Hanson ready for desert showdown
David John previews the Abu Dhabi Championship and makes Sweden's Peter Hanson his headline selection.
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New Nike buddies Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods headline this week's Abu Dhabi Championship which has become the chosen starting point for plenty of big names in recent seasons.
McIlroy is "pumped" fresh from signing his megabucks equipment deal and there has understandably been a big fanfare surrounding the move.
He gets an immediate chance to test drive his new clubs as the 5/1 market leader and you can guarantee the level of scrutiny on every shot will be magnified 10-fold - heaven forbid he misses a fairway or a green.
McIlroy believes there will be no impact on his game and if that is the case then he will surely come extremely close to justifying market leadership considering his excellent record at the course (T11-T5-3-2-2) while his form from the end of October reads 2-3-MC-1 as he wrapped up money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Woods played the first three rounds with McIlroy here 12 months ago and is delighted to be back in a bid to improve on his tie for third having shared the lead with eventual winner Robert Rock after 54 holes.
"I am excited to compete again. Hopefully my good practice sessions can carry over," he said last week - he should be in good spirits as a schedule rejig means he can play here and at his beloved Torrey Pines next week as well.
We last saw him at his own tournament in December where he never really threatened on the way to a T4 at Sherwood Country Club. He admitted he struggled with his game so it will be interesting to see how sharp he is after the work he has put in over the Christmas break.
Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey have won five of the seven titles since the event was first staged in 2006 and punters have latched on to that fact with both seeing money in the early stages of the week.
I tipped Casey last week in Durban and I am sure he will have been happy enough with his three rounds of 69 after an opening 74 for a never-dangerous share of 18th place.
I do have a feeling it will not be long before Casey is challenging strongly again but it is a price thing that is rather off-putting - he was 28/1 to beat a limited field in the Volvo Champions and is now only a couple of points bigger in a stronger line-up - even with that outing under his belt.
Kaymer missed the cut here 12 months ago but simply loves the place as it clearly suits his eye and game down to the ground. He said: "I've got some wrongs to right after last year," and it is true he has rather flown under the radar with all the attention surrounding McIlroy and Woods.
An early price of 14/1 has gone already and he is no better than 10s but if he is on his game then he represents an obvious threat.
The headline player I like most though is Peter Hanson, who can be backed at 30/1 to six places with Paddy Power.
The Swede is now up to 20th in the world after much of the promise he had shown throughout his career came to fruition with two wins and a place at Augusta National in the Masters in 2012.
The latter victory saw him get the better of McIlroy in a tense finish to the BMW Masters in Shanghai at the end of October and it certainly looked afterwards like Hanson knows he belongs right up there challenging for the big titles with the game's elite.
Hanson is a regular at this tournament and finished runner-up to Casey back in 2007 and said: "I love Abu Dhabi. It is one of the best venues we play and we get quite a few Swedes coming down here so the support is good."
He clearly feels comfortable and I have a feeling he will be primed for another showdown with the world number one if it comes to it - his form here 12 months ago was not great but he still managed a 64 in round three so the potential is there to make a very bold bid.
Second pick is fellow Scandinavian Thomas Bjorn, who continues to enjoy a magnificent resurgence to his career.
He drew a blank in terms of titles in 2012 but missed just three cuts all year and racked up seven top-10 finishes along the way.
Bjorn has proven form in the Gulf Swing and produced his first really classy effort here 12 months ago when weekend scores of 65-68 hauled him up the leaderboard into a tie for third place.
He remains one of the best ball strikers on the European Tour and he made pleasing start to 2013 with a top 10 last week in Durban where he saved the best until last with a closing 68. Expect him to build on that and the Dane should be backed at 50/1 with bet365.
Rock caused a surprise last year when staring down Woods in the final round and my outsider to make an impact this time is France's Romain Wattel.
He has just turned 22 and he and compatriot Victor Dubuisson look ready to win titles in Europe after consistently making an impact in 2012.
It will be his third year on Tour now and he spoke last season at Gleneagles about how he is settling into the routine and revealed: "Yeah, it's my second year, so I feel more comfortable than last year. I think it's going to be even more the next years."
Last season saw him fire three rounds of 69 here after an opening 74 for a finish inside the top 15 and he really possesses the talent to be one of the big stars of the campaign and continue the trend of top-class French golfers following in the footsteps of Thomas Levet and Raphael Jacquelin.
We shall see if he has what it takes against the market leaders this week but there could well be some mileage in a three-figure quote.