The 2018/19 European Tour draws to a close this week with the DP World Tour Championship so read our man's detailed preview of the season finale here...
"It looks like a fairly straightforward formula for success – give it a good biff off the tee and find your touch on the greens. It’s yet another event where power and putting will decide the outcome."
The DP World Tour Championship was first staged ten years ago, when the European Tour replicated the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup with its own version called the Race to Dubai.
The DP World Tour is the eighth and final event of the Rolex Series and it determines who wins the R2D. It's a limited field event for the top-50 in the standings but with Tony Finau not lining up, he's replaced by JB Hansen.
Lee Westwood won the inaugural staging and in doing so he won the R2D, having trailed Rory McIlroy in the season long race before the off, but for the next five years the R2D was all sewn up before this tournament even began and so far, only four of the ten winners of this tournament have also won the Race to Dubai.
Only five men can win the Race to Dubai now but that's still a lot more competitive than it's been at this late stage of late and all the various possible outcomes are highlighted nicely here.
The Earth Course, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai, UAE
Par 72, 7,675 yards
Stroke index in 2018 - 70.73
The Greg Norman designed Earth Course has been the event's venue since its inception. It's a long typical desert track with generous fairways and 99 bunkers.
The Tifeagle Bermuda grass greens are large and undulating, with a lot of run-off areas, and they're usually set to run at 12 on the stimpmeter. Water is in-play on the 6th, 14th and last three holes.
It's a stunning finish that has the potential to produce much drama. The par three 17th has an island green and the par five 18th, with water in play twice if you go for the green and three times if you lay-up, is an intriguing hole, where scores can vary greatly, although players appear to have worked it out now. It was the easiest hole on the course in 2017 and it ranked as the fourth easiest 12 months ago - averaging 4.76.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 07:00 UK time for the first three days and 06:30 on Sunday
First Ten DP World Tour Championship Winners
2009 - Lee Westwood -23
2010 - Robert Karlsson -14 (playoff)
2011 - Alvaro Quiros -19
2012 - Rory McIlroy -23
2013 - Henrik Stenson -25
2014 - Henrik Stenson -16
2015 - Rory McIlroy -21
2016 - Matthew Fitzpatrick -17
2017 - Jon Rahm -19
2018 - Danny Willett -18
What Will it Take to Win the DP World Tour Championship?
Nobody hit it further off the tee than the winner, Jon Rahm, two years ago and length is a huge advantage here. The Earth Course is long and the fairways are generous so it's no surprise to see that last year's winner, Danny Willett, and the 2016 victor, Matthew Fitzpatrick, are the only winners to rank outside the top-eight for Driving Distance but neither man could be described as especially short. They both had a DD ranking for the week of 16th.
Willet ranked 12th and Fitzpatrick ranked second for Driving Accuracy but that's a largely irrelevant stat most years. Rahm ranked 21st and Rory McIlroy only ranked tied for 36th for DA when he won the title for a second time four years ago and when Alvaro Quiros won here in 2011, with only 60 players in the line-up, he ranked 55th for D.A.
Willett and joint second, Patrick Reed, ranked tied third for Greens in Regulation last year and as many as six of the ten winners to date have ranked inside the top-four for GIR but that can't be described as a really key stat. Rahm only ranked 26th for GIR two years ago, Fitzpatrick ranked 21st three years ago and McIlroy only ranked 47th in 2012.
The 2014 renewal produced some very strange putting stats but that very much looks like a one-off given the winner, Henrik Stenson, had a Putting Average ranking of 16th and every other winner's ranking has been eighth or better. The last four winners have ranked first, third, second and fourth and the 2010 winner, Robert Karlsson, and the 2012 winner, Rory McIlroy, like last year's winner, Willett, both ranked number one.
It looks like a fairly straightforward formula for success - give it a good biff off the tee and find your touch on the greens. It's yet another event where power and putting will decide the outcome and it's basically just a birdie-fest.
Is There an Angle In?
Anyone that plays desert golf well has to be respected. Rahm had form in the States in the desert before the off two years (he finished fifth in Phoenix in his second start on the PGA Tour) and he followed victory here with success in the CareerBuilder Challenge in the Californian desert but the two events to really concentrate on the Dubai Desert Classic and the Qatar Masters.
As many as four of the seven players to have won this event in its very short history - Stenson (twice), McIlroy (twice), Willett and Alvaro Quiros - have all won the Dubai Desert Classic as well and the 2012 DDC winner, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, traded at just 1.4840/85 in this event five years ago before throwing the tournament away at the 16th hole. Cabrera-Bello and the 2015 runner-up here, Andy Sullivan, both finished tied for second at the DDC in the February of 2015 and Matt Wallace, who finished tied second here 12 months ago also finished second at the DDC in January.
In addition to winning this title, Robert Karlsson, Stenson and Quiros have also won in Qatar, and the inaugural winner, Lee Westwood, should arguably have won at all three venues. Westwood has been in contention numerous times in Qatar and he's twice finished runner-up at the DDC. The same can be said of the infuriating-to-follow, Cabrera-Bello, who was also runner-up in Qatar three years ago.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Danny Willett had started to show some glimpses of a resurgence before he won here 12 months ago. He'd finished inside the top-eight at both the Italian and Irish Opens and he'd sat second at halfway before finishing seventh in his penultimate start, in the Turkish Airlines Open, but he went off at around 150.0149/1. He was the first really big outsider to win, the second to be matched at a triple-figure price, the first to be described as largely out of form and he was just the second winner in ten years not to have won an event somewhere earlier in the season. Stenson, in 2014, is the only other to win here without lifting a trophy earlier in the season.
All the winners have been top-class players and up until 2016, when Fitzpatrick won having been matched at a triple-figure price before the off, the 2011 winner, Quiros, who was matched at odds of 44.043/1, had been, by some distance, the biggest priced winner of the event.
Rahm was generally a 13.012/1 shot two years ago and Rory and Stenson, who have both won the event twice in the last seven years, were trading at single-figure prices in each of the two years in which they won so the tournament has a history of going to the fancied players.
As I've been doing for some time now, I've listed all the Rolex Series winners to date below. They tend to go to fancied players too and five of the last six have now been won by someone who had previously won one. We've had a couple of playoffs in the last two weeks but we've still seen the more experienced protagonist prevail.
Rolex Series Winners
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
After an opening 69, Rahm sat four off the lead and tied for 16th two years ago and that's the furthest any winner has trailed by after the opening round. Willett was tied for third and just one off the lead last year, Fitzpatrick sat tied for seventh and only three off the lead in 2016 and prior to Rahm, that was the furthest any winner had trailed by after the opening day's play so this is most certainly a frontrunner's track. The first seven winners, and eight of the ten to date, all opened up with a round of 68 or better and they were all inside the top-six places after day one.
Willet was still one back through 36 holes and Rahm and Fitzpatrick both still trailed by three at halfway but those three, Rory (in 2015), and Robert Karlsson, who beat Ian Poulter in a play-off in 2010, are the only winners not to be in front after rounds two and three. The other five winners were all never headed after 36 holes. Bizarrely, Karlsson is still the only first round leader to go on to win though. He'd dropped back after a second round 75 before rallying with back-to-back 67s over the weekend to catch Poulter.
As they've done in each of the last two weeks on the European Tour, the field will go out in reverse order after round one this week and that might go some way to explaining why the leaders are so hard to catch.
When interviewed by Sky after round two three years ago, Andy Sullivan talked about how much warmer it was in the afternoons here and how he couldn't reach the second green in two in the morning but that the latter starters would get there easily. Maybe the leaders' getting more favourable conditions is one of the reasons why it's hard to play catch-up? With only 50 in the field, the spread isn't massive, but it's food for thought.
If you're betting in-running, beware the tricky finish where we've already witnessed drama aplenty. The 16th is a fairly difficult par four with strategic placed fairway bunkers that really caught out Cabrera-Bello in 2014 and the par three 17th is also tough...
Having been two clear and having already been matched at a low of just 1.041/25, Rory hit a stinker of a tee-shot there three years ago to find the water. It looked like it was game on for a few minutes and that he and the eventual runner-up, the aforementioned Sullivan, would go up the 18th tied for the lead but Rory drained his bogey putt from around 30 feet and from that moment on there was only ever going to be one winner. And the 2016 renewal was even more dramatic.
Tyrrell Hatton was matched at odds-on on five separate occasions during round four and he hit a low of 1.132/15 when he made a miraculous par save at the 17th hole but with the event at his mercy, he drove in to the water on the 18th and Fitzpatrick made birdie there to pip him by one.
The last two renewals haven't been anywhere near as exciting but we still witnessed Patrick Reed trade at 2.0621/20 before getting beat last year and Justin Rose was matched at just 1.434/9 before he lost his way badly on the back-nine to finish tied fourth in 2017.
Two-time tournament winner, Rory McIlroy, is impossible to dismiss. His form figures here read an impressive 3-5-11-1-5-2-1-9-20 and he's been in great form for much of the year. He won the WGC HSBC Champions in China on his last outing (three weeks ago) and he's putting better than he has for a while too. Last year's 20th was a poor effort but he wasn't putting brilliantly 12 months ago (ranked 34th for Putting Average) and we can expect a much stronger showing.
The only negative, if it can even be construed as one, is the absence of his caddie, Harry Diamond, who's wife Clare, has just given birth to their first child. Diamond is replaced by ex-Ulster rugby star, Niall O'Conner, who like Diamond, is a good friend of Rory's. The switch will be, in all likelihood, seamless but it's definitely something to consider before backing a 4/1 shot in a 50-man field.
Not having a chance of winning the Race to Dubai is arguably a positive as that isn't a distraction but can he win a Rolex Series event? Somewhat bizarrely, he's yet to do so.
Jon Rahm, who's looking to win his fourth Rolex Series event, is just as impossible to ignore, with the R2D title and his lack of a recent outing the only conceivable negatives. We haven't seen the powerful Spaniard since he successfully defended his Open de Espana title seven weeks ago but I can't believe he won't be finely tuned and raring to go at a venue that suits him perfectly.
Rahm won here two years ago on debut, despite the slightly slow start, and he finished a respectable fourth here when defending 12 months ago. Uncharacteristically, he missed a pair of cuts back-to-back in the States after he and Ryan Palmer had won the Zurich Classic pairs event in April, two weeks after he'd finished ninth at the US Masters, but his form figures since read an incredible 3-2-1-11-7-3-5-13-2-MC-1 and he looks a knocking god each-way bet at 13/2 with seven places. It would have to be considered a surprise if he didn't place given his incredible record on the European Tour where he has a top-five strike-rate of 55% and a win rate of 28%.
I can't ignore Jon Rahm so he's onside each-way and win only and I've stuck by a couple of last week's picks too. Bernd Wiesberger does have the huge distraction of the R2D title, for which he's an odds-on favourite, and he could easily bomb here under the pressure, but he's just playing too well to ignore at a juicy price and I'm also happy to chance Kurt Kitayama again at a venue that should suit.
The big-hitting American went to college in Las Vegas so desert golf should be right up his street. He whacks it a country mile off the tee and his putting stats have been excellent of late. He does have the distraction of the Rookie of the Year title, which is now in the hands of Robert McIntyre after last week's Nedbank, but at 75.074/1, that distraction is more than factored in.
Jon Rahm @ 8.07/1
Bernd Wiesberger @ 36.035/1
Kurt Kitayama @ 75.074/1
I'll be back later today with my RSM Classic preview.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter