.
Abu Dhabi GC. Designer: Harradine, 1998; Course Type: Desert, Technical; Par: 72; Length: 7,600 yards; Water Hazards: 9; Fairways: Paspalum; Rough: Rye; Greens: Tifdwarf Bermuda, 12 on the stimpmeter.
Course Overview. The 7,600 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 the event is more likely to won from tee-to-green than purely on the putting surfaces in my opinion.
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. 4-time runner-up Rory McIlroy heads this week's final predictor from Abu Dhabi specialist Martin Kaymer and Branden Grace.
Winners & Prices. 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 5 years based on the completed 2015 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Abu Dhabi region is here. The tournament should enjoy warm (high 70s) 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.
Since the Paul Casey/Martin Kaymer domination of Abu Dhabi GC ended in 2011, the last 4 winners of this event have been slightly less expected as can be seen by their winning odds of 150/1, 66/1, 125/1 and 150/1 for last year's winner Gary Stal. Martin Kaymer was a Tour maiden when we won the first of his trio of Abu Dhabi titles in 2008, however the other winners had all won at least one European Tour title (PGA Tour in the case of DiMarco) previously in their career prior to Stal's success 12 months ago.
Analysing the final stats of the past 4 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
It's interesting to note that all 4 winners arrived with pretty consistent form without anything overly spectacular. All 4 had decent weeks on the greens with Stal having a solid week from tee-to-green and offsetting 6 bogeys with 25 birdies; Larrazabal scrambling 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.
Incoming Form/Event Form Of Winner. Last year's winner Gary Stal arrived here fresh off of a top-5 finish the week before at the South African Open. In fact the 4 winners listed above had all 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 4 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 a summary of 2015 winners' current/event form prior to winning their respective events click here.
Bookmaker Offers. The following deals are available in Abu Dhabi this week:
My final selections are as follows:
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy headline the strongest Abu Dhabi Championship to date with the supporting cast including Rickie Fowler, Henrik Stenson and Branden Grace and if ever there's likely to be a break in the sequence of longer-priced winners here it's surely this year. World No.1 Spieth started 2016 in sparkling fashion with a thumping 8-shot victory at the Hyundai whereas World No.3 McIlroy is surely an Abu Dhabi champion in waiting having finished runner-up a frustrating 4 times in the past 5 seasons on this track. The bookies can barely split the pair making them virtual joint favourites at around 4/1-9/2 and it's going to take a pretty special player to finish ahead of that pair. If there is to be an upset of sorts though then Martin Kaymer is the chief candidate in my opinion on a track that's delivered 3 of his 11 European Tour wins.
Abu Dhabi GC was the scene of Kaymer's first European Tour victory and from 2008 to 2011 he was pretty much unbeatable here with 3 victories plus a runners-up finish. He looked to be coasting to a 4th title 12 months ago having opened a huge 10-stroke lead early in the final round before the inexplicable happened and 150/1 outsider Gary Stal reeled him in after the German collapsed following a succession of mistakes. A damaging blow as you'd expect and despite finishing 4th in Dubai on his next outing, it took another 5 months for the two-time Major champion to finish inside the each-way paying positions with 6 missed cuts in 9 events proving just how fragile his game had become.
To his credit Kaymer pulled his game around after that with top-12 finishes at The Open and US PGA Championship, a runners-up finish at the Italian Open and tellingly a first top-10 finish at the Earth Course on a course upon which he's always underperformed. In almost a carbon-copy of his form coming into last year, the 31 year-old found form with the putter in Thailand (1.59 putts per GIR) on his final outing before Christmas and arrives here with some considerable demons ready to be exorcised following last season's debacle. Over 80% GIR in 3 of his last 4 starts is a great indicator of how the German's game is shaping up and 1st for all-round ranking before he signed off in Thailand suggests to me that his his game is in the right kind of place for some redemption here. Yes, either McIlroy or Spieth could walk away with this, however at more than 4 times the price Kaymer is the most likely player to stand up to the market leaders this week on his most prolific track. RESULT: T16
Another player with the class to mix it with the big boys is Byeong-Hun An. Ben or Benny as he prefers to be known on the circuit, had an incredible rookie season on the European Tour last year with victory at the flagship BMW PGA Championship plus 6 further top-8 finishes, all of which added up to a stack of OWGR points that elevated the 24 year-old to a lofty 29th in the world at the end of the year. 7th in the Race to Dubai with over €2.4m earned puts his achievements into perspective and I suspect there's far more to come 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. In short there's nothing much to dislike about his game and we may well have just scratched the surface so far in his developing career.
An was seeing these tracks in the Middle East for the first time last season so finishes of 12th here, 5th in Qatar and 13th in Dubai should be put into context; that fabulous start to his year no doubt helped instil the confidence that saw him go on to prosper at Wentworth later on when facing a strong field. 84.7% of greens in regulation here on debut tells its own story as to how the course suits Ben, however it's his late season form that really gets him the nod here. 4th in Turkey, 19th at the WGC HSBC Champions, 3rd at Lake Malaren, 4th at the Earth Course then 8th and 4th in South African and Thailand respectively rubber-stamp his form and he's in the right kind of shape to contend pretty much wherever he tees it up at present. Last week's mismatched EurAsia Cup still saw An in a positive light having secured the first point of the event for team Asia and describing the experience as 'one of the best weeks of his life' on twitter - a return to strokeplay this week on a course that suits may well be the catalyst for another big, big week in lofty company. RESULT: T5
In a field jam-packed with quality there are a number of players who warrant a lot of respect, however I'm backing just two more who have the quality to feature here in this classy affair.
After a lacklustre defence of his SA Open title to start the year, Andy Sullivan bounced back to form at the EurAsia Cup as one of just 3 players to win all of his games which included an impressive 4&3 victory in the singles against the in-form Thongchai Jaidee. The Nuneaton man enjoyed a stellar 2015 with 3 European Tour victories and a huge leap in the OWGR from 150th at the start of the year to 36th at the end and the ever-smiling 28 year-old can now focus on the season's biggest events and his first realistic attempt at making the Ryder Cup team. Sullivan's record here in Abu Dhabi isn't the best, however that's often the case with rapidly improving players and instead I'm looking at finishes of 12th (2013) and 4th (2015) at the Dubai Desert Classic and 9th in Qatar (2013) as better indicators of likely success here. Those efforts were eclipsed though by his runners-up finish at the DP World Tour Championship in November when he pushed Rory McIlroy to the very end with an all-round game that was mightily impressive in every aspect (8th accuracy, 9th GIR, 1st scrambling, 3rd putting) and another big performance here is eminently achievable having impressed Ryder Cup captain Darren Clarke in Kuala Lumpur. RESULT: T22
Young up-and-coming players on my watch list for 2016 include Lucas Bjerregaard (who has just joined Nike and will be a watching brief for the time being) and Thomas Pieters and it's the Belgian who gets the nod here this week having played so well here to finish 4th 12 months ago. The 23 year-old was just a shot behind Martin Kaymer at the halfway stage last year and enjoyed the limelight of the final group over both days of the weekend, gaining massive experience which no doubt helped pave the way to his impressive back-to-back victories recorded later in the year in the Czech Republic and Holland. His putting was excellent here last year (1.66 putts per GIR, 9th) and it was the flat stick that was chiefly responsible for those aforementioned victories that have elevated the Antwerp resident to inside the OWGR top-100 and within touching distance of a top-50 berth if his spring schedule goes well. The 6ft 5in slogger is one of the most powerful hitters on the European Tour so this lengthy layout won't concern him in the slightest and when you combine that kind of length off the tee with such a mercurial touch on the greens (1.56 putts per GIR on his last start at the Earth Course, 1st in the field) then you know that we have a player with bags of potential in our midst. Thomas flew out to Dubai last Wednesday to get some early practice ahead of this week and I wouldn't be remotely surprised to see him hit the ground running after a well-deserved extended break over the festive period. RESULT: 2nd
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