Links form key in Dubai
Cream rises to the top
A week before the 2024 DP World Tour schedule kicks off with two tournaments - the Joburg Open and the Australian PGA Championship - the 2023 season draws to a close with the now traditional curtain closer - the DP World Tour Championship.
First staged 14 years ago, when the DP World Tour replicated the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup with its own version called the Race to Dubai, the DP World Tour Championship is the fifth and final event of the Rolex Series and it usually determines who wins the R2D but not this year.
Whatever happens this week, Rory McIlroy can't be caught after Max Homa's impressive wire-to-wire victory at the Nedbank Challenge yesterday.
It's a limited field event for the top-50 available in the standings and for the first time in as long as I can remember, the top-50 are all present.
The Earth Course, Jumeirah Golf Estates, Dubai, UAE.
Par 72, 7,706 yards
Stroke index in 2021 - 71.06
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, the 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. It was the easiest hole on the course in 2017 but it ranked as the fourth easiest 12 months ago - averaging 4.75.
Live on Sky Sports all four days, starting at 7:00 on Thursday.
Last Eight Winners with Pre-event Prices
- 2022 - Jon Rahm -20 6.25/1
- 2021 - Collin Morikawa -17 10.09/1
- 2020 - Matthew Fitzpatrick -15 22.021/1
- 2019 - Jon Rahm -19 8.07/1
- 2018 - Danny Willett -18 150.0149/1
- 2017 - Jon Rahm -19 15.014/1
- 2016 - Matthew Fitzpatrick -17 110.0109/1
- 2015 - Rory McIlroy -21 5.95/1
What Will it Take to Win?
The Earth Course is long, and the fairways are generous so it's no surprise to see the long hitters prosper. In all the years we've been coming here, 16th is the worst any winner has ranked for Driving Distance.
Jon Rahm ranked 13th for Driving Distance and only 46th for Driving Accuracy and that was slightly unusual.
Length has always been key but driving accuracy wasn't an essential prerequisite in the early days, however, over time, finding fairways has started to be far more important as the course has matured and the two players to finish tied second last year, Tyrell Hatton and Alex Noren, ranked seventh and ninth for DA.
Rory McIlroy only ranked tied for 36th for DA when he won the title for a second time eight years ago and when Alvaro Quiros won here in 2011, with only 60 players in the line-up, he ranked 55th for D.A.
Fitzpatrick topped the Driving Accuracy stats when winning three years ago, Rahm ranked eighth in 2019, Willet 12th in 2018 and when he won here for the first time, Fitzpatrick ranked second for DA in 2016 so accuracy off the tee is important now.
As many as seven of the top-ten ranked inside the top-ten for Greens In Regulation last year and nobody hit more greens than Rahm in 2019.
Rahm only ranked eighth last year but seven of the 14 winners to date have ranked inside the top-four for GIR, although it still can't be described as a really key stat given Rahm only ranked 26th for GIR on the first occasion he won here, Fitzpatrick ranked 21st in 2016 and McIlroy only ranked 47th in 2012. Morikawa ranked seventh two years ago.
The 2021 winner, Collin Morikawa, only ranked 15th for Putting Average and that was an unusually high ranking. The first four home 12 months ago ranked first, fourth, seventh and second and the six winners before Morika had ranked fifth, first, first, third, second and fourth but nobody got up-and-down more times throughout the week than Morikawa, who topped the Scrambling rankings. Rahm ranked second for Scrambling last year.
This a long track and playing the par fives well is key. Hatton, who finished tied second, and McIlroy in fourth, were the only two players in the field to better Rahm on the long holes last year and Morikawa ranked second on the par fives 12 months earlier.
Is There an Angle In?
Anyone that plays desert golf well must be respected. The three-time winner, Jon Rahm has form in the States in the desert and he's won the Desert Classic in the Californian desert twice but the two events to really concentrate on are two the Spaniard is yet to play - the Dubai Desert Classic and the Qatar Masters.
As many as four of the nine players to have won this event in its short history - Henrik Stenson (twice), McIlroy (twice), Willett and Alvaro Quiros - have all won the Dubai Desert Classic.
The 2012 DDC winner, Rafael Cabrera-Bello, traded at just 1.4840/85 in this event nine years ago before throwing the tournament away at the 16th hole, and the English duo, Andy Sullivan and Matt Wallace, have finished runner-up in both events.
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 Cabrera-Bello, who was also runner-up in Qatar six years ago.
And finally, Rahm has now won the event three times, Fitzpatrick was the fourth man to win the DP World Tour Championship twice in a span of just nine years when he won three years ago and the two-time winner, Rory McIlroy, traded at odds-on again in 2021 so it's fair to say course form stands up well.
Links Lovers Thrive
We've now had 14 renewals of the DP World Tour Championship and three Open champions have won five editions (Morikawa, McIlroy x2 and Henrik Stensonx2) with two other Open winners, Shane Lowry and Paul Lawrie, finishing second.
This year's Alfred Dunhill Link Championship winner, Fitzpatrick, is a two-time champ and the 2021 ADLC winner, Danny Willett, won the event in 2018.
Rahm, who's won the Irish Open on a links layout twice, is looking to win the event for a fourth time when he defends this week so links form really does come to the fore.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
Danny Willett had started to show some glimpses of a resurgence before he won here five years 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. Fitzpatrick hadn't won for two years when he claimed the title for a second time in 2020 and Stenson, in 2014, is the only other to win here without lifting a trophy earlier in the season but he was the defending champion.
All the winners have been top-class players and Fitzpatrick, in 2016, and Willett two years later, are the only two to be matched at a triple-figure price before the off. The 2011 winner, Quiros, who was matched at odds of 44.043/1, is the only other remotely big priced winner of the event.
Rahm was very well backed last year, going off at around 5/16.00 and having won the Open Championship a few months earlier, Morikawa was a well-fancied 9/1 chance in 2021.
Rahm was generally an 8.07/1 shot in 2019 and Rory and Stenson, were trading at single-figure prices when they won on both occasions, so the tournament has a history of going to the fancied players.
Year after year the cream rises to the top and the last 11 editions have been won by a major champion. Outsiders don't tend to have a look in and Adrian Meronk, who finished tied for seventh, was the only player trading at more than 50.049/1 before the off last year to finish inside the top-eight.
Winner's Position and Price Pre-Round Four
- 2022 - Jon Rahm - led by one 2.427/5
- 2021 - Collin Morikawa - tied fifth, trailing by four 10.09/1
- 2020 - Matthew Fitzpatrick - tied for the lead 5.24/1
- 2019 - Jon Rahm - tied for the lead 2.0621/20
- 2018 - Danny Willett - tied for the lead 5.69/2
- 2017 - Jon Rahm - tied second - trailing by one 4.77/2
- 2016 - Matthew Fitzpatrick - tied second - trailing by one 6.86/1
- 2015 - Rory McIlroy - second - trailing by one 2.111/10
Rahm sat tied for 14th and five of off the lead after he'd shot a two-under-par 70 in round one last year and that's the only time the winner has begun the event with a round in the 70s. Every other winner has started with a round in the 60s and this is most certainly a frontrunner's track. The first seven winners, and 11 of the 14 to date, all opened-up with a round of 68 or better and they were all inside the top-six places after day one.
Rahm was bang there at halfway following a six-under-par 66 on Friday which saw him sit tied for fifth, trailing by four and 12 months earlier, Morikawa had sat sixth and two off the lead after 36 holes. The three winners before Morikawa had sat second at halfway and four of the first five winners here were in front after 36 holes.
Robert Karlsson, who beat Ian Poulter in a play-off back in 2010, is the only winner not to be sitting inside the top-eight at halfway and up until 2021, when Morikawa won having trailed by three in a tie for fifth, he was the only winner not to be sitting first or second with a round to go but bizarrely, he's still the only first round leader to go on to win. He'd dropped back into a tie for 12th after a second round 75 before rallying with back-to-back 67s over the weekend to catch Poulter.
There's only been 14 previous editions but Rahm was the tenth winner to be leading or tied for the lead with a round to go.
If you're betting in-running, beware the tricky finish where we've witnessed drama aplenty over the years with all four finishing holes determining the outcome of the event at various times.
The 16th is a fairly difficult par four with strategically placed fairway bunkers that really caught out Rafa Cabrera-Bello in 2014 and the par three 17th is also tough, but it was the short par four 15th that dramatically changed the landscape of the 2021 edition when Rory McIlroy caught an awful break...
Tyrrell Hatton was matched at odds-on on five separate occasions during round four in 2016 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.
It's highly likely that one of the front three in the market will take the title and the 11/102.11 with the Sportsbook for the Big Guns looks a fair price.
That gives you Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Viktor Hovland and Tommy Fleetwood against the field and it's impossible to think none of the four will be in with a shout on Sunday.
Now that he's already secured the Race to Dubai, Rory will be playing with absolutely no stress and with course form figures reading 3-5-11-1-5-2-1-9-20-4-6-4, he's almost certain to contend.
He's won the event twice and he's twice led after round one so there's an argument to be made that he's a better value play in First Round Leader market than he is in the Win market. He could transpire to be a decent back-to-lay vehicle.
On the two occasions that he led he didn't go on to take the title and he very often trades at odds-on without winning.
With course form figures reading 1-4-1-1, Jon Rahm is my idea of the best bet towards the head of the market. But he's yet to defend the title as he didn't play here for two years in-between his last two victories.
On the four occasions he's played here he's opened with rounds of 69, 67, 66 and 71 to sit 16th, third, third and 14th. He's twice won after a sluggish start so I'm going to wait and see how he fares on Thursday.
If he gets off to a flier and kicks on and wins so be it but in such a strong field, he can't be considered a fantastic price given he hasn't won since the US Masters back in April.
Viktor Hovland finished down the field last year but he was third on debut in 2020 (his only other appearance) and the FedEx Cup winner commands plenty of respect at a track that clearly suits. But with such strength towards the head of the market, I'm happy to swerve the front three before the off and see where we are after round one.
Ryan Fox's best round here was his first.
The Kiwi opened the 2017 edition with a 67 to sit two off the lead in fourth before going on to finish 28th and on his two subsequent visits he's finished 45th and 19th. He doesn't have a dazzling array of course form but this place really should suit him.
Given he's a winner of the Alfred Dunhill Links, as well as the Ras Al Khaimah Classic, Fox really should take to this track like a duck to water and this might just be the year it all clicks.
He's been extremely weak in the market after last week's poor performance in South Africa where he eventually finished 51st after a fabulous start.
He was matched at just 5.39/2 on Thursday after he'd played his first 11 holes in six-under-par but he lost his way badly after that.
It could well be that he's now in winddown mode after another great autumn (won the BMW at Wentworth and finished second when defending the Alfred Dunhill Links) but I thought he was worth chancing at a big price.
Fox still had a chance of winning the Race to Dubai last week and I wonder whether he just downed tools once he knew that was out of the window?
I was amazed to see him drift all the way out to 60.059/1 and I thought he was well worth taking a chance on at 50.049/1.
*You can follow me on Twitter @SteveThePunter
Get more golf tips from the Betting.Betfair golf team here.