Flying Luiten for desert delight
David John provides an appraisal of Rory McIlroy's acting abilities while picking out his best bets for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
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The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship has become a very popular starting point for some big names to get their campaign under way for the year and once again the line-up is very exciting.
The top five in the betting are all priced at 16/1 or shorter so the question is simple for punters. Can anyone from slightly lower down odds grid crash the party?
Top-drawer performers like Paul Casey and Martin Kaymer had an early stranglehold on the event but Robert Rock and Jamie Donaldson are the two most recent winners so a surprise of sorts is not beyond the realms of possibility.
The off-season these days is as short or as long as you want to make it for the very top boys and despite obviously having every intention of winning this event, the schedules are already moulded around peaking for the early WGC tournaments and Augusta National.
There will have been plenty of balls thrashed on the range over the last five or six weeks for sure but I am going to put my faith in some tangible early-season form from Joost Luiten with the 28/1 looking a reasonable return for each leisure pound invested.
The Dutchman is on a pretty rapid upward curve in his career now and two wins in 2013 at the Lyoness and KLM Opens - the latter in front of his adoring Dutch public - seem to have really given him the belief he can take that testing next step.
Certainly a victory here would be another feather in the cap and you won't have to worry about the sharpness of his game following a T3 last week in Durban at the Volvo Champions.
He perhaps might have expected a little bit more from the final round but stuck in there well enough after dropping shots on the first two holes. Nevertheless, it was a solid piece of work over the weekend kick-started by that albatross two in the second round.
"I'm in a good space now," was his succinct appraisal after he wrapped things up in Durban and I am also encouraged by the fact he had a couple of days practice in the UAE the previous week just to get a feel for conditions.
Luiten finished sixth in this event 12 months ago and I fancy him for another big performance as he bids to make the Ryder Cup team in September - what he labelled as his "main goal".
With that in mind, I am tempted also to take some of the 3/1 on offer at this stage that he will be in Paul McGinley's dozen at Gleneagles as I get the feeling he is going to be one of the real success stories of the year.
Rory McIlroy heads the betting and perhaps his best performance of a turbulent 2013 was making that pie in the Santander advert before beating Triple Crown-seeking Adam Scott in Australia right at the back end.
His record in Abu Dhabi is immense without positing a win but there could also be a little bit of trepidation as this is where all the spin 12 months ago about how good his new Nike equipment was and what he actually produced on the course veered off sharply at different tangents.
But all seems well again as the tweaks started to bed in and the newly-engaged McIlroy is in a much better place off the course with various legal wrangles now put to bed.
I will put on record that Rory somewhere near to his best will hammer ANY golfer on the planet an any course you wish to choose but I am prepared to just check out the lie of the land with him on his return to competitive action bearing in mind he is on my side season-long in terms of the Race To Dubai.
I know that Thorbjorn Olesen is a popular pick this week and although the early 80/1 has evaporated, he could still be worth a second look at 70s.
The Dane remains one of the brightest prospects around and he made a fantastic start to 2013 with top-three finishes both here and in Dubai before a car accident towards the end of March in the USA left him with whiplash and struggling to find his form.
He soldiered on and somehow managed to achieve a T6 at the Masters early the following month but the bulk of the season was a write-off as he tried to get himself physically back on track.
I don't think he was keen to use that as an excuse but he revealed towards the end of the year in Turkey that he had been working hard on his game with signs both there and at the Dubai World Championship that it was starting to turn around.
"I love this place. I think it suits me and I think it is one of the best courses we play on the whole year," Olesen reflected after chasing home Donaldson and the fact that he practices here during the winter with close friend Soren Hansen suggests to me he will be ready to play some good golf.
A good judge told me he did not want to take less than a three-figure price on Romain Wattel but I think he does merit an interest at 80/1 getting six places with a couple of firms.
I tipped him for this 12 months ago at 125/1 and he failed to raise any sort of gallop but his effort the previous season has to be considered encouraging (14th) bearing in mind as well his form prior to this Christmas which saw him post T3-4 in two events in South Africa.
French golf continues to thrive with Raphael Jacquelin, Victor Dubuisson and Julien Quesne all in the top 10 in Durban last week so you get the feeling Wattel will be itching to get going and make an impact again in what is - as we have mentioned previously - a tight-knit group of players.
Presuming that pre-Yuletide blitz has not deserted him, I like his chances.