The Abu Dhabi Championship is always a hotly contested affair and Ollie Noonan expects nothing different this week.
The European Tour starts its 2019 schedule in Abu Dhabi, the traditional curtain-raiser on the annual Middle Eastern cash grab. Lucrative appearance fees have lured some of the game’s biggest names to the Emirati state, with a prize pool inflated to $7million – by virtue of the bestowal of Rolex Series status – further adding to the appeal of the event for players. Add in the temperate conditions, plus the incredible hospitality on offer, and it’s easy to see why this event holds a significant advantage over the likes of the BMW PGA in attracting US-based PGA Tour pros such Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka – the occupants of the top two spots at the head of the market.
Despite my cynical tone, the event itself is always a great betting heat and often produces interesting stories and some high-class winners. Past winners include stars such as Rickie Fowler, two-time victor Paul Casey, three-time champ Martin Kaymer and current two-time defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, whilst lesser lights Robert Rock and Pablo Larrazabal also fully deserved their wins fending off Tiger (Rock) and Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson (Larrazabal) on the back 9s of their victories.
Even Gary Stal’s 2015 win had drama galore as Kaymer, leading by 10 shots with 13 holes to play (with course form reading 1-2-1-1 previously), conspired to meltdown and get overturned as a 1.01 shot. Expect quality and expect fireworks, everything drawn up as the bankrollers of the event would have planned it.
Shaping Up The Track
The course, in its 14th year as host, is a classic tee-to-green test, lending itself wonderfully to premium ball strikers. Weighing in at 7583 yards, Abu Dhabi Golf Club is a lengthy par 72, with relatively narrow fairways and inconvenient bunkers in many usual landing spots, challenging players to hit good tee shots to leave themselves opportunities to hit the Bermudagrass greens in regulation. The greens are relatively straight forward, though run quick by European Tour standards, adding emphasis to the need for players to hit controlled approaches from the fairway.
As with most desert tracks the course’s primary defence is wind and if the gusts are light the course is eminently gettable, as winning scores of -22, -17, -16 and -19 over the past four years suggest. The forecast this week is for fairly moderate winds so somewhere in the region of -20 will probably be required to get it done again. With that said, hitting a lot of greens is vital to setting up scoring chances, with the stats showing nine of the past 12 winners ranked in the top 10 of the GIR stat for the week of their victory. Indeed, Fleetwood paced the field in GIR for both of his wins, missing just 15 of 144 greens combined.
Many Unknowns This Week
The biggest challenge in deciphering the 2019 winner is the fact that, bar a handful of players, most in the field are teeing it up for the first time in 6 or 7 weeks. It’s impossible to know whether a player has carried good form over from the tail-end of the previous year or if a player who fizzled out found in 2018 has something over the Christmas period, so there naturally has to be a certain degree of this taken on trust.
Given this, it may be prudent to stake down to begin the week and retain some powder to fire after rounds 1 & 2, having had the opportunity to see who was more “Gym? Been” than Jim Bean over Christmas.
Though DJ is a threat wherever he tees it up, 7.0 looks skinny enough given he was a similar price last year fresh off the back of an eight strokes win in Hawaii. Koepka appears to focus more on the events that matter most so 11.0 doesn’t hold much appeal there either. Fleetwood is the most tempting of the ‘big 3’ at 14.0 but it’s really hard to win any event three times in a row and off the back of an eight week break I prefer to move down the list a bit to take him on.
A Dane Who Loves The Desert
I’ll start with desert specialist Thorbjorn Olesen at 35.0. 2018 was a career year for the 29-year-old Dane, winning the Italian Open and recording three other Rolex Series events top 7 finishes, whilst also finishing 3rd at the WGC-Bridgestone, helping secure a spot on his first European Ryder Cup team in the process.
He should take great belief from that, having downed Jordan Spieth in his singles match on the winning Sunday, and a return to the Middle East, an area where he’s recorded multiple top 5 finishes in each of the three cities hosting European Tour events looks the perfect opportunity for him to record a 5th win in five seasons.
Though it’s five years since he’s finished runner up at this venue, Thunder Bear has matured as a golfer and could be this year’s Francesco Molinari.
At a reasonable price, he shouldn’t be overlooked.
Expecting Benny To Go Well
My next best is Byeong-Hun An, who looks overpriced at 51.0. The South Korea who goes by Benny, played a US heavy schedule in 2018, twice finishing runner up and scoring five other top 10 finishes against just two missed cuts. That is an impressive return amongst the game’s elite and the fact he ranked 15th on the PGA Tour’s season-long strokes gained tee-to-green metric demonstrates his status as one of the world’s best ball strikers.
He has three finishes of 13th or better at this course in four tries, including a 5th in 2016, and further demonstrated his desert pedigree when 6th in Dubai last season. He was 36 hole leader in his last event so if he’s carried that form through the Christmas break, he’s got a decent chance of making a mockery of his odds.
The Other Belgian Thomas
For my third pick, I’m siding with Belgian youngster Thomas Detry (56.0). Winner of the World Cup of Golf last time out with good friend Thomas Pieters – who also has a phenomenal record here but who looks well found by the market – Detry looks ready to take the next step towards the stardom promised by his college and Challenge Tour exploits. He started 2018 here with a 9th placed finish, carding 64 on moving day before stalling somewhat when promising better on the Sunday.
That result was followed by some solid but not spectacular results before a late summer burst which saw him score four top 7 finishes in 7 events include two playoff tournaments (followed by his team win).
If he retains that form, he’s entitled to go very well at course he’s proven on.
Taking A Flyer On Wang
My final selection is somewhat more speculative given a distinct lack of recent results, but I’m hoping a return to the desert will spark something in Jeunghun Wang at a massive price.
The 23 year old South Korean is already a three-time European Tour winner, counting a 2017 victory in Qatar amongst those successes, and it is easy to overlook just how difficult it is to win any event on a major tour, let alone multiple events before even being old enough to legally drink in the US.
Alongside his Qatar win, he has a 6th placed finish to his name in Dubai and has two top 15 finishes in as many tries here, breaking par in all eight rounds. Although you have to go back to September for his last top 20 finish, at a huge price we can take a cheap chance on him rediscovering his form in a part of the world that will bring back fond memories.
- Thorbjorn Olesen – 1 point @ 35.0 (lay 3 points @ 6.0)
- Byeong Hun An – 1 point @ 51.0 (lay 4 points @ 8.0)
- Thomas Detry – 1 point @ 56.0 (lay 4 points @ 8.0)
- Jeunghun Wang – 0.5 point @ 201.0 (lay 6 points @ 10.0