Bryson DeChambeau is worth backing to win the Saudi International according to Ben Coley, who has a range of each-way selections at bigger prices, too.
The first renewal of the Saudi International produced possibly the most power-dominant leaderboard in European Tour history. That will sound extreme, but really it isn't. Dustin Johnson beat Hao-tong Li and Tom Lewis, the three of them engaging in a driving contest on a short but wide par-70 where a handful of par-fours could be reduced to a drive and a wedge, or even a drive and a putt. Behind them came Min Woo Lee, Alex Levy, Scott Hend and Ryan Fox.
It's of course possible that this collection of big-hitters - and we're not just talking 'yeah, quite long' with the likes of Fox, Hend and Johnson in particular - could pop up and populate any leaderboard, anywhere. Hend after all seems to thrive in Crans and Hong Kong, where he can't simply grip and rip. But the style of golf being played by those who played best helps dismiss that possibility: this lot were hitting driver upon driver and taking apart the course.
A year later and if we hide the name of the winner, it looks at first glance as though the same rules applied. Johnson contended again along with Gavin Green, Phil Mickelson and Thomas Pieters, with Ross Fisher, Victor Dubuisson and Dean Burmester among those close behind. And yet three complicating truths emerged: significantly tougher scoring, Johnson's insistence that he could no longer simply thrash driver, and Graeme McDowell.
McDowell has always been a defiant golfer. Here's someone who went out in the final group of the 2010 US Open alongside the beast that is Johnson, with Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Mickelson up ahead, and yet it was the cardiganned man from Portrush who held firm. Later in the year, no doubt buoyed by memories of Pebble Beach, McDowell beat Hunter Mahan in head-to-head for the Ryder Cup. More than a decade on, as Mahan and more from that US side have disappeared into the ether, McDowell endures despite a clear power shift in the sport.
But whether his victory here was an act of defiance when everything suggested a big-hitter like Johnson or Pieters should prove impossible to contain, or whether it reflects a dramatic change to the challenge, remains difficult to answer. There's no doubt that thicker rough, more shaved run-offs and a threatening breeze played to McDowell's strengths, but it really is just his name you have to cover up to create a leaderboard with strong similarities to 2019.
There is some wind in the forecast this week, but nothing that should overly concern us, and my selections are largely those who could well be putting for eagle on a couple of par-fours. That's a comment which applies to Johnson and BRYSON DECHAMBEAU more than most and I find it hard to keep them out of the frame, with the latter preferred at the prices.
It's only a couple of months since DeChambeau was an 8/1 chance for the Masters and he's played only once since disappointing at Augusta, seventh place in Hawaii seeing him come up a shot shy for those of us who sided with him each-way. The case there was as it is here: that his imperious driving, which powered his US Open win and is becoming increasingly consistent, should be enough alone to get him close to the leaders.
In the Tournament of Champions, that's exactly what happened, but he lost strokes with his approaches, around the green and, most frustratingly, with the putter. Few players in the sport can finish seventh in high-class company with just one department firing, and it's clear that when he does make a few putts he's hard to beat. If - and it is an if - he becomes a world-class iron player, he will have all the tools to reach the summit of the sport, although I don't seek to underestimate the scale of that challenge. He does still have improvements to make.
For now it's unlikely we get quality approach play, but his length could see him bully this course into submission and the fact that he was a good sixth here pre-muscle mass has to be encouraging. DeChambeau ranked sixth off the tee (likely seventh in reality, as Johnson's stats weren't collected) and improved as the week went on, firing a final-round 65 which was bettered by just a handful of players.
That was just a week after he'd romped to a seventh-shot victory in the Dubai Desert Classic, during which he came under fire for his pace of play, and he's perhaps better prepared this time following a three-week break. At the prices and in an event where two players stand out, he looks worth sticking with to follow up after fellow pantomime villain Patrick Reed took the Farmers on Sunday.
Paspalum greens here in Saudi Arabia could be music to the ears of Viktor Hovland, whose two PGA Tour wins to date have come on similar surfaces, and he'll do for many. This young Norwegian hopped off the plane from Mexico, where he'd just won, to finish third in the DP World Tour Championship, and to be frank Paul Casey's victory last week should probably teach me that jet lag really isn't a big issue in elite sport.
Though he faltered late on, Hovland was the only player to really challenge Reed at Torrey Pines in the end and this would be a fitting venue for a first European Tour win, given those greens and the fact that his form - both professional via Mexico and amateur via Pebble Beach - ties in so well with McDowell. He is greatly respected and so has to be Tony Finau, whose game travels, whose form is strong, and for whom a European Tour win would be topical and dare I say somewhat bittersweet.
The presence of these PGA Tour raiders means Tommy Fleetwood is out at 22/1, and he is hard to ignore at that price. Fleetwood has finished 10th, seventh and 17th in his three starts in the Middle East either side of Christmas, contending at some stage in each of them, and on the European Tour is ultra reliable. That he hasn't appeared to have his best long-game underlines that he has to play very poorly indeed to be no kind of factor at all, and as a two-time winner in Abu Dhabi, with four wins in his last 50 starts over here, the numbers stack up nicely.
That being said he really hasn't been firing on all cylinders and there's not been enough evidence to suggest it'll all click, which it will surely need to if he's to win an event as strong as this one. For that reason he's overlooked in favour of five players for whom a top-eight finish looks an achievable goal, with victory a mighty bonus.
Four of them fit the bill from a power perspective, but first I'll stick with SHANE LOWRY after a frustrating display in the Dubai Desert Classic, where he was a shot outside the places entering Sunday only to quickly lose track of the top 10.
Ultimately, Lowry's putter was the reason he failed to mount a title challenge at a course he likes. In round one he missed two very short putts when set to post one of the better afternoon scores, in round two he was no better, and after a few dropped in round three, round four was one of the worst of his career.
Certainly I've never seen Lowry miss so many short ones over the course of 18 holes, and his strokes-gained figure for the round alone was -3.54, which translated to last of the 71 remaining players. I'm not one to dwell on bad putting at the best of times - the champion, Casey, missed his share - but in Dubai it is totally forgivable. The greens at the Majlis Course looked terrible on television, and judging by reactions on the course they perhaps played even worse.
Lowry shouldn't have any trouble putting that behind him, and he returns to Saudi Arabia for a second go having finished 13th last year, a really unfortunate bogey at the final hole of round one leaving him with plenty to do. The Open champion played beautifully for the most part, ranking third from tee-to-green, and it came after a similar start to the year having missed the cut in Abu Dhabi and stepped up on that in Dubai.
His approach play has really started to fire since the back-end of 2020, and he drove it as well last week as he has since his Open-winning season, so if those putts start to go in his game looks good enough to win. His form under links conditions and in the Portugal Masters correlates well - the latter through Lewis, Levy, Dean Burmester and more - and if he can win a WGC at Firestone, one of the longest par 70s on the planet, he can overcome a potential distance handicap here, too.
Adri Arnaus is again on the shortlist but THOMAS PIETERS has done enough to convince me he's recovered from a broken finger sustained over Christmas, and he has the talent and mentality to stare down anyone when he's at his best.
It has been a quiet start to 2021 for the Belgian, who definitely remains on the Ryder Cup radar not least because a bit of muscle will help at Whistling Straits. But 41st in Abu Dhabi was a decent effort given he was still struggling with his grip in a Rolex Series event he couldn't afford to miss, before he crept up to 27th in Dubai last week.
Having fired a first-round 63 in the inaugural Saudi International and closed with a 65 for third place last year, Royal Greens looks as good a venue for him as there is in the Middle East and it definitely compares with Albatross Resort, where he's a two-time winner of the Czech Masters, when it comes to the leaderboards we've been left with.
A spot of wind isn't an issue as we know from his victory in Denmark, and while his iron play has dipped, it's his driving which I suspect will dictate his overall performance. On that score there's good news as having gone off the boil before Christmas, he ranked fourth in Abu Dhabi and 14th in Dubai, setting him up perfectly for a return here.
Pieters has ranked third and 13th off the tee in two starts here and third and first from tee-to-green. It's simply been the putter holding him back (62nd and 69th), as he gave McDowell 12 shots on the greens and was beaten by three, a short missed putt for eagle at the 72nd hole underlining his struggles.
That's a chance we'll have to take, but for a couple of weeks during the break he could only practice putting, and his performance with the flat-stick last week was one of the best of his career. Was it a red herring, given that those greens increased the random factor? Possibly, but if there's a course at which to chance him it's this one.
Victor Perez is the other one at double-figure odds I looked twice at, largely because he's gone well in both starts here, he's established himself as a broadly excellent desert player, and his Dunhill Links win is a nice pointer.
All that being said he has made a slow start to the year and I'm a little worried he'll be weighed down by the Ryder Cup, in a way similar to Alex Levy three years ago. Levy of course was aiming for a higher goal - to be the Frenchman on the team in Paris - but Perez has his own uniquely difficult burden, having been in A1 position to qualify before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
With performances worth more as we edge closer to September, Perez isn't quite back to square one but it may well feel like it. As such I'll move past him to a collection of outsiders headed by another Frenchman, VICTOR DUBUISSON.
Clearly, Dubuisson is among the riskiest conveyances in the sport, partly because he might on a whim decide he'd rather spend the week fishing. But the one thing which is established alongside his quality and ambivalence is the fact that he's among the most horses-for-courses players around, and that makes him must-bet material at 150/1.
So far in his career, Dubuisson has won twice - both at the same course in the Turkish Airlines Open, beating strong fields along the way. His other standout European Tour performances have come in the DP World Tour Championship, where on three occasions he's been inside the top four. Then there's the Nedbank Challenge, where his last three appearances read 4-3-3, and Kuala Lumpur, where he's finished 11th and third in two goes. He also seems to quite like Binhai Lake (4-3), and has finished exactly ninth on three occasions at Doha.
Most of these courses, Sun City in particular, encourage driver upon driver, and my overriding memories of both wins in Turkey are of him hitting it and finding it. It would be fair to say he doesn't get wrapped up in the intricacies of the sport, and like the mercurial Bubba Watson albeit at a lower level, just how engaged he is, just how convinced he is that he can score, often sets him up for success or failure and in turn explains why he plays well at a select group of courses.
Last week's venue is not one of them - he's now played the Dubai Desert Classic seven times, missed five cuts, averages over-par, and has never made the top 30. For that reason alone we can ignore it, or even take encouragement from the fact he was a shot from making the weekend. Before it, he defied a bad start in Abu Dhabi - his first competitive round in 15 weeks - and climbed to 25th at one of those courses he does appear to enjoy.
Throughout both, Dubuisson's ball-striking has been very good, especially at Abu Dhabi where he was eighth off the tee and hit plenty of quality approaches. Go back to 2020 and we again see encouraging signs, with two top-10 finishes from just seven starts and a very respectable effort at Wentworth. While we all want to see him more often, when he has played, he has actually played rather well.
And so we come to Saudi Arabia, and one of those courses. Dubuisson sat 97th after the first round of the 2019 edition, then shot 65-69-66 to climb to 18th. On his return, he started 69-65-65 - that's 21-under across those six rounds in succession - to earn a place in the final group, where his reunion with Ryder Cup pal McDowell only went to plan for one of them, Dubuisson faltering as he finished sixth.
On both occasions, he's driven it brilliantly and that's what I think it comes down to. When he can stand on a tee and hit driver after driver, he remains a hugely capable player. At the courses we know he likes, he has to be considered, and those past Ryder Cup, WGC and Rolex Series exploits offer some hope that he could even secure a hugely popular third professional win. If he actually wants to, that is.
At a similar price and in some ways with a similar profile, RYAN FOX is next.
This big-hitting Kiwi also looks to have done nothing special so far this year, but he too was back from a long break when teeing it up in Abu Dhabi (MC by one), and after an opening 73 in Dubai he showed signs that his game might be coming together.
Primarily, Fox's big strength is actually approach play, which has been of a very high standard for some time. That was in evidence on his final start of 2020, at Wentworth, and he's moved through the gears since returning, ranking sixth last week over in Dubai.
For such a powerful player, the fact he doesn't figure all that highly in the off-the-tee charts reveals that he struggles badly to hit fairways, and is prone to a big wide. In fact it's nine starts now since he last hit more than half of the fairways, and that performance at Celtic Manor helped produce his strongest driving stats of the year.
My hope is that here in Saudi Arabia, he can find that advantage without necessarily having to find the short stuff. That's certainly what has happened so far, Fox producing almost identical driving accuracy stats (49th on debut, 60th on return, both times less than 50%) across his two appearances and, tellingly, defying them to rank fourth and sixth in strokes-gained off-the-tee.
That underlines the reality of this course. You can stray, you can escape when missing by a mile, and you can make up a lot of ground by launching one to within a few yards of the green. Fox has proven it, and if he can make it three years in succession of big off-the-tee gains, there's no reason he can't extend strong form figures of 6-27.
The fact that his best high-profile form has come in Rolex Series events on links golf courses means that he should be able to adapt to whatever conditions we're presented with, and for the third year running I expect his best desert form to come at the course which should suit him above all others.
It's rare that I rely so much on course form as in generally I tend to think it does get overplayed, although it would've led to both winners last week. That said, the influx of overseas talent means we've a selection of candidates here who've shown they can score around Royal Greens, including the likes of Hao-tong Li and Gavin Green, and so many of them are on offer at huge prices.
Green just doesn't look in a good place right now, but having placed when tipped at 66/1 last year, I can't put anyone off at 200/1. As for Li, he's another who has thrived off the tee here, but is currently driving the ball very poorly and shooting some big numbers as a result. It's not impossible that he could remind us all of the class which saw him win the Dubai Desert Classic at Rory McIlroy's expense, especially as his iron play has improved, and he too is interesting.
Wilco Nienaber has made a very poor start to the year but volatility is to be expected when you hit the ball as hard as he does, and if this does turn into a repeat of 2019 he could quickly leave behind a confidence-draining fortnight, but it was Francesco Laporta I found hardest to leave out. In on a sponsor's invitation, Laporta struck the ball fabulously in Abu Dhabi only to miss the cut by one having had 67 putts. Prior to that, he was runner-up in Dubai, and having contended in Abu Dhabi in 2020 he has built up a nice desert record.
Not the longest off the tee, he nevertheless drives the ball really well and as a multiple Challenge Tour winner who has been seventh in a Rolex Series event, there's a lot to like. Still, SEAN CROCKER has a touch more class and massive potential, and his length off the tee tips the scales in his favour.
Crocker is quite simply hitting the ball well enough to win a very good tournament like this one. Twice in his last three starts, in the DP World Tour Championship and in Abu Dhabi, he's gained over 11 strokes on the field with his ball-striking alone. A couple of weeks before the first of those, he had a great chance to win at Leopard Creek.
Short-game issues are undermining his progress - whether it was kikuyu rough or some other factor, they disappeared for that one week in South Africa - but when he does get by on and around the greens, he's a threat. Here at a course where he could do serious damage off the tee, I'm willing to take a chance given that he's contended in Qatar and generally looks a good wind player.
In this event last year, Crocker produced another brilliant driving display and at the odds on offer, at a course where players of his kind look to be at a potentially decisive advantage, I'll chance him earning his breakthrough and taking a big step along the road back home.
Posted at 1900 GMT on 01/02/21
We are committed in our support of responsible gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.
If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline on 0808 8020 133, or visit begambleaware.org.