The Abu Dhabi Championship kicks off the European Tour year on Wednesday ahead of a season that will see a number of schedule changes compared to recent years. The well-documented re-hashing of the Major Championships – with the US PGA Championship now happening in May and the Open Championship concluding the 4 Majors – has had a knock-on effect throughout the year with the BMW PGA Championship and Open de France now taking place in the autumn for starters. The Saudi International, Vic Open, Oman Open and Kenya Open are some early-season additions to the Tour in what promises to be another diverse year for European golf.
As well as becoming the calendar year’s curtain-raiser, the Abu Dhabi Championship also graduates to the Rolex Series rota this year with the first of the $7m prize funds up for grabs. That enhanced status, along with some hefty appearance fees no doubt, has attracted the best field in the event’s history with multiple Major winners and former World No.1s Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson headlining. Fellow OWGR top 50 players Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Eddie Pepperell, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Ian Poulter, Haotong Li, Thorbjorn Olesen, Matt Wallace, Lucas Bjerregaard and Branden Grace all add to the quality of the event, alongside a very strong field from the remainder of the European Tour.
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Event Guide. This is the 14th successive year for this event at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on the European Tour and from the 13 previous events we have 9 different winners – three times for Martin Kaymer and twice for Paul Casey as well as Tommy Fleetwood who’s going for a three-peat this week. Chris DiMarco picked up the inaugural trophy in 2006, Englishman Robert Rock held off Tiger et al in 2012, Jamie Donaldson edged to victory in 2013, Pablo Larrazabal recorded an impressive victory over McIlroy and Mickelson in 2014, Gary Stal picked up the pieces in 2015 after Martin Kaymer surrendered a 10-shot lead and Rickie Fowler holed out twice in the final round in 2016 before Southport’s finest picked up the trophy at the past two renewals.
Abu Dhabi GC. Designer: Harradine, 1998; Course Type: Desert; Par: 72; Length: 7,583 yards; Water Hazards: 9; Fairways: Paspalum; Rough: Rye; Greens: Tifdwarf Bermuda, 12′ 6″ on the stimpmeter.
Course Overview. The 7,583 yard Peter Harradine track is flat and exposed, however with tight fairways, 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 here. You’ll need to be in the fairway to attack the pins at Abu Dhabi GC 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.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 2018: Tommy Fleetwood, 20/1; 2017: Tommy Fleetwood, 60/1; 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.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Abu Dhabi region is here. Wednesday and Thursday are expected to be warm and sunny with temperatures picking up to the low 80s Fahrenheit before the wind picks up to around 20mph over the final 2 rounds. Temperatures will drop to around 70 Fahrenheit to accompany the stronger breeze, which may well keep a lid on scoring a little.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 7 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
- 2018: Tommy Fleetwood (-22); 302 yards (19th), 66.1% fairways (9th), 87.5% greens in regulation (1st), 77.8% scrambling (4th), 1.68 putts per GIR (13th)
- 2017: Tommy Fleetwood (-17); 301 yards (15th), 66.1% fairways (9th), 90.3% greens in regulation (1st), 57.1% scrambling (27th), 1.75 putts per GIR (45th)
- 2016: Rickie Fowler (-16); 291 yards (27th), 69.6% fairways (4th), 77.8% greens in regulation (10th), 68.8% scrambling (10th), 1.71 putts per GIR (16th).
- 2015: Gary Stal (-19); 278 yards (54th), 66.1% fairways (16th), 79.2% greens in regulation (13th), 66.7% scrambling (28th), 1.63 putts per GIR (4th).
- 2014: Pablo Larrazabal (-14); 292 yards (21st), 46.4% fairways (59th), 68.1% greens in regulation (28th), 78.3% scrambling (4th), 1.67 putts per GIR (13th).
- 2013: Jamie Donaldson (-14); 295 yards (7th), 60.7% fairways (16th), 75% greens in regulation (8th), 77.8% scrambling (6th), 1.72 putts per GIR (23rd).
- 2012: Robert Rock (-13); 296 yards (11th), 51.8% fairways (33rd), 77.8% greens in regulation (5th), 58.3% scrambling (24th), 1.64 Putts per GIR (5th).
In truth there’s a fair mix of stats from the players who have successfully got over the line here over the past 7 renewals. Larrazabal aside, the general recipe for success has been strong ball-striking and adequate accuracy stats being complimented with a competitive GIR ranking with Tommy Fleetwood taking that element to the next level over the last 2 seasons by hitting 65 and then 64 of 72 greens over the course of the week. Scrambling figures are generally on the high side here so missing greens isn’t fatal, however for players looking to advance their score a more prudent approach is to find the dancefloors with regularity.
The other common aspect to fall out of this week’s analysis is bogey avoidance. Fleetwood dropped just 2 shots over the course of the week 12 months ago and 4 the year before; Fowler dropped 6, Stal 6, Larrazabal 5, Donaldson 6 and Rock 8 in their respective wins to suggest that a more patient approach is favoured. On a track such as this, minimising mistakes is likely to be as critical as 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.
Prior to the 2017 victory by Tommy Fleetwood, one common factor that linked the previous 5 winners was 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. Tommy himself had also shown some flashes with the putter too prior to defending 12 months ago by ranking 7th for putting average at the DP World Tour Championship. Prior to the two Fleetwood wins we have the following:
- Rickie Fowler led the field for Total Putting at the Shriners Hospitals Open which was 3 events prior to his success here.
- Gary Stal led the field for the week in terms of Total Putting at the SA Open the week before grabbing his maiden European Tour title here.
- Pablo Larrazabal ranked 3rd in the field for Total Putting on his previous European Tour start at the Earth Course in Dubai.
- Jamie Donaldson produced Total Putting performances of 8th at the Volvo Champions and 5th in Dubai in his two starts immediately prior to his victory here.
- Robert Rock, who’s relied heavily on his caddies over the years to help him read putts, finished 2nd for Total Putting the week before winning here.
Incoming Form: All 7 winners listed below 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, so a positive form line looks like a good starting point this week, even if that form extends back to the end of last year:
- 2018: Tommy Fleetwood: 27/28/61/MC/25/6/20/23/10/21/6/3
- 2017: Tommy Fleetwood: 16/49/10/7/13/15/4/37/22/14/9/3
- 2016: Rickie Fowler: 30/2/10/30/MC/1/4/12/25/17/3/5
- 2015: Gary Stal: 18/51/70/39/MC/66/19/32/33/23/MC/5
- 2014: Pablo Larrazabal: MC/MC/MC/MC/MC/9/17/8/5/53/26/MC
- 2013: Jamie Donaldson: 60/36/7/50/9/21/MC/6/16/42/9/16
- 2012: Robert Rock: MC/MC/25/MC/70/28/33/38/8/9/12
Event Form. To balance the clear correlation between current form and success here over the past 7 years, before Tommy Fleetwood retained his trophy 12 months ago, the previous 6 winners hadn’t mustered a single top 10 between them here in this event prior to victory, so for all of Casey and Kaymer’s domination, a sparkling event history doesn’t look to be an absolute pre-requisite:
- 2017: Tommy Fleetwood: MC/MC/19/MC/MC
- 2016: Rickie Fowler: 66
- 2015: Gary Stal: MC
- 2014: Pablo Larrazabal: 42/43/11/MC/39
- 2013: Jamie Donaldson: MC/23/50/21/11/30
- 2012: Robert Rock: 59/47/MC/MC
My final selections are as follows:
Louis Oosthuizen 2pts EW 22/1 with New customers get £25 in free bets: 18+, T&Cs apply* (7 places EW, 1/5 odds)
The inclusion of American bombers Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka in this week’s field has added some serious spice to the Abu Dhabi Championship and as always creates a dilemma as to whether either should be backed at short prices to take this title. Both are former OWGR No.1 players of course and both are well capable of taking this trophy home with them, however the history here of short-priced chances doesn’t read well: 2013 McIlroy (5/1), Woods (15/2); 2014: McIlroy (6/1), Stenson (8/1); 2015: McIlroy (4/1); 2016: McIlroy (4/1), Spieth (9/2); 2017: Johnson (6/1), Stenson (7/1); 2018: Johnson (5/1), Rose (8/1), McIlroy (8/1) – these well-fancied players all failed to get over the line here in Abu Dhabi and backing either of the top 2 at the prices on offer carries a strong element of risk. DJ had won the Tournament of Champions by 8 strokes before finishing 9th here 12 months ago, so his 4th place finish in the corresponding tournament a week or so ago doesn’t overly encourage, whereas Koepka has been slow to start in January for the past 2 years and 24th at the Sentry doesn’t inspire much confidence either.
The other player at the top of the market is Southport’s Tommy Fleetwood who’s gunning for a three-peat here this week having captured the last 2 editions of this event in fine style, however winning 3 times on the trot would be some feat and the Englishman looked understandably jaded before downing tools prior to the festive season following a hectic autumn schedule. All things considered I’m going for Louis Oosthuizen as my headline selection in Presidents Cup year where we’re likely to see a number of the International players going all-out to win these types of event.
The South African finished 2018 in fine style with his irons and, notably, his putter was working very well indeed. 5th at the CIMB Classic, 29th at the CJ Cup and 3rd at the Nedbank preceded an emotional victory at the SA Open as he completed a personal milestone of British and South African Open Championship titles. 7th at Leopard Creek concluded the 36 year-old’s season and with it a run that saw him rank inside the top-4 for GIR on 3 occasions in 5 events and inside the top-8 for putting in 2 of those events also. From interviews I’ve seen he’s talked about how well he’s been putting for some time now, which is a critical point for a player who strikes the ball so well, and if he can marry them up again here then he’ll likely go very close to winning this week.
Oosthuizen hasn’t played here since missing the cut in 2011, however prior to that he gave Paul Casey a real fright in 2009 when the Englishman nearly relinquished a 6-stroke lead before just holding Louis at bay, before finishing 5th the year after when Martin Kaymer recorded his second victory here. The key this year is that while he’s generally putted nicely around these parts, he was striking the ball far better than previous years at the back end of 2018 and any kind of continuation of that form has to bode well for his chances.
Trawling through his records, one point that sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb is that Oosthuizen has won his first event of the calendar year on 4 occasions over the course of his career. That suggests more than anything a player who knows how to get himself prepared to hit the ground running while many of his peers are still shaking off the festive season rust. I like his chances very much this week. RESULT: 4th
Henrik Stenson 2pts EW 18/1 with £/€20 risk-free bet** for new accounts, 18+, T&Cs apply (7 EW, 1/5 odds)
The other player near the top of the market who I can’t scrub off my list is Henrik Stenson. Like Oosthuizen, Stenson’s name wouldn’t be out of place in a Rolex Series list of winners that reads Noren, Fleetwood, Rahm, Cabrera-Bello, Hatton, Rose, Grace, Rahm, Molinari, Olesen, Noren, Knox, Stone, Rose, Westwood & Willett and the Swede’s game has been quietly impressive since he bagged 3 points out of 3 at the Ryder Cup back in September. Following a small procedure on his elbow a couple of weeks after the Le Golf National triumph for Team Europe, the 2016 Open Champion has finished 12th at the Earth Course, 4th at the Hero World Challenge and 4th at the Indonesian Masters and on each occasion he’s produced at least a top-10 GIR performance and top-20 putts per GIR performance which bodes very well for this week’s task and clearly there’s confidence brewing in his game judging by his recent comments in interview.
Over the years the 42 year-old has won the Qatar Masters, Dubai Desert Classic and the DP World Tour Championship (twice) to rubber-stamp his credentials in this part of the world, however the title here in Abu Dhabi has thus far eluded him. That’s not to say that he’s not suited to the course as 6 top-8 finishes from 13 appearances proves, two of which were as runner-up and another saw the big Swede finish in 3rd place. Over the past 3 seasons he’s produced three of those lofty finishes and coupled with his incoming current form it’s a fairly straightforward conclusion that he stands a great chance of rewarding each-way backers here at the price on offer and is well capable of going a step further and capturing his first victory on the European Tour since winning the Open Championship back in 2016. RESULT: MC
Martin Kaymer 1pt EW 50/1 with Bet £/€5 get £/€20 for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply*** (7 EW, 1/5 odds)
At the age of 34 there should be plenty more to come from a player with the quality of Martin Kaymer. The German hit the summit of the World Rankings back in 2011 having already captured one Major by that point in time and he added a second for good measure at the 2014 US Open shortly after having won the Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass. At that point in time the future looked incredibly bright for the Dusseldorf man, however swing changes in an attempt to master Augusta National and a subsequent loss of form have followed and Kaymer has failed to add to his trophy cabinet since that success at Pinehurst as he’s slowly drifted down the OWGR to today’s ranking of 175th in the world.
Perhaps the real catalyst for that decline can be traced back to this event here in the Middle East. After a missed cut here on debut in 2007, the German dominated the next 4 years with course form of 1/2/1/1 which included a massive 8-stroke victory in 2011. However it was the now infamous capitulation in 2015 which saw a 10-shot lead disappear in front of his – and many punters’ – eyes (mine included!) that perhaps did the most damage to his game and if he’s ever going to put that right then perhaps the demons need be exorcised at this very location. Since Gary Stal picked up in the pieces following that collapse 4 years ago, Martin has finished 16th, 4th and 27th when arriving here in largely indifferent form, so it’s encouraging to see that he found some form at the back end of 2018, most notably at the Turkish Airlines Open where he finished 5th and made just 2 bogeys over the course of the week. He’s gone on record to say that he feels that he’s striking the ball better now than he was back in those heady days of when he topped the OWGR and that he was intending to spend the winter working on his short game to bring it up to speed.
For me, the gamble with Kaymer is whether that off-season work on his chipping and putting bears any fruit here and, at 50/1, I’m willing to pay to find out. We know he loves this course, we know his long game is on point, we know he’s capable of beating a field of this quality and we know he’s got a point to prove after the events here 4 years ago. If he comes out with some short game confidence here this week then the rest of the field need to be very wary. RESULT: T22
Jason Scrivener 1pt EW 125/1 with £40 welcome bonus**** for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (6 EW, 1/5 odds)
With the likes of Johnson, Koepka and Fleetwood dominating the top of the market, there’s bound to be some value further down the field and you can make an each-way case for many players this week. The one that interests me most though is Jason Scrivener who has a lot of the ingredients that I think it takes to contend for an each-way place or better here this week. The 29 year-old finally got his breakthrough professional victory at the NSW Open on the Australasian Tour at the end of 2017, beating the highly-rated Lucas Herbert by a clear 6 strokes, and he pushed on with a career-best season on the European Tour in 2018 where he eventually finished 68th in the Race To Dubai, including a best finish of 6th at the Dubai Desert Classic.
The real encouragement though comes from the embryonic 2019 season which has started in fine style for the Australian. 3rd on the Bermudagrass greens of Hong Kong – his 3rd successive top-10 finish on that course – and 6th behind the likes of Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman at the Australian PGA Championship on his last outing before Christmas bode well for the forthcoming campaign. Jason finished with a 67 in that effort in Australia to round off his year – the second best round on the day from all attendees – and that was driven by a continuation of some excellent iron-play that saw him rank 5th, 8th and 7th for GIR on his final 3 events of the season. 2 efforts here in Abu Dhabi have resulted in finishes of 39th and 48th which has helped keep a lid on his price, however he’s gone into the weekend inside the top-20 on both occasions and with his form and game on an upward trajectory, I can see him pushing on if he finds himself in the same position this time around. RESULT: T16
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