Although the Race to Dubai officially begins each year in November, it’s not until this event annually that the true superstars of the European Tour dust off their tools and begin their season-long assault on the European Tour points title. Alongside the European Tour members, a few PGA Tour special guests – Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, and Bryson DeChambeau – will also be teeing it up, no doubt lured away from the comforts of the good ol’ US of A by a big, fat appearance cheque and the promise of some 6* hospitality.
The course these aforementioned superstars and the rest of the field will be playing is the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which is hosting the event for the 13th straight year.
The track is a long (7,600-odd yards) par 72, which features a significant number of bunkers and, as with so many desert courses, relies on the wind as its main defence.
The fairways are fairly tight in the traditional landing spots so it pays to be a good driver, and the Bermuda greens tend to run fast and true so better putters usually fair well. Overall it’s a well-balanced test and usually produces a classy winner, with Tommy Fleetwood, Rickie Fowler, Jamie Donaldson, Martin Kaymer (3x) and Paul Casey (2x) amongst the former champs.
With the above said, the key stat for the course looks to be greens in regulation, as only Robert Rock and Pablo Larrazabal ranked outside the top 15 for greens hit in the week of their win. Indeed, last year Tommy Fleetwood put on a GIR clinic on route to a victory which propelled him toward world-class status, missing just 7 greens all week.
It’s also worth considering that certain golfers seem predisposed to desert golf, with the wind nuances and the grain types often similar amongst the various tracks. Given this, I’m minded to pay particular attention to those that have played well in this part of the world previously and those that have demonstrated a particular affinity for windy tracks in the past.
In terms of the betting, Johnson heads the market, arriving off the back of a dominant eight-shot win at the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions two weeks ago, and having finished second here on debut last year. There is definitely a very decent chance he also emerges victorious this week as he tends to hold his form well as evidenced by his 3-1-1-1 form line running up to the Masters last season. The course also sets up brilliantly for him, but he may not be quite as motivated to win as he would be in the US and odds of 6.0 don’t give us much wiggle room so this time we’ll look elsewhere.
Red-hot Justin Rose is next up at 9.5 but that looks a shade skinny despite his outstanding late 2017 form, as he’s only played here twice before indicating he might not be the biggest fan of the course. With that said, he was the 54 hole leader in 2013 before finishing runner-up behind Jamie Donaldson so he can clearly get it around but concerns about the price and his general wind performances make him one to put a line through for me.
It’s a vital year for the popular Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, having gone winless in a calendar year for the first time in 10 years last season plus having slipped out of the world top 10 for the first time in the same period.
He’s been out in the Middle East practicing since the turn of the year and is somewhat of a course specialist having finished in the top five on seven of his nine appearances here. However, he’s never managed to get over the winning line and recent (played down) reports of a heart condition do nothing to inspire additional confidence when faced with single figure odds so he’s another swerve for me. It’s roughly 19.0 bar these three and I feel we’re able to find better value further down the list.
Here are my selections this week:
The 26-year-old Englishman had a career year last season, winning twice, placing 3rd twice and recording a further five top 10s in 25 starts. Not included amongst those results was his performance here last year where he was 54 hole leader before a frustrating Sunday 75 knocked him down to a tie for 13th. As disappointing as that finish was, the performance backed up previous 6th and 10th place finishes here in 2015 and 2014 when Hatton was ranked outside the world’s top 100 so he definitely has an affinity for the course, and last year’s slightly hidden form might help to length his price.
Additionally, he’s shown a real propensity for golf in the wind – see back-to-back victories in the Dunhill Links plus top 5 finishes in windy editions of The Open, the Scottish Open and Irish Open. He also boasts back-to-back top 10s in both the most recent editions of the World Tour Championships and the Dubai Desert Classic so is clearly at home on desert courses.
Now ranked 17th in the world Hatton looks set to truly announce himself on the world stage this season and can follow in the footsteps of fellow Englishman Fleetwood by emerging victorious here this week.
A decent value bet with which to take on the top of the market.
1 point win @ 24.0
Given that he has three wins plus second, third, fourth and sixth place finishes at this venue, you’d be forgiven for thinking dual major winner Kaymer would be a significantly shorter price this week, but the inclusion of Dustin Johnson at the head of affairs and, perhaps, the memories of his 2015 collapse, look to have pushed the price out. Kaymer had an infamous back nine implosion that year, surrendering his lead to little known Frenchman Gary Stal despite being 10 shots clear with 13 holes to play. For a man who’d already won thrice at the track, and at a course renowned as a front runner’s paradise, it was perhaps the most surprising failure of this past decade.
Kaymer is nothing if not resilient and he rebounded to finish a creditable 4th last year in what was ultimately a disappointing campaign which saw him slip to 75th in the world. However, he finished the year with an encouraging 5-T17 form line and with a Ryder Cup on the horizon, he’ll be keen to ensure he earns a spot on Thomas Bjorn’s team on merit. At the odds, he warrants small value win and top 5 plays for me.
1 point win @ 29.0
The Belgium Bomber looked all set to take the golfing world by storm after a coming out party at the 2016 Ryder Cup but his 2017 fell flat, with just a distant runner-up finish to Dustin Johnson at Riviera and top 5 finishes at the Masters and two WGCs to show for his efforts.
For many golfers, that might be considered a successful year – contending in some of the biggest events with the toughest fields – but for an individual as talented as Pieters, it has to go down as a disappointment.
However, after a successful team performance at the EurAsia Cup last week, where he won 2 points from 3 in helping Europe lift the trophy, I’m banking on the 25-year-old to rekindle the form which saw him claim three titles in 12 months across 2015/16. He has form at the course with a runner-up finish in 2016 following a 4th placed finish the previous year and the layout generally looks tailor-made for his game. If he gets the flat sick rolling there are few that can live with him and at 44.0, he looks an excellent option this week.
1 point win @ 41.0