Ben Coley's last two DP World Tour previews have unearthed winners at 18/1 and 55/1. Can he make it a hat-trick in the Dubai Desert Classic?
3pts e.w. Tommy Fleetwood at 18/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Matt Wallace at 80/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1pt e.w. Henrik Stenson at 80/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Sami Valimaki at 80/1 (bet365, BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Richard Mansell at 100/1 (bet365, BoyleSports 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Romain Langasque at 150/1 (William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
Comparing Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm is keeping twitter busy at the moment and as these two Europeans fight for the right to be considered the best golfer in the sport, each heads back to where it all began in a happy coincidence of the calendar.
While Rahm is at Torrey Pines, McIlroy returns to where he scrambled over the line for his first professional title almost a decade earlier in the Dubai Desert Classic. Here, aged just 19, McIlroy bogeyed holes 15, 16 and 17 but had just enough in hand to beat some of the best around and break into the top 20. Since the end of 2009, he's never left it.
Nor has he left the leaderboard here in the Dubai Desert Classic, except for the odd year where he's chosen not to play. Dating back to that win, he's put together a run of nine top-10 finishes, winning the title again in 2015. He's been the halfway leader in six of these nine renewals. Perhaps even more astonishingly, he lost out to Haotong Li when odds-on in 2018, and again on his return last year.
That was at the hands of Viktor Hovland, who picked up four strokes in three holes to underline what this risk-reward course is all about. Those opportunities are in part why McIlroy loves it, though that love has been tested of late. To be frank, he really should've won on one if not both of his last two visits, which would make what's a deeply impressive course record look borderline frightening.
As it is, his occasional fallibility makes odds of 3/1 and change look short enough. That's the sort of price at which he triumphed seven years ago but at the time he was almost bulletproof and, for all that I am among his biggest fans, you always feel like he'll give you a chance.
The other point of note is that never before has Dubai been his first appearance of the year, which have instead come in Abu Dhabi for the most part. That's a tournament he's somehow yet to win, often denied by the sort of mental lapse you wouldn't expect were he razor-sharp. With reports of new wedges in the bag and conceding a run to all of his chief rivals, he simply has to be taken on despite the obvious chance he wins and wins well.
Another reason McIlroy thrives at the Majlis Course is that this modern par 72 demands quality driving, as you'll see in a roll-of-honour which also includes Sergio Garcia, Paul Casey and Stephen Gallacher. That club can unlock all four par-fives but also the second and 17th holes, each of them reachable. If you're able to turn it from right-to-left in the way that Rory loves to then all the better, particularly late on.
All of that helps make the case for TOMMY FLEETWOOD being a natural fit and he's just preferred to Tyrrell Hatton, on the basis that having been 12/1 each of two last week, Fleetwood has been eased out to as big as 18s.
That's because while Hatton cruised through the field on Sunday, never threatening to win but extending a run of DP World Tour top-10s to four, Fleetwood was never really at the races, but I'm happy to excuse that on the basis that in two visits to Yas Links, he's struggled badly off the tee.
Perhaps it just doesn't fit his eye whereas this course absolutely does, so much so that you could argue he should've gone close to winning at least twice during a stretch of top-20 finishes here which currently stands at five.
Fleetwood contended last year, entering the final round bang in the mix despite again having been quiet in Abu Dhabi a week earlier, and come the end of the tournament was the field leader in strokes-gained tee-to-green, just as he was in strokes-gained approach. At the time his unruly putter cost him a genuine shot and let's not forget his confidence was also pretty low.
In 2020 he ranked second in tee-to-green and in between these two he was bang in the mix at halfway, so he's dropped several hints that anything like a behaving putter – and it was better last week than when he won the Nedbank Challenge – would make him a massive player.
Fleetwood signed off a comeback 2022 campaign with fifth place over at Jumeirah, again the best player in the field from tee-to-green, and he started the new year with a fine individual display at the Hero Cup. I wonder too whether captaincy there might've taken the edge off him for Abu Dhabi, but above all else I'm just not that worried that he again struggled a bit, albeit still making the weekend, at the quirky Yas Links.
This is much more his bag and I don't think there's really any justification for him having moved down the market in the way that he has. Yes, we have to add McIlroy to a stronger field, but Hatton and Shane Lowry are the same prices they were last week. Fleetwood is bigger than both that and when taking on McIlroy, Rahm, Hovland and Matt Fitzpatrick in the DP World Tour Championship.
Robert MacIntyre played beautifully in Abu Dhabi, especially with driver in hand, and I'm not surprised he's been popular. He's an excellent option if you want one more from the front of the market, but 25/1 is the absolute minimum price I'd be prepared to advise and we're therefore in a bit of a bind with the way the market stands.
MacIntyre won in Italy soon after a nightmare putting display in Denmark and history might well repeat, as he too loves this course. Two top-10s in his first two starts demonstrate that, his stock fade off the tee working well as a left-hander, and last year's missed cut came during a poor start and at a time when he'd recently changed his driver.
He's nominated as the best of the rest but at the prices I prefer MATT WALLACE, who finished 20th in Abu Dhabi thanks to a balanced display of quality ball-striking, which isn't always his forte.
Wallace made 19 birdies in total, 18 of them from inside 15 feet, and ranked 13th with his tee shots and 18th in strokes-gained approach. It was a fine way to build on a Sunday singles win at the Hero Cup and, with Ryder Cup hopefuls Adrian Meronk, Antoine Rozner and Victor Perez all recent winners, you can be sure his determination not to be left behind is strong.
Second here in 2019, that too came after a good start to the year in Abu Dhabi and he played beautifully over the final three rounds. He'd hinted that the course suited when 15th at halfway on his first visit and was similarly positioned through 54 holes last year, only to struggle at a time when he was out of sorts generally.
Having contended twice from just 10 DP World Tour starts last year, including when losing a play-off in Switzerland, Wallace is heading back in the right direction now and we know he's always been comfortable in this part of the world given that he's twice been runner-up across both Jumeirah courses, too.
Third place on his sole start at Eichenried is another encouraging form line, with the last two winners of that (and several others before them) both having also won here, and if he can continue to hit the ball as he did at Yas Links then he ought to be making some sort of impression at what looks a good each-way price.
Wallace has been grouped with vice captain Nicolas Colsaerts for the first two rounds so this is a great chance to make an impression at a course he likes.
I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the LIV Golf squad hard to assess nowadays, but there was certainly some appeal in Bernd Wiesberger at three-times the price he was for a stronger edition of this tournament last year. He didn't drive the ball well last week but, as with Fleetwood, that could be misleading. His putting woes aren't, though, so I'll overlook him.
Patrick Reed is a big price on ability and strike-rate alone and Sam Horsfield confirmed that this place suits last year, but I'm drawn to veteran HENRIK STENSON at around the 80/1 mark.
Stenson used to live here in Dubai and Emirates Golf Club was his base for a long time, hence his 2007 victory in the event ranks as one of the most significant of his career. It's far from the only time he's played well here, either: top-10 finishes in 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016, 2017 and 2018 underline his fondness for the place.
Also a two-time winner over at Jumeirah, there's no doubt that a peak form Stenson is an ideal candidate to be serving it up to McIlroy, and while it's unlikely we get that, I do think he's playing at a level which deserves more respect.
First and foremost he infamously won on his LIV debut, but it's worth saying that he was the leading male player in the Scandinavian Mixed not long before that, finishing second overall. That's one of three top-five finishes in his last dozen DP World Tour starts which confirms that, at this level, he is still competitive.
Last week's 20th place is another good indication of that, Stenson ranking second in fairways, first in greens, sixth in strokes-gained off-the-tee and 12th with his approaches. It was his first outing since the conclusion of the LIV Golf season in October, too, which means that he conceded a potential sharpness advantage to 18 of the 19 players who finished in front of him.
Stenson spoke at the start of last week about how welcome he still felt on the DP World Tour and he certainly still has many friends here in Dubai, so with the prospect of a bit of wind and rain early in the tournament potentially placing extra emphasis on his trademark accuracy, he rates a fascinating option.
I mentioned Eichenried earlier and it's also part of the case for SAMI VALIMAKI, who was fourth on his first start there in the BMW International Open.
As well as the winners these two far-apart courses share, the likes of Chris Paisley, Brandon Stone, Alex Levy, Richard Bland and Niklas Fasth help tie them together, and there's a similar rhythm just as there's a similar requirement to drive the ball well.
Valimaki has undeniably been in and out in that department since winning in Oman back in 2020. At his best, driver is a real weapon and one that helped power a strong end to that disjointed campaign, but since then along with his approach play it has at times held him back.
However, last week's ball-striking display was the very best of his DP World Tour career, 18th off-the-tee and second in approach play combining for +9.5 strokes in total, and it was on the back of tee-to-green promise that he won in Oman almost three years ago.
It's hard to argue that he's a sure thing to back it up, but what we do know is that Valimaki contended in two of his final five starts last year, and that he has correlating form. It's also fair to say that when he gets hot he stays hot, as shown by groups of results such as 7-1, 6-2-10, 4-30-24-16, and five top-20s in succession to end his rookie season.
It was striking how Valimaki went about his Sunday charge at Yas Links, fist-pumping as though in the mix for the title, and he looks right on top of his game once more. That wasn't the case at the time of his previous two appearances in this event and he can leave them well behind.
RICHARD MANSELL plays in the same group as Valimaki and I think he'll enjoy this test far more than a breezy Yas Links.
Mansell actually played well in Abu Dhabi, ranking 10th in strokes-gained off-the-tee and fifth with his approaches only to endure a rotten week on and around the greens, and I wonder if his off-season reconnaissance mission helped him to dial in his long-game on his first look at that course.
If so, we can take encouragement from the fact he also visited the Majlis Course in December and while it was Yas Links that he liked the look of, on paper this is a far more suitable layout as it's one where his trademark strong driving can really do damage.
Mansell ranked fourth in strokes-gained off-the-tee last season, only Jordan Smith and Adrian Meronk ahead of him in this field, and while he putted badly last week there had been some signs during autumn that his weakness was in the process of being solved.
Last time he had such a shocking week with the putter he went on to finish eighth at the Belfry next time out, not the worst form line itself, and having played nicely in both starts at Eichenried I'm absolutely convinced this is the course for him.
And last time he hit his irons the way he did at Yas Links, he finished ninth and third on his next two starts, so it really might just come down to the putter. That's a risk I'm willing to take at three-figure prices.
Nicolai Hojgaard is also struggling in that department but perhaps less sure to turn it around so I'll watch with interest ahead of his return to Al Hamra, as I will Niklas Norgaard Moller who was handed an invite to play here in 2020 and is a good fit for the course.
Paul Waring has been runner-up twice in his last dozen starts and has been third here previously, so he's of some interest at 250/1, but my final selection is old friend and perhaps soon-to-be-foe, ROMAIN LANGASQUE.
We've had back-to-back French winners on the DP World Tour and Langasque's determination will only be intensified by that and the fact he carelessly failed to register on time for Abu Dhabi, meaning he was forced to sit and suffer as Perez leapt towards the top of the Ryder Cup standings.
Having narrowly missed out on Hero Cup selection, Langasque has endured a really frustrating time of things and that extends back to his breakthrough 2020 season, which he would've ended in Dubai at the DP World Tour Championship only to be forced to isolate with Covid-19.
It's not ideal on the one hand that he's conceding a sharpness edge to others here but he did play right up to Christmas and we are compensated by the price, plus his record on his seasonal return reads really well: 2-21-MC-20-34-16-12, including 20th when returning in this event and making a flying start.
All told, Langasque has three top-30s in four starts in the Dubai Desert Classic, hanging around close to the lead for the most part and driving the ball really well. He has correlating form at Eichenried (5th) and the Belfry (8th) and with the French flag flying high, I can't let this undoubted talent go unbacked at upwards of 100/1.
Posted at 1125 GMT on 24/01/23
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