Ben Coley is looking forward to the return of Rory McIlroy, who can finally get his hands on the trophy at this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Whether it’s a product of the time of year or something in the water, strange things have happened at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in recent years.
The first six renewals of an event still in its infancy were fairly easy to digest. Chris DiMarco was 10th in the world when he beat Henrik Stenson to the first, Paul Casey was 15th when he won the second, and though Martin Kaymer was securing his first European Tour title in the third, he did so having been named Rookie of the Year late the previous year.
Casey and Kaymer exchanged titles again before the German took his third in 2011, but then – well, then Robert Rock saw off Tiger Woods. Then Jamie Donaldson beat Justin Rose. Then Pablo Larrazabal beat Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. Then Gary Stal reversed a 10-shot deficit with Kaymer.
After Tommy Fleetwood defied an abysmal record at the course to win here 12 months ago at the expense of Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler now serves as an outlier. Like his fellow American of a decade earlier, Fowler was inside the world’s top 10 and his 2016 victory could not be called a surprise.
It’s this series of curious events which has in the past steered me away from the temptation to be found at the top of the market, in search – however difficult – of that surprise champion.
This year, however, there are a few reasons to expect some kind of normality to be restored but I’m going to predict something that might in its own way serve as a surprise – victory at last for Rory McIlroy.
Quite how he hasn’t already won this, I’m not sure. McIlroy has a bonkers record in the Middle East, where he’s chasing an 11th successive top-10 finish, and he’s won four times in Dubai itself: twice in the DP World Tour Championship, and twice over at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic where he was a 3/1 chance three years ago.
On three separate occasions he’s lost by a single shot here, and while unable to do much about Stal’s career-best 65, the other two were events he’ll feel he should have won. In 2012, McIlroy incurred a penalty for brushing away sand when he wasn’t supposed to, and in 2014 he managed to pick up another for failing to take full relief from a spectator walkway. Much happened after both, but given the consistency of his scoring it’s easy enough to argue that at least one title was lost to a technicality.
Rory McIlroy: Fancied to go close
Perhaps there’s some higher power at work but more likely is that McIlroy will one day take advantage of his peerless ball-striking here (he’s going for a fourth appearance in succession in which he hits more greens than anyone else) and I just wonder whether now is the time to back him.
First and foremost, the form of Johnson and Rose combined with McIlroy’s absence since October make for a price twice that he usually goes off in the event. When I saw 9/1, even the general 8/1, my interest piqued; it’s not that I didn’t expect it, more that I’m happy to accept it.
That he’s been absent for so long is of course a concern and needs reflecting in the price, but reading through Rory’s interviews and social media posts it seems pretty clear to me that he’s desperate to make up for lost time. It will be a source of great frustration that Jordan Spieth has won three majors since he last won one, that DJ has taken over the mantle of ‘his best is the best’ and that Justin Thomas won on his turf at Quail Hollow.
There’s absolutely no doubt that he’s been working extremely hard in the off-season, more recently in Dubai where he has been for a week and a half now, and in itself that’s a sign that the rib isn’t troubling him.
McIlroy has always gone really well fresh, such as when losing a play-off on his return last year, and while it’s perfectly possible that he again finds one or two too good given his history in this event, at the odds I’m prepared to speculate that a long-awaited breakthrough may well be forthcoming.
Johnson is of course the man to beat after his Hawaii romp and we’ve seen him win successive events in 2016 and 2017, while Rose signed off last year by putting Race To Dubai heartache behind him with a victory parade in Indonesia soon after winning in Turkey and China. Both are hugely respected, but the strength they bring to this field is expected to draw the best out of McIlroy and that may at last be good enough.
The second wave of the market is also strong. Henrik Stenson has reminded himself how to play this course in recent years and arrives after a EurAsia Cup tune-up, while Paul Casey is in fact fairly prolific away from the PGA Tour with around one win in 20 starts over the last 15 years, enough to make his price perfectly fair given where we are in the world.
Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton enjoyed fabulous if rather different 2017 seasons and both were flawless last week, but it might be worth noting that following the 2016 EurAsia Cup, none of the victorious European side were able to contend here a week later. Given that eleven of them played, and that most had excellent records here, it would be some kind of concern despite representing an absurdly small sample size.
That being said, Bernd Wiesberger has often suggested that he’s been rusty here in Abu Dhabi and at the odds, I’m happy to take on board the potential for a hangover and back him to instead improve for last week’s outing.
The Austrian was by no means the star performer for Thomas Bjorn’s Europe, but a Sunday singles win puts him on the front foot heading to the Middle East, where he’s another with a fine record. Wiesberger’s imperious long-game is particularly well suited to Abu Dhabi, where ball-striker extraordinaire Fleetwood won last year, and the same goes for Le Golf National where they both are champions.
Paris is a long way from Dubai, but given that Larrazabal and Kaymer have also won this title and the Open de France, there could just be something in it and one thing is certain – both venues heavily favour players who can demonstrate total control from tee-to-green.
Wiesberger’s record here includes sixth in 2015 and fourth a year ago, without the benefits of a tune-up, and the fact he was in Dubai rather than skiing just after Christmas suggests to me that he doesn’t want to waste a single round of golf this season. He’ll know that, at 32 years old and with the Ryder Cup heading to Le Golf National, it might just be now or never.
Last season ended with a string of solid performances and with five top-six finishes in the Middle East since the start of 2015, I’m prepared to chance a frustrating sort who is hard to back when among the favourites, but perhaps worth chancing at 40/1 and bigger.
It usually pays to respect the PGA Tour challengers wooed to Abu Dhabi by a monster appearance fee and while Matt Kuchar looks short enough on his course debut, I do like the look of Bryson DeChambeau at a three-figure price.
Back in 2015, then-amateur DeChambeau made his European Tour debut in this event, carding an opening 64 to take the lead. The man he played with that day, Sunday’s hero Chris Paisley, said the American was “quite possibly the best player I have ever seen” which is some compliment given the company he keeps.
Of course, DeChambeau couldn’t quite go through with his effort despite sitting second at halfway but combined with a top-20 finish in Dubai a fortnight later, it was a performance which meant nobody was all that surprised when he also contended in The Masters before promptly turning professional.
Perhaps owing to his unique style, the 24-year-old still doesn’t have everyone convinced but if you cancel out the noise, you’re left with this: a record-breaking amateur career, including that superb effort at Augusta; a play-off win on debut at Web.com Tour level; a rookie PGA Tour campaign which again included a win and saw him come up just shy of the TOUR Championship.
In other words, we’re talking about an elite golfer in the making and certainly, from tee-to-green and between the ears, he’s there already. DeChambeau need only find comfort and some level of efficiency with the putter to become a player we expect to see challenging for big events and featuring on Ryder Cup sides.
All of which is to say he’s been underestimated in the market here, especially having signed off 2017 in form and blown away the cobwebs in Hawaii. I rate him a better prospect than the youngsters around him in the market and a more likely contender than those with experience.
Similar comments apply to Hao-tong Li, who played some good golf in defeat last week.
While the Europeans struggled here in 2016 one week on from the EurAsia Cup, Ben An finished inside the top five and Li’s compatriot Ashun Wu was well inside the top 20.
Li has already built up a solid bank of form in the desert, including when firing a pair of weekend 67s for a top-15 finish in the DP World Tour Championship last November, shooting just two higher than champion Jon Rahm over the weekend.
Shortly before that he made a run at the Nedbank Challenge title from off the pace having famously done the same at Royal Birkdale in the Open Championship and this brilliant 22-year-old is absolutely capable of competing in a field such as this one.
While the venue is new to him, Li’s long game – he led the field in ball-striking in his final start last year having been fourth for greens hit one week earlier in Dubai – is exactly what’s required this week.
As such, he gets the vote ahead of Joost Luiten, who likes it here but says he tends to need a week to get his eye in, a fact reflected by the majority of his best form.
Dean Burmester’s brace of top-10 finishes in the desert make him interesting along with George Coetzee, who clicked on Sunday at Glendower and is far more suited to this course, but neither can be totally trusted in the mix and the same goes for Alex Bjork, who ought to have won in Hong Kong late last season.
In fairness to Bjork, he’s still learning and Fleetwood spurned plenty of chances before everything came together here, so watch for the Swede continuing his progress at a course which rewards his aggressive approach play and streaky putting.
Callum Shinkwin shot 65 in the third round here a year ago and is one to keep a close eye on in 2018, but my final selection is Scott Jamieson at prices in the region of 250/1.
Here we have a player who finished second to Branden Grace in the Nedbank last November, shortly after he’d taken sixth behind Sergio Garcia at Valderrama, and on that form he should be half the price.
It’s possible that Christmas came at the wrong time and his momentum will be halted, but I like the fact that Jamieson decided to move his family out to Florida just before in a bid to get the most out of his practice time. It shows an ambition to take his game to the next level, perhaps inspired by his form.
Speaking of practice, he played with stablemate Paisley before the Englishman jetted off to South Africa to deny Grace the SA Open title and I imagine Jamieson will be licking his lips at the prospect of getting back out on the course having seen what happened on Sunday.
There’s a slight issue with his record here, but there have been small signs of improvement and he’s generally done well in the desert, including when shooting 66 here a couple of years ago and twice making very decent starts to the DP World Tour Championship.
Jamieson said that pushing Grace all the way at Sun City left him believing that he could win at the very highest level and having gone very close on his return to action in the past, that’s enough to make him worth a small bet at the price.
Posted at 2000 GMT on 15/01/18.