Ben Coley has started 2019 in excellent form and he's hoping a pair of South Africans are set to do the same in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
*Please note: this event begins on Wednesday*
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is not easy to assess, a feeling enhanced by the absence of a South African event to precede it. Working out who will be at or close to their best following a break is always difficult, and I’ve often felt that the curious history of this well-established tournament – playing this year under the banner of Rolex Series for the first time – owes something to its place on the calendar.
Granted, the 2018 leaderboard could be labelled broadly predictable, Tommy Fleetwood having defended his title in style, but his earlier success was in some ways out of the blue. While Fleetwood had ended the previous year dropping hints wherever he teed up, he’d missed four cuts in five previous visits to Abu Dhabi GC. The lesson there is that if a course looks like it ought to suit a player, and they keep coming back, it often pays to be patient.
Rickie Fowler’s 2016 victory also goes against any notion of unpredictability, but it was the first time since Martin Kaymer’s third triumph, in 2011, that there was no real peculiarity to speak of. In 2012, Robert Rock downed Tiger Woods before his friend Jamie Donaldson got the better of Justin Rose a year later. In 2014, Pablo Larrazabal held off both Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy, while the latter proved vulnerable again in 2015 as Gary Stal was the chief beneficiary of a remarkable collapse from Kaymer.
Perhaps none of those events would’ve happened in the height of summer, and the lesser lights who come here knowing they’ve done good work over the Christmas period ought to feel that there is hope - despite two world-class Americans having gladly accepted invites to headline the field.
Dustin Johnson has played here twice before, bumping into a revitalised Fleetwood when runner-up in 2017 and then finishing ninth in 2018, both times shooting threatening rounds of 64. He's favourite, of course, but while he's almost sure to play well he looks to me to have been a good way short of his devastating best since winning in Canada last July. For that reason, he has to be left alone.
Brooks Koepka is more tempting at a double-figure price, especially having suggested that he likes the course a good deal more than a moderate 2014 spin would suggest when interviewed on Monday. This is possibly the only event on the global calendar in which he'd be the same price as Fleetwood and while anyone chasing a third victory in succession in any event is respected, Koepka is the more likely winner.
All three players drive the ball especially well, and that's an excellent way to start the search at a low-scoring par-72 where the challenge is to set up as many opportunities as possible. You won't be surprised to know that Fleetwood led the field in greens hit for both of his wins and while not necessary to be quite so relentlessly consistent, it's hard to keep up if you are scrambling for par.
Last year's top-five contained a couple of the best putters on the circuit, but they were outnumbered by a selection of the finest ball-strikers and I'd expect something very similar to unfold; the difficulty, of course, is in turning that belief into a profitable return.
When in doubt here, Martin Kaymer is a good starting point and at 50/1 he has to feature in my staking plan this time.
Straightforwardly, three victories demonstrate a love for the layout - particularly when you aggregate the margins - and while changes have been made since he romped to an eight-shot demolition in 2011, when McIlroy headed the chasing pack, he's been sixth, third and fourth in alternate years since 2013 to show that he remains very happy here.
Of course, Kaymer has fallen quite some way in the game as the five-year anniversary of his second major championship approaches and he begins the year at 175th in the world. Moreover, when he's had chances to win again he has failed, spectacularly so here but also in Italy and at home in Germany, each time in a manner unrecognisable from that assassin of a 20-something with the world at his feet.
There will therefore be those unwilling to persevere and that's well and truly understood, but there were definite signs of improvement in his long-game towards the end of 2018, ranking 13th, eighth and third for greens hit and bagging a top-five finish in Turkey as reward.
Getting his tee-to-green game in shape is step one, with the short-game step two, and Kaymer felt that he could take the next move forward in his rehabilitation when speaking to the media in November.
"I know what I need to do and what I need to work on in the winter time," he said. "Maintain the long game, work on the short game, and then we should be fine."
Significantly, he decided to spend Christmas at Whisper Rock in Arizona, which had been the case throughout all of his success here a decade or so ago. Kaymer then went through a spell of staying in Germany, perhaps explaining some of his worst performances at this course, before reverting back to his tried and tested off-season plan prior to finishing fourth here in 2017.
Last year's 27th is solid enough form, particularly as he sat right on the fringes throughout the entire tournament, and he has no questions to answer when it comes to being ready to tackle this golf course in this sort of company on his first start of the year. Whether he's ready to win or not I'm not so sure, but I love the each-way part of the bet.
If Kaymer is a Captain Obvious selection, hopefully Tom Lewis appeals as something slightly more left-field.
In some respects, he reminds me of Fleetwood in that his form at the course isn't anything to shout about, yet his game - built around long, straight driving and quality iron play - should be particularly effective here.
Lewis was one of the stories of 2018, a successful Open qualifier seeming to spark a transformation from lost talent to potential star once more. It's significant that not only did he win on the Challenge Tour and follow that up with a second European Tour title in Portugal, but that he kept on playing well thereafter and signed off with seventh place in the DP World Tour Championship.
Statistically, he did enough over those final months to rank among the top 25 per cent on the circuit for strokes-gained off-the-tee and on approach, as well as greens hit, and with those career-threatening chipping yips seemingly a thing of the past there's no telling how high he can climb from just outside the world's top 70.
Form of MC-61-45-MC-MC here would suggest that ascent to the top 64 and beyond - significant in terms of a WGC-Match Play spot - will have to wait, but on none of these occasions did he arrive with any level of reasonable expectation.
Despite that, he did bag a first-round hole-in-one in 2015 and hit 83.3 per cent of greens while missing the cut, further evidence that, at the time, missing a green typically meant for a ruinous score. "I couldn’t get it on the green from five yards," he told UK Club Golfer of those scrambling struggles. "It was a complete mental block. I woke up every day worrying, panicking that I couldn’t miss a green."
Four years on, Lewis looks in position to demonstrate that he does like this course, one on which he shot 64 in a junior event a decade ago, and having professed his love for low-scoring, resort-style courses beneath blue skies, he has plenty in his favour.
"Whatever I go on to achieve in the game, it'll be because of the struggles I've gone through over the last few years and everything I've learned from it," he said late last year. "My motivation and drive is high and I’m excited about what the future has in store."
Form figures of 1-3-1-10-14-67-7 to end 2018 suggest he's right to be excited and at around the 66/1 mark, Lewis looks the bet of the week.
Back at the head of the market, Louis Oosthuizen is the one I like and while it took a while to decide to pull the trigger, his outstanding chance earns him a place in the staking plan.
Oosthuizen ended 2018 winning the SA Open and that really should ignite the flame, with those of us who doubted his dedication to winning golf tournaments forced to reconsider after his tearful reaction to victory on home soil. The very fact he was there, teeing it up in the Nedbank, SA Open and Alfred Dunhill, sends a strong message: that he wants to start winning tournaments again and ultimately secure that elusive second major.
Oosthuizen hasn't played here in almost a decade, but managed two top-five finishes before he'd even become a major champion and it's an excellent course for him. On both occasions he did play the previous week on home soil, but let us not forget that Oosthuizen has won his first start of the calendar year four times previously and while all of those were in lesser company, he can take any field apart.
Again, the very fact that he's in Abu Dhabi strikes me as potentially significant and, as I'll come to with my next selection, there's a long-term goal which he will have at the front of his mind. I really do expect Oosthuizen to contend, not a comment I would typically make, and prices in the region of 20/1 are worth taking.
Tyrrell Hatton, whose numbers at this course are exceptionally consistent, is respected. It'll be interesting to see whether he moves forward this year having impressed at the Ryder Cup and he's been a force in the Middle East ever since his Challenge Tour campaign in 2013.
Similar comments apply to Thorbjorn Olesen, who has never missed a cut here, loves the Middle East and continues to look a shade underestimated for one so good at winning, but I prefer Branden Grace on this occasion.
The South African ended last year in frustrating fashion, often hitting the ball well without reward, and his campaign was summed up when he lost a ball just as he was set to mount a challenge in his national open. Doing so with an approach shot is fairly rare, especially when there were people watching, none of whom with any clue which direction it had taken, and it's at that point Grace must've known it just wasn't to be.
I'm not at all surprised that he's looked to freshen things up for 2019 by acquiring the services of Craig Connelly on the bag, and it could just be that the Scot - who caddied for Kaymer during his victories here - makes all the difference.
To be clear, I'm not for a second arguing that Connelly's experience at this specific golf course is going to save Grace multiple shots, although it can't hurt. It's more that Grace has already shown he likes this course and has taken action to suggest that he's going to approach 2019 with renewed vigour, which makes him dangerous.
At 51 in the world, he certainly needs to get back to his best to retain his place in all the biggest events and, of course, the Presidents Cup team. Ernie Els is captain later this year and there's absolutely no question that the South Africans in particular will be extra keen to qualify and represent the Big Easy in Melbourne, a point worth bearing in mind when it comes to Oosthuizen's chances, too.
Unlike some of those around him in the market, Grace is reliable when it comes to winning golf tournaments and he's done it in the Middle East, taking the title in Qatar twice in succession. This course is easier and slightly less suited to his game, but five top-20 finishes in his last six visits still represents a record of quality and consistency few in this field can match.
Twice inside the top-five and so often in contention, he could make the price look extremely generous if, as I anticipate, he's raring to go.
Grace's compatriot Brandon Stone is among the more interesting outsiders, given that he's a Rolex Series winner who ended 2018 in good nick and should be ready to climb the ladder throughout this season. Again, a Presidents Cup place will surely be on his mind and he's entitled to go well along with Jordan Smith, made for this course, and Lucas Herbert, who warmed up in a couple of competitive pro-am events back home in Australia last week.
Sean Crocker is another to keep an eye on and I did wonder whether it could be worth chancing him to be top American at 16/1 in a five-runner race. Granted, a bad week for DJ and Koepka might still be more than enough here, but Crocker has an excellent game for the course and was third through 54 holes in Qatar last February.
Finally, it's no surprise to see the 80/1 offered about Joost Luiten being taken. He returned from injury last year in promising fashion, bagging four top-30 finishes, and has never missed a cut here. Luiten has spoken in the past about needing a week under his belt before being ready to contend, but surely the enforced absence last year will have him raring to go at a course he really likes.
If you want a top-20 bet or someone to side with in tournament matches, Luiten should be high on the shortlist. I just struggle to envisage him winning and while he's now on six European Tour titles, it's hard to deny the fact that all have come in second-tier events, including in Oman where he'll soon defend his title. Perhaps it's best to back him when he's a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
Posted at 1950 GMT on 14/01/19.