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After a brief visit to South Africa last week where Chris Paisley (150/1) produced an assured final round to capture his maiden European Tour title, we move continents as the European Tour heads to Asia and the start of the desert swing. In a change to the established schedule though we’ll head to the Emirates course in Dubai next week with the Qatar Masters coming towards the end of February after the players have visited Malaysia, Perth and Oman for a new event to the Tour.
The joint-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 Dustin Johnson, No.6 Justin Rose, No.9 Henrik Stenson and No.11 Rory McIlroy. Last year’s event was rocked by the late withdrawal of the Northern Irishman and 12 months down the line it will be interesting to see if the niggling rib injury that first reared its head this time last year has fully healed at the start of what is a critical year for the 28 year-old.
A supporting cast including the likes of Paul Casey, Matt Kuchar, Tyrrell Hatton, defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Matt Fitzpatrick and Branden Grace isn’t to be sniffed at for a European Tour event and this week promises to provide a lot of entertainment. 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 13th successive year for this event at the Abu Dhabi GC on the European Tour and from the 12 previous events we have 9 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, Rickie Fowler holing out twice in the final round in 2016 and Tommy Fleetwood coming home in 31 strokes last year to hold off Dustin Johnson by a stroke.
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.
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 | Combined Form/Event Stats
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Winners & Prices. 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. For a summary of winners odds on the European Tour for the past 6 years based on the completed 2017 schedule click here.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for the Abu Dhabi region is here. The tournament should enjoy mild (low 70s) and dry conditions throughout the 4 days with light winds before a more substantial breeze picks up on Sunday with 20 mph winds expected.
Tournament Trends & Key Factors.
Analysing the final stats of the past 6 winners gives us a little more insight into the requirements for this test:
In truth there’s a fair mix of stats from the players that have successfully got over the line here over the past 6 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 12 months ago by hitting 65 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 4 shots over the course of the week, Fowler 6, Stal 6, Larrazabal 5, Donaldson 6 and Rock 8 to suggest that a more patient approach is favoured. 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.
Prior to last year’s 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:
Incoming Form: All 6 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.
Event Form. To balance the clear correlation between current form and success here over the past 6 years, those same 6 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.
My final selections are as follows:
Tommy Fleetwood whose game looked in fine form at last week’s EurAsia Cup.
The price about DJ is understandable, despite having the likes of Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy in the field, and if you gave him 5 attempts at this event in his current form you’d expect him to win at least one and justify that price, however whether that will happen this week remains to be seen. Backing short-priced favourites is dangerous as this game throws up a whole host of variables that can scupper even the best laid plans – Rory McIlroy’s 2 shot penalty here in 2014 which eventually meant he finished a shot behind winner Pablo Larrazabal rather than a shot ahead is a relevant case in point. Branden Grace was the most likely winner of the BMW SA Open last week having started the final round birdie-eagle, however a European Tour maiden in the shape of Chris Paisley defied the odds and beat the pre-event favourite fairly and squarely with an impressively composed display.
Perhaps Dustin does win this at a canter, however history here in this event is also against him in recent times with the single-figure players over the past 5 years all failing to win: 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); Johnson (6/1), Stenson (7/1). That’s a lot of well-fancied players failing to get over the line here in Abu Dhabi.
So with the decision made, let’s talk about Tommy Fleetwood. Life’s good for the 26 year-old who became a father for the first time in the autumn and at a lofty 18th in the OWGR and possessing a power-packed yet metronomic game, I’m sure there’s still room for improvement on that world ranking yet. Capturing the Race To Dubai title courtesy of Justin Rose’s failure to convert a huge chance at the DP World Tour Championship will have given the Southport man a huge boost confidence-wise as he embarks on a 2018 season, with the carrot of a Ryder Cup place dangling in front of his nose and who’s to say that he won’t go a step further and win his first Major – stranger things have happened.
3 points from 3 at the EurAsia cup were earned in impressive fashion with Tommy’s trademark ball-striking being complimented with a competent-enough display on and around the greens and he returns to Abu Dhabi in fine fettle as he looks to defend a European Tour title for the first time, having been denied that opportunity with the Johnnie Walker Championship being discontinued after his 2013 win. Having experienced what it takes to hold off the likes of Dustin Johnson here last year with an impressive 31 strokes coming home, a more experienced Fleetwood could well take defending his title in his stride this week. Tommy got over the line 12 months ago courtesy of an outstanding 90.3% GIR performance and if his last European Tour effort in Hong Kong is anything to go by – he led the field with 87.5% GIR on that tight, fiddly track – then his game’s in the perfect place to contend for this title once again. RESULT: Winner
Short priced options Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson have all finished runner-up here in Abu Dhabi without winning in the past and although, like Johnson, you wouldn’t be surprised to see any of them contend and ultimately win here, for me there’s far more scope for profit by backing three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer. 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. Of course you can balance that with the now infamous capitulation in 2015 which saw a 10-shot lead disappear in front of his – and many punters – eyes (mine included!), however one thing’s for sure – this is one course that he knows how to play very well indeed.
Since Gary Stal picked up in the pieces following that collapse 3 years ago, the 33 year-old has finished 17th and 6th when arriving here in largely indifferent form by his standards, so 5th on his penultimate start at the Nedbank Golf Challenge – where he ranked 2nd for Greens in Regulation – is a positive sign. 17th at the Earth Course on a track that he’s openly said doesn’t suit his eye isn’t any cause for concern in my view and in fact top-10 performances that week in all tee-to-green categories should be also taken as positive. A return to blades for Martin has got him striking the ball similar to those heady days when he used to dominate this event and having got himself acclimatised nice and early with the Abu Dhabi Invitational jolly last week, he should be ready to hit the ground running this week. RESULT: T27
Two-time Qatar Masters winner Branden Grace was tempting this week, however failing to win the South African Open over the weekend may well deflate him a little, but with two top-5 finishes to his name here he’s more than capable of contending. Kiradech Aphibarnrat, who finished 4th last year and was in a great run of form before Christmas, was shortlisted until failing to make any kind of impression last week in Kuala Lumpur. George Coetzee’s final round of 66 last week at Glendower was noteworthy as he’s a solid desert performer, however with some flaky finishes in recent times from good positions I’ve left him out this week, leaving me a couple of longer-priced each-way plays:
First up Joost Luiten who at 80/1 is well capable of finishing inside the top-7 here in Abu Dhabi – in fact he’s done just that on 3 of his last 4 attempts. Given the price on offer then you might assume that he’s in terrible form, particularly for a player who’s won 5 times on the European Tour over the years. 2017 wasn’t one of his best years, granted – however 2nd behind Sergio Garcia at Valderrama was a more than competent display and consecutive top-16 finishes in decent company in Turkey and at Sun City to follow both showed positive signs. Even 44th at the Earth Course to finish his year contained a driving accuracy rank of 2nd and GIR rank of 5th relative to the field – with a few more putts dropping he could find himself in a far more prominent position this week. Buoyed by his recent shot-of-the-year success with his spectacular albatross at the Andalucia Masters and with a good few days preparation for this week in the Middle East, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to see Luiten grab another each-way payout for punters here this week. RESULT: T48
Finally I’m taking a chance that China’s Hao-Tong Li can continue his progression with another creditable performance here that could see him run into a place for each-way backers. As one of team Asia’s brightest players at the EurAsia Cup, the 2016 Volvo China Open winner really caught the eye with some excellent play and great putting which should compliment his recent strokeplay ball-striking performances very nicely. At just 22 years of age, it’s fair to say that Li’s experience is limited – indeed this is his Abu Dhabi debut – however 13th at the Earth Course in November, fuelled by a massive 86.1% GIR performance, isn’t to be sniffed at and he followed that up with a top-20 at the tricky Fanling course in Hong Kong on his last start before Christmas where he ranked 2nd for Total Driving and 1st for Ball-Striking – excellent figures to be producing coming into this test at Abu Dhabi. 4 top-10 finishes on the regular European Tour last year were eclipsed by his fast-finishing 3rd place finish at the Open Championship and whilst I suspect that this young man is destined for much more in his career, a strong finish here this week in Abu Dhabi is definitely not beyond him for starters. RESULT: MC