Abu Dhabi Championship: Rory the right favourite for desert delight

Golfer Bernd Wiesberger
Bernd Wiesberger in action in Abu Dhabi

After a six-week break the European Tour returns with its first event of the new season, the Abu Dhabi Championship. Read Steve's in-depth preview and bets here...

"There could be differential in scoring of a couple of strokes so waiting until the ‘draw’ has been published before placing bets may make sense."

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 16th edition.

Once again, we have a great field in attendance with three of the world's top-ten teeing it up. World number two, Justin Thomas, plays for the first time, Rory McIlroy returns for the first time in three years, looking to win the tournament for the first time after seven top-three finishes and Tyrell Hatton will seek redemption for his fourth round collapse here in 2017.

In addition to being the first tournament of the season, the Abu Dhabi Championship is the first of four European Tour's Rolex Series events in 2021.

Venue

Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Course Details

Par 72, 7,583 yards
Stroke Index in 2020 - 71.2

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.

ABU DHABI 2021 1.jpg

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

Weather

TV Coverage

Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 3:30 on Thursday, 07:00 on Friday, 08:00 on Saturday and 07:00 on Sunday.

Last Five Winners with Pre-event Exchange Prices

2020 - Lee Westwood -19 140.0139/1
2019 - Shane Lowry -18 90.089/1
2018 - Tommy Fleetwood -22 34.033/1
2017 - Tommy Fleetwood -17 80.079/1
2016 - Rickie Fowler -16 21.020/1

What Will it Take to Win the Abu Dhabi Championship?

The driving stats aren't worth spending much time on here. The longer hitters did appear to be favoured in the early years, when the course was still maturing, but that's not been the case of late and I'd narrowly favour accuracy over length.

Last year's winner, Lee Westwood, ranked first for Driving Accuracy and only 44th for Driving Distance and Joost Luiten and Louis Oosthuizen, who finished third and fourth in 2019, ranked tied second for DA, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest accuracy of the tee is not imperative. Shane Lowry, the winner two years ago, only ranked 55th for DA.

Westwood only ranked ninth for Greens In Regulation last year but Matthew Fitzpatrick, who finished tied for second, hit more greens than anyone else and the top-five all ranked inside the top-ten for GIR.

A year earlier, Lowry had only ranked 18th for Greens in Regulation but the three men to finish immediately behind him ranked fourth, first and third and when Tommy Fleetwood successfully defended the title three years ago, he hit more greens than anyone else for a second year running.

Rory McIlroy didn't play in the tournament in 2017 but he'd been placed in the three editions previously when ranking first for GIR and in addition to Fleetwood ranking first in 2017, joint runner-up, Pablo Larrazabal, ranked fourth for GIR and the third round leader, Hatton, who finished poorly to finish tied for 13th, ranked second for GIR. As many as ten of the last 14 winners have ranked inside the top ten for GIR and that's the key stat.

Is Course Form Important?

This is quite a confusing tournament to assess. After Chris DiMarco had won the initial 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 won the tournament back-to-back so course form clearly stands up well but prior to 2018, 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.

Westwood finished second behind Kaymer on debut in 2008 but he had a mixed bag of course form after that with figures reading MC-64-17-MC-8-MC-16 and Lowry had kept away for four years prior to his win two years ago, and his form figures read MC-MC-MC. And that's nothing new...

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, it would be easy to assume that you have to concentrate on those with strong course form but it's clearly not that simple.

Is There an Angle In?

Desert golf is unique so favour those that have already shown an aptitude for it. Look at results for the Dubai Desert Classic, the inaugural Golf in Dubai Championship staged at the start of last month and the DP World Tour Championship. Anyone already possessing a good record in the UAE is always worthy of close inspection.

Outsiders Fare Well

Although generally a 90.089/1 chance in 2019, Shane Lowry was matched at 100.099/1 before the off two years ago and Lee Westwood was a 140.0139/1 chance last year.

Fleetwood was generally a 34.033/1 chance when successfully defending in 2018 - a year winning and 80.079/1 and Rickie Fowler was a well-fancied 20/1 shot in 2016 but the four winners before him were all huge outsiders.

Gary Stal was matched at 320.0319/1 before the 2015 edition and Pablo Larrazabal, Jamie Donaldson and Robert Rock were all matched at a triple-figure price so don't be afraid to back an outsider or two this week.

Previous Rolex Series Winners

As many as eight of the last 11 Rolex Series event winners had won at least one previously and almost all the Rolex Series winners (listed below) can be described as top-class.

BMW PGA Championship 2017 - Alex Noren 22.021/1 1/2
Open de France 2017 - Tommy Fleetwood 25.024/1
Irish Open 2017 - Jon Rahm 18.017/1 1/3
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 1/2
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2017 - Branden Grace 18.017/1
DP World Championship 2017 - Jon Rahm 13.012/1 2/3
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 2/2
Irish Open 2018 - Russell Knox 27.026/1
Scottish Open 2018 - Brandon Stone 1000.0
Turkish Airlines Open 2018 - Justin Rose 5.85/1 2/2
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2018 - Lee Westwood 55.054/1
DP World Championship 2018 - Danny Willett 150.0149/1 1/2
Abu Dhabi Championship 2019 - Shane Lowry 90.089/1
Irish Open 2019 - Jon Rahm 10.09/1 3/3
Scottish Open 2019 - Bernd Wiesberger 46.045/1
BMW PGA Championship 2019 - Danny Willett 80.079/1 2/2
Italian Open 2019 - Bernd Wiesberger 55.054/1 2/2
Turkish Airlines Open 2019 - Tyrrell Hatton 20.019/1 2/2
Nedbank Golf Challenge 2019 - Tommy Fleetwood 20.019/1 2/2
DP World Championship 2019 - Jon Rahm 8.07/1 4/4
Abu Dhabi Championship 2020 - Lee Westwood 140.0139/1 2/2
Scottish Open 2020 - Aaron Rai 110.0109/1
BMW PGA Championship 2019 - Tyrrell Hatton 22.021/1 3/3
DP World Championship 2019 - Matthew Fitzpatrick 22.021/1

Winner's Position and Exchange Price Pre-Round Four

2020 - Lee Westwood led by one 4.47/2
2019 - Shane Lowry led by three strokes 1.618/13
2018 - Tommy Fleetwood T4th - trailing by two 9.89/1
2017 - Tommy Fleetwood T2nd - trailing by one 15.014/1
2016 - Rickie Fowler led by two strokes 2.942/1

In-Play Tactics

The 2018 and 2019 winners, Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry, were both in front after round one, and Lowry, like Martin Kaymer in 2008, won the tournament wire-to-wire but a fast start isn't essential here.

Last year's victor, Lee Westwood, was tied for 18th and five off the lead after round and seventh and three adrift at halfway. Like seven of the 14 winners before him, he was in front with a round to go. Paul Casey was eight back and tied for 43rd after round one in 2007 and Fowler trailed by six after the opening day's play four years ago. And Dustin Johnson finished second three years ago having sat tied 75th after round one and tied 38th at halfway! He was fully eight adrift after both opening rounds.

Matthew Fitzpatrick briefly touched odds-on last year (hit a low of 1.9210/11) before finishing second so once again someone went odds-on without winning but last year's edition was far less dramatic than we often experience...

Matthew Fitzpatrick in Dubai.jpg

Many a player has hit odds-on without winning here and it was the turn of Richard Sterne two years ago. He led by four with seven to play and he hit a low of just 1.071/14 and Ross Fisher was matched at 1.341/3 at the halfway stage of round four in 2018 but both collapsed on the back-nine. Their flaky finishes are nothing compared to poor Martin Kaymer's in 2015 though. The three-time winner, who also finished tied for fourth in 2017, having traded as short as 1.855/6 early on in round four, has seemingly never recovered from what happened to him here six 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 a horrendous collapse. He's still not won since and it wasn't a surprise to see him trip up again four years ago. Capitulations like that can leave a permanent scar and this one has.

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 15 editions to date, there has never been a playoff.

Market Leaders

The world number three, Justin Thomas, and world number six, Rory McIlroy, are vying for favouritism and it isn't hard to make a strong case for either.

Thomas is playing in the event for the first time but there's no reason to think he won't take to the place and American's have a great record in the event. In addition to DiMarco and Fowler winning, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have both finished second and Tiger Woods was third in 2012.

Thomas has been putting brilliantly of late and he arrives in decent form with recent figures reading 3-8-12-2-4-12-3, which includes placed efforts in both the US Open and the US Masters but there are negatives.

Thomas hasn't been driving the ball particularly well. He only hit two thirds of the super-wide fairways at Kapalua last time out (ranking 40th of 42 for Driving Accuracy) so that's a negative and he also needs bounce-back this week following the furore surrounding him being dropped by Ralph Lauren for uttering a homophobic comment during the Sentry Tournament of Champions last time out.

He's more than capable of finding more fairways and of moving on from the Ralph Loren episode with easy but I much prefer the chances of Rory at a venue that clearly suits him.

How McIlroy hasn't won this tournament yet is a bit of a mystery given his remarkable course form figures reading 11-5-3-2-2-MC-2-2-3-3 and he's the one to beat. We haven't seen McIlroy since his fifth placed finish in the US Masters in November and his Greens In Regulation figures weren't fantastic in his last three starts but they're the only slight negatives for him. It's very difficult to envisage him not contending and the 2.56/4 available in the Top 5 Finish market look more than fair.

Since losing his way in the fourth round here in 2017, Tyrrell Hatton's form here is regressive. He finished 15th a year later and he missed the cut in 2019. Like Rory, he missed the tournament 12 months ago and I'm happy to leave him out given his form tailed off a bit at the end of last year. Having won the BMW PGA Championship in September, Hatton finished placed in a couple of PGA Tour events but after missing the cut at Augusta again he finished 23rd at the RSM Classic and only eighth in the DP World Tour Championship after a decent start.

Tommy Fleetwood, who turned 30 on Tuesday, is impossible to ignore here. Already a two-time winner, he managed to finish runner-up to Westwood 12 months ago despite trailing by seven strokes after rounds one and two and by six after round three. He's far from prolific but he can't be dismissed lightly and neither can the man who finished alongside him in second 12 months ago - Matthew Fitzpatrick.

TOMMY FLEETWOOD ABU DHABI 2018.jpg

It took Fitzpatrick a bit of time to get to grips with the Abu Dhabi Golf Club and his first three starts produced figures reading MC-26-MC but last year's second followed a third placed finish in 2018 and having won his second DP World title last time out, the Sheffielder has more than advertising his liking for desert golf.

Selections

I've taken a position on Rory McIlroy at 7.87/1 which I may or may not hold on to. As highlighted above, the live coverage on Sky Sports starts early on Thursday but not on Friday and that's something they've done before. And it suggests that the star names will be out early on Thursday morning which again, is something we've seen before.

If that is the case, then Rory and co will get the better of the 'draw' as the wind is forecasted to get up significantly on Thursday afternoon before blowing consistently strong on Friday. There could be differential in scoring of a couple of strokes so waiting until the 'draw' has been published before placing bets may make sense.

If Rory does (as expected) get the morning draw, he could also be of interest in the 1st Round Leader market as he's ended the opening round in front twice previously here.

I'm going to keep an eye on the forecast and the draw and adjust positions accordingly but for now, in addition to placing a bet on Rory, which I'll be looking to trade, I've placed modest bets on three usual suspects - Bernd Wiesberger, Matt Wallace and Andy Sullivan. All three have great form in the desert and provided they don't get snookered by the draw, I thought they all looked generously priced.

I have at least one other outsider but I'll make the case for them when I return with the Find Me a 100 Winner column.

*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter

Selections

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