Ian Poulter’s flying finish last week kept the each-way returns ticking over for the new year on the European Tour, however once again it was ultimately a disappointment with headline selection Matt Fitzpatrick falling away from the lead after day 1 and 90/1 shot Jason Scrivener finishing a single shot outside the paying places. After Louis Oosthuizen failed to convert a strong chance in Abu Dhabi also, let’s hope it’s third time lucky this week as the European Tour heads to Saudi Arabia for the first time in its history for the inaugural Saudi International.
The final leg of this opening Middle-East swing takes us to the banks of the Red Sea and the recently opened Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC), the largest privately-funded new city in the world. We’ll head back to the region at the end of February and early March for the Oman Open and the Qatar Masters, however for now this controversial event concludes our time in the Gulf in what are turbulent political times. We’ll focus on the golf and the tournament here, however suffice it to say that a number of players and commentators alike have given the event a wide berth this week.
Despite the well-documented political and human rights issues in the country, it’s clear that money talks in golf and the $3.5m prize fund has undoubtedly been eclipsed by the appearance fees that have attracted the likes of last week’s winners Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau, former OWGR No.1s Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, as well the reigning and former Masters Champions Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia. That investment has created an excellent field though and an intriguing betting market with plenty of long prices driven as a result of these headline names.
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Course Overview. The course at Royal Greens G&CC was opened in 2017 and is the handiwork of Dave Sampson of European Golf Design. A short, coastal par 72 for the members has been tweaked for its European Tour debut with the par-5s on the 9th and 13th holes being converted to long par-4s to create a 7,010 yard par-70 for this week’s event.
Carved from the Saudi Arabian desert landscape, the course is built around 4 lakes with some holes playing towards and alongside the Red Sea itself. As well as the water, native desert areas and waste areas await the errant as well as ‘wadi’ drainage ditches which will be an interesting feature this week. With some dog-leg holes too, the course will demand an element of strategy, however with it being so short its main defence, as is often the case with coastal tracks, is the prevailing wind which isn’t forecast to be particularly strong this week. The course uses Royal Dynasty paspalum grass throughout which, combined with the relatively light winds expected, should encourage some good scoring this week.
Predictor Model. Our published Predictor Model is available here. As always you can build your own model using the variables available.
Weather Forecast. The latest weather forecast for KAEC is here. The tournament should enjoy mild (low 80s Fahrenheit) and dry conditions throughout the 4 days. Winds will be generally light and variable throughout with the breeze peaking at around 10-15mph.
With a new event on a new course, I’d advise all punters to tread carefully this week. The headline names at the top of the market are understandably short-priced with Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau joint-favourites at the time of writing at 13/2, however on a new layout in an unfamiliar location there’s no guarantee that any player will hit the ground running, despite how well he’s playing.
The dimensions, geography and composition of the course do give us some clues though as to the type of player who could go well here. Short, coastal courses have formed part of the European Tour schedule for many years with events around the British Isles and also in Holland springing to mind for general comparison. Paspalum greens also offer another angle with events in South Africa such as the Africa Open and Nelson Mandela Championship, as well as those held at Kuala Lumpur GC before it was converted to Bermudagrass greens in 2018. Events on the European Tour held in Mauritius and last year in Oman may also provide some correlation, however being far smaller affairs there’ll be less crossover with this week’s field, particularly at the top end of the market.
I’m playing this week a little cautiously and am backing just 4 players who I think could go well here. My selections are as follows:
Matt Wallace 2pts EW 25/1 with New customers get £25 in free bets: 18+, T&Cs apply* (7 places EW, 1/5 odds):
Picking holes in the chances of those at the top of the betting isn’t an easy task this week, especially with market principals Justin Rose and Bryson DeChambeau both arriving in fine form having won their respective events over the weekend. 13/2 is the best you’ll find about the pair though and given the vagaries of a new event on a new course in a new country, I suspect the playing field has been levelled just about enough to give us some hope that a longer-priced contender can emerge. A seaside track is likely to suit 3rd favourite Dustin Johnson more than compatriot Brooks Koepka given his outstanding form at Pebble Beach over the years, however I’m looking outside the appearance-fee driven names for my selections with Matt Wallace spearheading my team.
Last week’s runner-up finish behind Bryson DeChambeau may have been distant in that the American finished a full 7 shots clear of the field, however that’s likely to spur the Englishman on to improve his game further as deep-down he believes that the can compete with players of the quality of Bryson on any given week. The intensity of Wallace’s game has been clear to see as he’s produced 10 tournament victories from 82 professional appearances since progressing through the ranks, however at a career-high of 36th in the OWGR and with access to 2019’s biggest events assured barring injury or a monumental loss of form, it appears that he’s enjoying his golf a little more nowadays and that makes him a dangerous player in my mind, particularly in an event like this where he can test himself against some of the world’s very best on a level playing field.
What Matt appears to have added to his game of late is the ability to produce lofty finishes as well as his well-documented wins – at one point it was pretty much victory or bust, however with a 5th place finish at the Nedbank, 2nd at the Earth Course and 2nd last week at the Emirates, he’s now also rewarding each-way backers which could be critical in a field where any of the top-6 could win this at a canter if they’re on top form. That’s not to say that I don’t think the 28 year-old can’t win this event – far from it, with his short game working nicely and the putter running hot, I suspect he’s got enough game to take this title and another step towards the upper-echelons of the world rankings. 11-under for the par-4s last week in Dubai, which led the field on that count, really caught my eye ahead of a week where par-4 scoring will be key given the par-70 course configuration, and at the price on offer I’m happy to take a chance on him here this week. RESULT: MC
Joost Luiten 1pt EW 50/1 with **For the latest bet365 Opening Account Offer details see below, use bonus code SPORT100
It was a shame that Joost Luiten was laid low with a wrist injury last summer as his early-season progression had him on course for a re-entry into the OWGR top 50. A win at the NBO Oman Open, which like this event was making its debut on the European Tour, sticks out from his record and although it was a slightly longer par-72, there are definite parallels with this week’s track given its seaside location and paspalum greens. The Dutchman topped the putting stats that week when capturing his 6th European Tour title and further top-10 finishes were added in India and Morocco before injury struck.
Those of you who read my column regularly will know that Luiten is one of my go-to players when his game is right and the course suits. After some quietly impressive finishes on his return to competitive golf – 11th at Valderrama being the best of the bunch before Christmas – the 33 year-old hit the ground running in the new year by finishing 3rd in Abu Dhabi on his reappearance after the festive break, topping GIR and rating 2nd for driving accuracy into the bargain. A stomach bug prevented him from progressing to the weekend last week in Dubai, however that missed cut has seen his price push out to 50/1 and for me there’s plenty of juice in that for an each-way shot. Aside from his Oman Open win, Joost’s first win as a professional came on the short track that hosted the Johor Open back in 2011 and further wins in his homeland at Kennemer (short, seaside track) and The Dutch (another sub-7,000 course) also bode well. Given his illness last week, I’m happy to look to how he was playing in Abu Dhabi as a strong pointer for his form and given how well this track should suit, 50/1 is a price I simply have to take here this week on Joost. RESULT: T6
Pablo Larrazabal 1pt EW 90/1 with £40 welcome bonus*** for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (6 EW, 1/5 odds)
Romain Langasque 1pt EW 100/1 with £40 welcome bonus*** for new customers, 18+, T&Cs apply (6 EW, 1/5 odds)
A couple of longer prices to complete this week’s team. First up Pablo Larrazabal who’s shown some real sparks of form in his two appearances so far in 2019. 40 birdies and an eagle in his 8 rounds to date have driven him to rounds of 65 (2nd best of the day) and 68 (3rd best of the day) in rounds 1 and 3 in Abu Dhabi where he eventually finished 6th, plus 66 and 64 in rounds 2 and 4 last week in Dubai where that final effort was beaten only by an outstanding round of 63 from Justin Harding (who’s also worth watching in coming weeks). Like Luiten, Pablo had some wrist issues last year and again the Spaniard seems to have come back stronger for his rehabilitation with 9th at Leopard Creek before Christmas giving us a further clue that he’s playing nice golf. The 35 year-old often plays well in coastal conditions as he controls his ball very nicely in the wind and short courses also bring the best out of his game where he’s not chasing massive drives with what can often be an errant driver. With a great record in Malaysia and Holland over the years on some correlating tracks and strong victories in his career over classy fields, including the 2008 Open de France and 2014 Abu Dhabi Championship where he held Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson at bay, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Larrazabal in contention here this week once again. RESULT: T64
Finally I’m taking a chance on the talented Frenchman Romain Langasque who has the potential to play at a very high grade as his career progresses. The 2015 British Amateur Champion tamed Carnoustie that week, earning himself a spot at The Open Championship and The Masters where, to his credit, he made the weekend on both occasions before turning professional. It looked for all the world like he’d progress at a significant rate following a 2016 season featuring 3 runner-up finishes on the Challenge Tour and 7th place finish on the short track at Crans-Sur-Sierre, however his rookie season on the European was, frankly, a disaster with a large number of missed cuts. Before he returned to the Challenge Tour he did however finish 3rd in Mauritius at the end of 2017 which bodes well for this week and has clearly re-found his confidence with a maiden professional win at the Open de Provence in September and 4th place in the Challenge Tour Grand Final, which means he has a second bite at the cherry at the top level of European golf. Solo 2nd to the runaway Louis Oosthuizen at the SA Open before Christmas rates as the 23 year-old’s highest-yielding OWGR event of his career and 20th last week on his Dubai Desert Classic debut, where he opened and closed with rounds of 66, suggests to me that there’s far more to come from a player packed full of potential. RESULT: T44
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