Abu Dhabi Championship: Wallace the only play in tricky European Tour restart

Golfer Tommy Fleetwood
Tommy Fleetwood with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship trophy last year

We're off to Abu Dhabi for a world class tournament so read Steve Rawlings' comprehensive preview ahead of Wednesday's start here...

"Given three men have won the title at least twice in 13 years, it would be easy to assume that you have to concentrate on those with strong course form but it’s not that simple."

Tournament History

Chris DiMarco won the inaugural edition of the Abu Dhabi Championship as recently as 2006 so it's a fairly new event on the European Tour and this is just the 14th edition.

It's a tournament that continues to grow in stature and we've got a cracking field once again with the second and third ranked players in the Official World Rankings, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, in attendance.

The Abu Dhabi Championship has been upgraded this year and for the first time in its history, the tournament kicks off the European Tour's lucrative Rolex Series.

Unusually, the tournament is to be played from Wednesday to Saturday this year to help accommodate football's 2019 Asian Cup.

Venue

Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Course Details

Par 72, 7,583 yards
Stroke Index in 2018 - 70.77

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.

The rough is usually over-seeded with ryegrass to provide a proper test and the course is usually tinkered with in some way in-between editions.

Weather Forecast

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, beginning at 03:30 on Wednesday

Last Five Winners

2018 - Tommy Fleetwood -22
2017 - Tommy Fleetwood -17
2016 - Rickie Fowler -16
2015 - Gary Stal -19
2014 - Pablo Larrazabal -14

What Will it Take to Win the Abu Dhabi Championship?

Tommy Fleetwood ranked 19th for Driving Distance and sixth for Driving Accuracy when successfully defending the title last year, compared to 15th and ninth in 2017, but the driving stats haven't been a great guide of late.

The longer hitters did appear to be favoured in the early years, when the course was still maturing, but it's not been as much of a factor recently. Matthew Fitzpatrick finished third 12 months ago ranking 54th for DD and that was the same ranking Gary Stal managed to win the event with in 2015. Henrik Stenson finished eighth last year when ranking 70th for DD and in the 2017 edition, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Bernd Wiesberger and Pablo Larrazabal were all placed despite ranking only 37th, 43rd and 49th for DD. The rough has been a lot more penal for recent editions and I'd favour DA over DD.

For the second year in-a-row, Fleetwood hit more greens than anyone else and that's a key stat. Rory McIlroy didn't play in the tournament in 2017 after picking up the rib injury that dogged him all season in South Africa the week before, but he'd been placed in the three editions previously when rankng first for Greens In Regulation and in addition to Fleetwood ranking first in 2017, joint runner-up Pablo Larrazabal, ranked fourth for GIR and the third round leader, Tyrrell Hatton, who finished poorly to finish tied for 13th, ranked second for GIR. As many as nine of the last 12 winners have ranked inside the top ten for GIR.

Is There an Angle In?

This is a confusing tournament to assess. After Chris DiMarco had won the inaugural event in 2006, Paul Casey (twice) and Martin Kaymer (three times) were the only two players to win the event over the next five years and Fleetwood has now won the event back-to-back, so course form clearly stands up well. However prior to last year, we had six winners in-a-row that didn't have a previous top-ten finish at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club between them before they won.

Fleetwood's figures were woeful before 2017, reading MC-MC-19-MC-MC. The 2016 winner, Fowler, had finished 66th on debut the year before, Gary Stal had missed the cut 12 months earlier on his only previous visit, Pablo Larrazabal's form figures read 42-42-11-MC-39 before he won here in 2014, Jamie Donaldson, the 2013 winner, had course form figures reading MC-23-50-20-11-30 and the 2012 victor, Robert Rock, had figures of 59-47-MC-MC.

Given three men have won the title at least twice in 13 years, it would be easy to assume that you have to concentrate on those with strong course form but it's not that simple.

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.

Are we seeing a change with the Rolex Series events?

As you'll see with the list below, the vast majority of early Rolex Series event winners were very well-fancied but three of the last four have been outsiders and the last two have been players that hadn't won in some time.

It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the Series in 2019. Will the market leaders dominate the bulk of the tournaments again this year? I don't think we can conclude an awful lot from the list right now and we clearly can't just blindly dismiss outsiders but it is worth highlighting that even though they went off at big prices, the last two winners, Lee Westwood and Danny Willett, are straight out of the top drawer so the cream does tend to rise to the top. Brandon Stone is still the only winner that one wouldn't immediately declare as top-class but he's a tremendous prospect who could develop in to a major champion in time.

Rolex Series Winners

BMW PGA Championship 2017 - Alex Noren 22.021/1
Open de France 2017 - Tommy Fleetwood 25.024/1
Irish Open 2017 - Jon Rahm 18.017/1
Scottish Open 2017 - Rafa Cabrera-Bello 65.064/1
Italian Open 2017 - Tyrrell Hatton 20.019/1
Turkish Airlines Open 2017 - Justin Rose 9.28/1
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2017 - Branden Grace 18.017/1
DP World Championship 2017 - Jon Rahm 14.013/1
BMW PGA Championship 2018 - Francesco Molinari 22.021/1
Italian Open 2018 - Thorbjorn Olesen 130.0129/1
Open de France 2018 - Alex Noren 19.5
Irish Open 2018 - Russell Knox 27.026/1
Scottish Open 2018 - Brandon Stone 1000.0
Turkish Airlines Open 2018 - Justin Rose 5.85/1
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2018 - Lee Westwood 55.054/1
DP World Championship 2018 - Danny Willett 150.0149/1

Is There an Identikit Winner?

Chris DiMarco and Rickie Fowler have both won the tournament, Dustin Johnson contended two years ago, and Phil Mickelson traded at odds-on in 2014 so the Americans are to be respected but 11 of the 13 winners to date have been European and some of them have been a big price...

Fleetwood was generally a 34.033/1 chance 12 months ago and he was matched at 80.079/1 before the off two years ago. Rickie Fowler went off at around the 20/1 mark when successful three years ago but the four winners before him were all huge outsiders. Stal was matched at 320.0319/1 before the 2015 edition and Larrazabal, Donaldson and Rock were all matched at a triple-figure price so don't be afraid to back an outsider or two this week.

In-Play Tactics

Tommy Fleetwood led after round one last year and he was never more than two adrift in-between rounds and never outside the top-four places thereafter.

In 2017, he sat tied sixth and three off the lead after round one and he was inside the top-three places throughout after that so he's been in the van in each of the last two editions but a fast start isn't essential. Casey was eight back and tied for 43rd after round one in 2007 and Fowler trailed by six after the opening day's play three years ago. And DJ finished second two years ago having sat tied 75th after round one and tied 38th at halfway. He was fully eight adrift after both opening rounds.

We've seen plenty of drama here over the years, many a player have hit odds-on without winning and it was the turn of Ross Fisher 12 months ago. The Englishman hit 1.341/3 at the halfway stage of round four but he collapsed after making a mess of the par five 10th. Fisher's finish pales into insignificance compared to that of Martin Kaymer's in 2015 tough. The three-time winner also finished tied for fourth in 2017, having traded as short as 1.855/6 early on in round four, but I don't think he's ever recovered from what happened to him four years ago...

Having led after rounds one, two and three, when Kaymer birdied three of the first four holes to take a ten-stroke lead in round four, 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 sixth, a double-bogey at the ninth and a triple at the 13th, saw him come back to the field. It was an horrendous collapse. He's still not won since and it wasn't a surprise to see him trip up again two years ago. Capitulations like that can leave a permeant scar.

Kaymer's collapse allowed Stal to win from eight shots adrift after 54 holes and not surprisingly, that's the furthest any winner has trailed by after three rounds. Three shots adrift is the furthest any other winner has trailed by.

And finally, in the 13 editions to date, there has never been a playoff.

Market Leaders

Dustin Johnson is once again a very obvious and straightforward favourite. In his two starts here he's finished second and ninth in each of the last two years and his fast finishing fourth at the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago was a great pipe-opener. This will be his 22nd appearance on the European Tour and he's yet to win so I'm more than happy to swerve him at around the 7.413/2 mark but I wouldn't be in the least bit surprised to see him contend.

Like DJ, Brooks Koepka has been in Abu Dhabi for a few days warming up and also in common with the favourite, Koepka played in the Sentry TOC but he could only finish down the field in 24th. This is Koepka's second appearance in the event as he missed the cut here back in 2014. He's a three-time major champion and the world number two so it would be foolish to dismiss him but he doesn't scream back me from a course and current form perspective.

The defending champ, Tommy Fleetwood, doesn't have the advantage of a recent outing but he's almost certain to be well-prepared. Whether he's value at around 10/1 is debatable though and the same can be said of Swedish veteran, Henrik Stenson. The 20/1 chance has played in every edition of the tournament to date and he's yet to win. His elbow is on the mend following a procedure a few months ago but he's not yet fully fit and others are prepared.

Selection

This is an extremely competitive field and with the vast majority playing for the first time in a month, it's a really difficult puzzle to solve.

Tommy Fleetwood and Henrik Stenson appear to be the best fits statistically but as discussed above, they hardly scream value at their current prices and I also toyed with backing Branden Grace, course-specialist, Martin Kaymer, and even Ian Poulter - who should benefit from having played on the PGA Tour over the last two weeks but in the end I've decided to hang fire for now and the only player I've backed so far is my each-way play, Matt Wallace.

Selection:
Matt Wallace @ 40.039/1

I'll be back tomorrow with my Desert Classic preview and if I do add anyone else before Wednesday's start I'll update Twitter.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

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