Whereas in previous years the Tour schedule featured three straight weeks in Abu Dhabi, Qatar, and Dubai, this year Qatar has been shifted back to late Feb with the result being a higher quality field here, headlined by major winners Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson, plus last week’s victor Tommy Fleetwood.
The tournament is hosted, as it has been on well over 20 occasions, at the lavish Emirates Golf Club, with the players teeing it up on the Majlis course, a 7,328-yard par 72 that is not dissimilar to the track used last week in Abu Dhabi.
The Majlis features reasonably wide fairways and numerous holes with water hazards and, like last week, the only real protection usually comes from the wind
However, with the weather forecast showing very placid conditions throughout the week, I’d expect the players to go low and a score in the -20 region being required in order to triumph.
The real key to success here down the years has been the ability to smash the ball off the tee, with the majority of the past winners all ranking in the top five of driving distance for the week.
The wide fairways and relatively facile rough allow the bombers to let rip without regard for the positioning of their tee shots so the steadier types are going to struggle in comparison when they are hitting six irons into greens rather than pitching wedges.
There have been some setup changes to the course in recent times in order to attempt to address the balance between accuracy and distance but, ultimately, the course still sets up in favour of those who prefer the bomb and gouge approach off the tee.
The second key stat, which goes hand in hand with driving distance, is hitting greens in regulation.
Of the past 13 winners, 10 have ranked in the top five for GIR and with the winning score expected to be so low, getting the ball onto the Bermudagrass dance floors and giving one’s self a chance to make birdies is crucial.
The greens at the Emirates Golf Club are some of the best maintained in the world, but are relatively straightforward and tend to run fast and true all week so the advantage enjoyed by good putters tends to be equalised somewhat. Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen notoriously shaky putters Garcia, Danny Willett, and McIlroy emerge victory in the past three editions.
Talking of McIlroy, after a sterling seasonal reappearance last week, the Northern Irishman goes off short-priced favourite this week as he bids win this event for the third time. Whilst Dustin Johnson is a notable absence compared to last week and despite the fact McIlroy loves playing in the desert, the 5.7 available looks a touch skinny for a man who hasn’t won for 18 months. He is absolutely entitled to go well this week but there are others that appeal at the head of the market for me.
Defending champion Sergio Garcia is an interesting runner. He has that perfect combo of course form and recent form, arriving off the back of a victory in the Singapore Open (albeit as a guest in a weak Asian Tour field).
Despite this, the odds of 10.5 look about right and you have to wonder if the increased media responsibilities that come from being the winner of one event then heading to an event where you are defending the following week might just take his focus off the job in hand. However, he certainly looks a great deal more relaxed since his wedding to wife Angela and might be one to side with in-play if he’s lurking a couple of shots off the pace on Sunday.
This week’s Selections:
Tommy Fleetwood confirmed himself as world class in defending his Abu Dhabi title last week, and the manner of his closing 30 to seal the deal was most definitely added to the Majors notebook for later this year, with the Open Championship looking an obvious spot. However, his record at this event is surprisingly poor, with 2013 10th place the outlier in a form line of MC-50-47-MC-10-57. Whilst he is undoubtedly a better player now than he was in most of these years, the missed cut last year gives cause for concern and at 17.0 I think there are too many doubts.
Instead, we’ll side with the 2016 Race to Dubai winner Henrik Stenson to go one better than his runner-up finish last year and emerge victorious this week. The 41-year-old Swede is a true desert rat, previously living in Dubai and winning four tournaments in the Middle East during his career with double-digit top 10s, including a 2007 win here.
He arrives this week off the back of a sensational closing 65 and whilst one round doesn’t guarantee a season of success, it was most definitely an indication that he is getting back to the sort of form which saw him win the Wyndham Championship on the PGA Tour back in August. As one of the game’s premier ball strikers the course sets up perfectly for him and I believe he represents the best value at the top end of this field at 13.0.
With such strength at the top end of the field, I don’t see too much value further down the field so I’m just going to side with one other player this week, recent nearly man Ross Fisher.
The 37-year-old Englishman has been experiencing a career renaissance of late, having finished runner-up in 3 of his past 6 tournaments. In each of those tournaments, he’s cleared -20 each time, always finding one better by a stroke or two.
He’s easily played well enough to win those tournaments and in a parallel universe, we’d be talking about a man with 3 wins going off at 17.0. Instead, we’re looking at zero wins and 33.0.
Given the state of his game, it seems inevitable that he’s going to get over the line sooner rather than later and having recorded three top 10s at this track previously, arriving off the back of a runner-up finish last week and having shown a propensity to go low in recent weeks I think the odds on offer represent definite value. Yes, he’s not won since 2014 but he looks much improved over the past 12 months and will be eager to make real strides in his quest to get back on the Ryder Cup team. He is a true ball striker, finishing 7th in GIR last week, and I expect him to be well in the mix come Sunday at a workable price.
Henrik Stenson, 2 points win @ 13.0
Ross Fisher, 1 point win @ 33.0