Abu Dhabi Championship: Grace can do us all a favour, says The Punter

Branden Grace, the Punter's fancy in the desert this week
Branden Grace, the Punter's fancy in the desert this week

It's the start of the Desert Swing this week and the big boys are in town. Can Rory McIlroy put a disappointing year behind him or will Henrik Stenson pick up from where he left off in 2013? Read Steve's detailed event preview here...

"The South African was a shade unlucky not to get off the mark on Sunday and I thought he was vastly over-priced on the Sportsbook yesterday at 41.040/1."


Tournament History
Chris DiMarco won the inaugural Abu Dhabi Championship back in 2006 before Paul Casey and Martin Kaymer shared the next five events. This is just the ninth edition and once again, although there's no Tiger Woods, it's another top quality line-up,


Venue
Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates


Course Details
Par 72, 7,605 yards
Stroke Index in 2013 - 72.25

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 will run at around 12 on the stimpmeter, are Bermuda.

The course always receives plenty of praise from the players and each year improvements are made. Last year fairways were lengthened and tightened, bunkers were added and renovated and the rough was enhanced. The year before greens were enlarged, to increase the number of pin placement options, and this time around bunkers have been added around the 11th green, and the 18th tee box has been raised and moved.


Useful Sites
Event Site
Course Site
Tee Times
Weather Forecast
Alternative Forecast


TV Coverage
Live on Sky Sports all four days - 6.00am on Thursday and Friday, 9.00am on Saturday and 8.00am on Sunday.


Last Five Winners
2013 - Jamie Donaldson -14
2012 - Robert Rock -13
2011 - Martin Kaymer -24
2010 - Martin Kaymer -21
2009 - Paul Casey -21


What will it take to win the Abu Dhabi Championship?

It's a magnificent course and a fair all-round test so winners tend to rank well in all departments. Although the fairways have been narrowed recently, only two of the top-16 ranked inside the top-10 for Driving Accuracy last year and the winner, Jamie Donaldson, ranked 16th. Donaldson ranked seventh for Driving Distance and runner-up, Justin Rose, ranked eighth, so you could argue that distance is slightly more important than accuracy, but a solid all-round long game looks essential.

But the most important stat is Greens in Regulation. Year after year the top-four or five on the leaderboard rank highly for greens hit.


Is there an identikit winner?

The first three men to win the event, DiMarco, Casey and Kaymer, spread over a period of six years, were all bang in-form top-class performers. Unless conditions were tough, scores were 20 under-par or better (-24 in 2011 being the record) but that's changed since the course has been strengthened and so has the profile of the last two winners.

Both Donaldson last year and Robert Rock the year before went off at big prices and both, after many years on the European Tour, were winning their second title soon after their first.

I wouldn't give those two results too much credence though, Rose should have won last year and Tiger Woods messed up in 2012 and I can see the cream rising to the top again this time around.


In-Play Tactics

If you haven't already placed your bet and your fancy has been drawn in the afternoon on Thursday it may make sense to hold your horses. We don't appear to be heading for a terribly windy week but Thursday afternoon looks like being the hardest time to play and an early-late draw could be a fairly big plus.

This isn't a catch-up course. The last six winners have all been in the top-five at halfway an no more than two off the lead and Donaldson was the first winner in six years not to be in front after three rounds.


Market Leaders

Plenty of punters made it clear on Sunday night who'd be favourite this week and there'll be a few wishing they'd waited. Rory McIlroy was matched as low as 4.03/1 and for plenty at just 5.85/1, 6.05/1 an 6.25/1. He now trades at around 7.06/1 and that's still not big enough to tempt me in, despite his early draw.

I know he signed off with a win Down Under and that he has some very solid course form, (11-5-3-2-2-MC) but 2013 was bitterly disappointing and I'm not sure he should be favourite.

Henrik Stenson has taken his career to heights many, myself included, thought weren't possible. The reigning Race to Dubai and FedEx Cup champion, in stark contrast to Rory, finished the year as the most in-form player on the planet and the Christmas break may have done him some good.

He looked very tired at the end of the year but still managed respectable finishes at the Nedbank (fourth) and the Thailand Golf Championship (second) and had he been drawn in the morning, I'd be gobbling up the 9.08/1.

Having finished fouth in the HSBC Champions in China, runner-up at the Nedbank and then signed off the year by beating Stenson in Thailand, Sergio Garcia is understandably a warm order, trading as third best at around 11.521/2 but he's rarely a decent price and isn't here.

Three-time winner, Martin Kaymer, will have his followers, despite not being at his best in a while, but I'm not one of them. He used to be imperious around here but hasn't looked quite the same since it was toughened up and he missed the cut in 2012 before finishing sixth last year.

Phil Mickelson travels well nowadays and has a good record outside of the states but he failed to break 70 here on his only previous appearance in 2011. He used to have an outstanding record in the early events stateside and you could set yourself up for the year by backing Lefty right up until the US Masters but just recently, he's tended to need an outing or two before finding top gear and I'm happy to let him go un-backed here.


Selections

I like both Stenson and Thomas Bjorn this week but I'm glad I've held off. Both have been drawn to start off on Thursday afternoon and as already stated, that could be a problem.

I also liked the look of Chris Wood. He has the same profile as the last two winners but he putted deplorably last week and that's put me off so I'm playing just one from the start - Branden Grace.

The South African was a shade unlucky not to get off the mark on Sunday and I thought he was vastly over-priced on the Sportsbook yesterday at 41.040/1. As he's my sole selection, he's also my each-way pick and I've outlined his case here.


Selection
Branden Grace @ 41.040/1
(Sportsbook)


I'll back later with my preview for the week's other event - the Humana Challenge.


*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter


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