The European Tour really gets into gear this week with a fantastic field heading to Abu Dhabi. World number one, Jordan Spieth, and course specialist, Rory McIlroy, are vying for favouritism and it's sure to be an exciting event so read Steve's in-depth preview here...
“Surely it’s only a matter of time before Rory McIlroy wins this event. He finished 11th here on debut in 2008 and he missed the cut in 2013 when he was using his new Nike clubs for the first time but take out those two performances and his for figures read 5-3-2-2-2-2.”
After a couple of fairly low key events in South Africa, the European Tour really gets going again this week with the first leg of the Middle East Swing. World number one, Jordan Spieth, will tee it up alongside world number three, Rory McIlroy, on Thursday in what will be the 11th addition of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates
Par 72, 7,600 yards
Stroke Index in 2015 - 70.65
Designed by Peter Harradine and opened in 1998, Abu Dhabi Golf Club is a long, flat, heavily bunkered and fairly exposed track. The fairways are Paspalum and the greens, which usually run at around 12.5 on the stimpmeter, are Bermuda.
I haven't been able to establish much news on the course this year, but prior to last year's renewal the greens on holes two, four, 11 and 12 were extended to various degrees to provide more hole locations and the 16th fairway was redesigned with new bunkers added.
The rough is usually over-seeded with Rye grass to provide a proper test so I'm assuming that's been done again this time around.
Live on Sky all four days, beginning at 5:30 (UK time) on Thursday
Last Five Winners
2015 - Gary Stal -19
2014 - Pablo Larrazabal -14
2013 - Jamie Donaldson -14
2012 - Robert Rock -13
2011 - Martin Kaymer -24
What Will it Take to Win the Abu Dhabi Championship?
Although last year's winner, Gary Stal, ranked only 53rd for Driving Distance, I'd favour length over accuracy from the tee here but the key stat to focus on is Greens In Regulation. The runner-up 12 months ago, Rory McIlroy, ranked number one for GIR and the player that's hit most greens for the week has finished inside the top five every year bar 2008. Paul McGinley ranked first for greens hit that year and he could only finish ninth but the man that ranked second for GIR, Martin Kaymer, took the title.
Is There an Angle In?
Desert golf is quite unique so favour those that have already shown an aptitude for it. Look at results for the Dubai Desert Classic and the DP World Tour Championship. Anyone already possessing a good record in the UAE is worthy of close inspection.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Chris DiMarco, who at the time was at his peak, won the inaugural staging of the tournament in 2006 and Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey shared the next five (Kaymer winning three), so for the first six years, the winners could only be described as top class but the last four winners have been much harder to find.
Robert Rock was a huge outsider in 2012, Jamie Donaldson and Pablo Larrazabal were both fairly unfancied in 2013 and '14 and last year's winner, Stal, was matched before the off at 320.0319/1! Having been dominated by short-priced top-class players in the early years, the tournament has transformed into one in which rank outsiders can shine.
What happened last year was so unusual that I'm inclined to view it as a complete and utter anomaly. Having already won here three times, and having led after rounds one, two and three, when Martin Kaymer birdied three of the first four holes to take a ten-stroke lead on Sunday, he was matched for over £50k at 1.011/100 and I'm not surprised. He looked an absolute certainty to go on and win the title for a fourth time but a bogey at the 6th, a double-bogey at the ninth and a triple at the 13th, saw him come back to the field.
It was almost unbelievable and incredible to witness - especially given how much this course favours frontrunners.
This is not a catch-up course as a rule and a fast start is usually essential. The first two winners started slowly with opening rounds of 71 and Stal trailed by four strokes 12 months ago but no other winner has been any more than three back after round one and the last eight winners have all shot an opening round in the 60s.
Larrazabal, the 2013 winner, slipped back in round two and he was four off the lead and tied for 10th at the halfway stage but he, Stal and Casey (in 2007) are the only winners to be outside the top-five through 36 holes.
Larrazabal sat fourth and three back with a round to go and Donaldson trailed by two in second spot a year earlier but the five winners before them were all in front after round three.
In each of the last four years, a star name arguably should have won. In addition to the aforementioned implosion by Kaymer, Rock outgunned Tiger Woods in 2012, Justin Rose gave up a two-stroke 54-hole lead when Donaldson won, and Larrazabal got the better of Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson in what transpired to be another fascinating final round.
I doubt we will ever witness anything like last year's remarkable scenes but taking on odds-on shots in-running on Sunday could well pay dividends again.
In the ten editions to date, there has never been a playoff at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Surely it's only a matter of time before Rory McIlroy wins this event. He finished 11th here on debut in 2008 and he missed the cut in 2013 when he was using his new Nike clubs for the first time but take out those two performances and his for figures read 5-3-2-2-2-2.
Rory has kicked off the year here for the last eight years, so maybe he's been just a fraction rusty when it comes to the crunch and that's why he hasn't quite converted? He was matched at just 2.427/5 on the Friday last year and he hit a low of 2.3611/8 in 2014. He led after the first round in 2009 and 2012 and I wouldn't be in a rush to take him on - especially in the Top 5 Finish and 1st Round Leader markets.
Despite him being in scintillating form a fortnight ago, when he won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions by a remarkable eight strokes, Spieth might be one to swerve here. He doesn't have any noticeable weaknesses and he's going to contend far more often than not but a couple of things put me off at this particular tournament.
GIR is the key stat here and although it's hard to believe given his results, he did end 2015 ranking only 49th on the PGA Tour for that stat, so that's a tiny negative and so is his lack of desert golf experience. This will be the first time he's played the course and he doesn't have an abundance of form on desert tracks. He was seventh at the Phoenix Open on his seasonal reappearance last year but he was never really in-contention and with so many in the field with an abundance of experience here, and at other desert courses, there's an argument that Spieth is too short at around 5.59/2.
The market can't split Rickie Fowler or Henrik Stenson but neither makes much appeal. Fowler finished down the field on debut 12 months ago and Stenson hasn't played well here in a long time. The Swede's first three visits resulted in two seconds and an eighth placed finish but his form figures since read MC-21-42-MC-23-MC-MC which is hardly inspiring.
Course specialist Martin Kaymer, is next up but he hasn't played especially well in a while and heaven knows how he'll react to revisiting the scene of his most calamitous performance.
I'm happy to play Rory in both the Win and Top 5 markets - especially the latter. I know Spieth's in the field this time around and Rory's a similar price to 12 months ago when he wasn't, but the Irishman's record here really is quite incredible. Sooner or later he's going to get over the line and if it's not this year, if he achieves his usual top-5 finish, that will more than cover my stakes.
In addition to backing Rory, I'm also playing the hugely-promising Thomas Pieters -who finished fourth here last year, despite failing to break 70 on the weekend - and I've also risked a few pounds on Andy Sullivan, who I don't think should be as big as he is considering all that he's already achieved.
I'll be back later today with my CareerBuilder Challenge preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter