Chris Paisley got his maiden European Tour win last week and while it was great to see him win in such an accomplished manner going head to head with home favourite Grace, it was a little annoying to miss out having backed him so many times last season. From a trends point of view we were looking for putters last week and Paisley is probably among the top 5 on Tour yet it still didn’t click. Hopefully some readers were on though as I believe he was a very tasty price of 150/1 and he was matched as high as 500.0 on Betfair. Anyway, enough of the complaining and onto this week’s event.
We move on to one of the best stretches of the European Tour season now with the Middle East Swing. It starts in the U.A.E with the Abu Dhabi Championship and it is usually one of the stronger fields we see at this time of the season. This year is no different as Rory McIlroy makes his seasonal bow and World No. 1 Dustin Johnson joins him at the head of the market. The supporting cast is also rather stellar with Rose, Kuchar, Casey and Stenson all chasing the early season riches.
The tournament has been running since 2006 and is played every year at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. It is plenty long enough at some 7600 yards and without the altitude of last week it will play to all of that. Recent winners have been classy sorts with the course providing a stern ball-striking test. McIlroy has famously finished runner-up 4 times so he obviously loves the course but with him arriving off an extended break he looks short enough at 9/1. Last year signalled the arrival of Tommy Fleetwood at the top table of European golf as he got his 2nd win which laid the foundations for his best year to date. He will defend as the 6th favourite and given how much he has improved there will be plenty who will fancy him to double up at 22/1. DJ finished 2nd on his debut at the course last year and with the form he is in another 8 shot rout is certainly not out of the question but again punters will be weary of steaming in at 5/1 having seen the much fancied jollies beaten on both Tours last week.
The main defence around Abu Dhabi Golf Club is the water and large, undulating greens with the potential of a stiff breeze accentuating both of those. This puts the focus on accurate approach play and with the list of winners including Fleetwood, Fowler, Casey and Kaymer that makes a lot of sense. Statistically that can be backed up too if we look at the last 5 winners as they ranked 1st, 10th, 13th, 30th and 6th for GIR. Normally the rough isn’t too penal and there are usually lots of bailouts to avoid finding the water. However this year it sounds like hitting the fairway may be more beneficial than ever.
Historically links players tend to play well here given the skill set required in the desert and generally form stacks up across all three of the events in the Middle East. Peter Harradine who designed the course in Abu Dhabi is also responsible for Doha Golf Club which hosts the Qatar Masters and Eichenried GC in Germany which hosts the BMW International Open every second year. While it isn’t a links course, the list of winners is basically a list of brilliant links players so those leaderboards are worth a glance for punters who like their course designer links.
My first pick jumped off the page at me when I saw the opening prices. Paul Casey was a 18/1 shot, Branden Grace was 20/1 but yet Matt Kuchar was available at 35/1. I guess some players are fashionable to back and some players aren’t. I know Casey has won here before twice and Grace is in fine form but I can’t see any way in which Matty should be nearly double their price. This is the man who pushed Jordan Spieth all the way at Royal Birkdale in July and he has built a very solid bank of form in both desert and links conditions. Kuchar chased Fowler home in the Scottish Open at Gullane in 2015 and Fowler went on to win in Abu Dhabi the following year. He has also won the WGC Matchplay at Dove Mountain in Arizona having finished 5th and 3rd the two previous years.
Such is the quality of the field it’s entirely possible that he could play very well and give us a value loser in the dreaded 8th place but for a player of his consistency 33/1 is a great each way price and one that should be snapped up despite this being his debut at the course. Kuchar has finished inside the Top 20 on his first start of the season for the last 5 years so he is usually ready to go and he will enjoy this test. The 35/1 was snapped up but anything at 25/1 or bigger seems fair if the 33/1 disappears too.
Last year when backing Paisley I did so more often in the top 20 markets as I often doubted his ability to push on over the weekend and win. But last week proved that sometimes we have to continue to back our original opinions even when the returns aren’t there. Golf betting isn’t easy and there will always be ups and downs. One of the trickier aspects is knowing when to doggedly stick to an opinion and when to realise that stubbornness might just be getting the better of you. It’s with this line of thought that I tried to be subjective over Joackim Lagergren and Alexander Bjork’s chances this week. Can either of them continue their fine desert form and back up their brilliance around the greens with a solid ball-striking week in this elevated company? I’m not sure but their prices will draw lots of interest. As will the 350/1 about Romain Wattell and the 200/1 about Ryan Fox. But with so many options it looks difficult to try and pick between them. Instead of backing about 6 players at decent value prices I’m going to leave most of them out.
I will have a small bet on Jordan Smith though at 150/1 and also 9/2 for a Top 20. In 2016 prior to his European Tour win in Germany, Smith’s 2nd professional win was in the U.A.E around a Peter Harradine course nonetheless. He took the Ras Al Khaimah Golf Challenge event on the visually similar Alhamra Golf Club and then last year he finished 39th here on his debut before grabbing a 6th at Harradine’s Doha Golf Club. He hasn’t played brilliantly since his win in the BMW International and he missed the cut last week. However expectations would have been high in South Africa having finished 3rd the year before. He will be able to play this week without putting pressure on himself and with his obvious love of desert tracks I’m expecting a solid showing from the young Englishman on his second look at the course. He also ranked 1st in total driving in Abu Dhabi last year so if the rough is up he should handle it better than most.
Over the last year or so Jamie Donaldson has shown signs that he is getting close to putting his whole game together for 4 rounds somewhere. The venue of his 2013 win looks as good a place as any. Last year he ranked 2nd for GIR in but was let down by his putting yet just last week he ranked 5th for putting and his long game wasn’t at its best. I’m hoping that last week will have given him the chance to sharpen up ahead of Abu Dhabi and he looks a very fair price at 200/1 outright and also 5/1 for a Top 20.
As I mentioned there are countless players I could back that look to be a value price given McIlroy, DJ and Rose’s presence. But given the high chance of all three featuring towards the top of the leaderboard, there might not be too many places left up for grabs on Sunday. I’ve also tried to fight off the urge to back around 8-10 players in the top 20 but on the whole it doesn’t feel like a tournament to get too involved in as there is some serious field strength and someone could conceivably play very well for 4 days and still finish 21st. In fact I’m not sure I have ever seen this deep a field for a regular European Tour event so I’ll leave it at just the 3 players.
Matt Kuchar 1.5pts ew @ 33/1 (1/5 odds 1-7 Coral but lots of 33/1 5 places around)
Jordan Smith 0.5pt ew @ 150/1 (1/5 odds 1-6 Skybet, William Hill)
2pts Top 20 @ 9/2
Jamie Donaldson 0.5pt ew @ 150/1 (1/5 odds 1-7 Coral, some 200/1 around with 5 places)
1pt Top 20 @ 5/1
Weekly pts advised = 8pts