It's been a fine start to 2020 for our golf expert Ben Coley, who is again siding with Martin Kaymer for this week's Dubai Desert Classic.
Ever since 2015, when the Dubai Desert Classic moved to sit adjacent to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in the European Tour schedule (with one exception), the two events have been - on the face of it at least - tricky to separate.
If you fancy someone in Abu Dhabi, chances are the case can be made again a week later. We're talking resort-style desert golf in the United Arab Emirates, across stock par 72 courses where four sub-70 rounds are almost always needed, and in many ways they're asking the same questions in just a slightly different way.
That's why this week's market is a compressed version of last week's, the absence of those two world-class Americans meaning Tommy Fleetwood will go off a single-figure price, with Matt Fitzpatrick and Louis Oosthuizen next, all three having been close to victory behind Lee Westwood.
The latter, a heroic winner on Sunday, is into 28/1, Victor Perez is 28/1 from 66/1, while eighth-placed Sergio Garcia has halved in price from 40s to 20s. He really was an excellent bet last week, and for many he'll do here, at a course where he was a really impressive winner in 2017.
Chances are, the form crossover between these two events will be strong, and I've no doubt those playing both are at an advantage. But there are one or two cautionary tales to be found if you dig through the roll-of-honour.
For starters, the last three winners of the Dubai Desert Classic didn't play the weekend at Abu Dhabi - in fact, two of them didn't play there at all. Before this sequence, in 2016, Danny Willett improved massively from 54th one week to first the next, and it's only a peak Rory McIlroy who has won this title having almost done the same a few days earlier, when runner-up.
This is probably much about nothing, especially with such a small sample size to go at, but if you were let down by someone last week - Shane Lowry or Matt Wallace, for instance - then make sure you contemplate forgiveness. The Emirates Course, on which the Dubai Desert Classic has long been held, is a little different by way of several dog-legs and a lot more trees, and all things being equal it's a little easier, too. Some players here will take a big leap forward.
Lowry and Wallace are considered as a result, and I'll return to another name mentioned above a little later, but my starting point is a collection of players who went well in Abu Dhabi but are at the very least equally suited to this event, including MARTIN KAYMER.
Granted, it's a hard sell to suggest he's just as good at the Emirates as he is Abu Dhabi, where he of course has won three times, but Kaymer has an almost blemish-free record here and of those to have played in four or more renewals, his is the best scoring average.
In total, 10 visits have yielded nine cuts made and four top-fives, a record which dates back to a debut runner-up finish to Tiger Woods in 2008. Kaymer was brilliant then, and he was then beaten three shots by McIlroy and two by Miguel Angel Jimenez in a trio of near-misses to begin his Desert Classic career.
He was fourth again in 2015, and finishes of 23rd, 19th and 24th over the last three years further underline that he's a likely contender here, especially after such an excellent start to the campaign as he closed with a round of 65 for eighth place on Sunday.
Kaymer led the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green courtesy of a world-class iron display on his first appearance in two months, and ever since he finished third on the PGA Tour last June he's shown flashes of the ability which made him a two-time major champion.
Throughout 2019, he spoke about a two-year plan to get back in the Ryder Cup side and feature in the Olympics, and his decision to reunite with Craig Connelly, the caddie who helped him to those US Open and PGA Championship wins, is a further sign that he means business.
"It’s great to have the ‘wee man’ back on the bag,” Kaymer told The Scotsman's Martin Dempster. "I said to Craig after the first round that it felt like there was no break between us and I felt back in a comfort zone with Craig back on the bag.
"It’s important I feel in my career now to find that comfort zone, especially looking back over the past two to three years of my career. You need people around you that know you and help to keep you in a good place and that is what Craig brings to our relationship."
The pair were immediately rewarded last week, and it might have been better still. Kaymer was the only player in the top 20 to putt poorly - he lost 10 shots to the winner on the greens - in a further demonstration that he struck the ball to an elite level.
Westwood is the latest in a long line of examples of a player who clicked for four days on the greens and made the most of it, having been putting poorly when last seen, and I've absolutely no doubt that a hot week with the putter can see Kaymer finally return to winning ways.
Here at the Emirates, where he's ranked fourth and first for greens hit over the last couple of years, it seems reasonable to expect the 35-year-old to again stack up opportunities. He need only putt to the levels of Paris and Portugal late in 2019 to mount a serious title challenge and I for one am keeping the faith.
If Kaymer is hitting it well in regular bursts, Thomas Pieters has been doing so week in, week out for six months. I get that he's lost all goodwill with some having failed to scale the heights promised in 2016 and again when he nearly won the US PGA in 2018, but I will be amazed if he doesn't do something very special at some stage this year.
That's why I put him up antepost for the Masters, and since then he's extended his run of elite ball-striking displays. The Belgian has ranked eighth or better in strokes-gained tee-to-green in 11 of his last 12 starts, and the one time he got close to average with the putter, he won. If he does it again, chances are he'll go very close to winning again.
For those reasons, he was the first name on the shortlist here. And yet, in five years of appearances in the Dubai Desert Classic, only an opening-round 65 in 2018 offers real promise. He's yet to finish better than 23rd across this span, and if he does win so be it - perhaps he'll join Willett and Garcia in following up at Augusta come April, and all will be forgiven if so.
Instead, it's THOMAS DETRY who gets the vote again after an eye-catching display in Abu Dhabi.
Detry was second midway through the third round, closing in on Westwood, until a scrappy double-bogey at the 14th hole stopped him in his tracks. It was undeniably disappointing to see him down tools after a slow start on Sunday, falling from seventh to 55th, but the positives continue to outweigh the negatives as he closes in on his first solo victory.
It could come in Dubai, where he's produced several good rounds without so far contending, and in fewer appearances he's done more to demonstrate a fondness for this layout than his World Cup-winning team-mate and mentor, Pieters.
Detry ranked sixth in birdie average last year and 23rd across the par-fives, the latter absolutely key to success here in the Dubai Desert Classic.
Last year, Bryson DeChambeau played the 16 par-fives in a staggering 14-under, Hao-tong Li and runner-up McIlroy were both 13-under in 2018, and the worst week-long ranking among the last five winners comes courtesy of Garcia in seventh.
That's why you'll see a number of champions here who appeared not to hit many fairways, all that many greens, even putt particularly well. The challenge is to strike when the opportunities arise, three of the par-fives coming on the back-nine where the 17th can also be driveable, and that's likely where this tournament will be won and lost.
Detry's aggression cost him the title in Mauritius, where he went flag-hunting at the 71st hole and ended up plugged, but at some stage it'll pay off as it did when he won by 12 shots on the Challenge Tour. Dubai, more so than Abu Dhabi, allows for that style to go unpunished granted a little fortune, and that's why I'm inclined to stick with him.
Like Kaymer, Detry's irons were hot last week, as they were in South Africa a fortnight ago, and I find it easy to envisage him tearing apart the scoring holes and setting up another chance to win. It would be his sixth such opportunity in nine starts as he closes in on a breakthrough European Tour victory.
Speaking of those par-five and birdie average statistics, surely the two best starting points here, it's hard to get away from the improving SAM HORSFIELD as the pick of the outsiders at 150/1.
Ian Poulter's protege has been ignored by the layers on account of two missed cuts here, but he's simply a different animal now, making every weekend since third place behind Pieters in the Czech Masters.
Last week he climbed from 81st after the first round and 51st at halfway to finish 12th, a pair of weekend 67s seeing him improve on last year's debut in the event, and not for the first time it was powered by a complete destruction of the par-fives.
Horsfield tops the European Tour stats for par-five scoring average over the last three months and ranks 20th if we stretch that back to Prague in August, and the only two players with a better birdie average in 2019 were McIlroy and Jon Rahm, the two finest golfers in Europe.
All that is encouraging, but what I really like is that he produced his best approach statistics since the aforementioned Czech Masters when a shot outside the top 10 in Abu Dhabi. So much of his promise towards the end of last year came courtesy of outstanding putting displays, but it's consistency on approach which holds the key to this big-hitting, aggressive talent.
There's a chance it all comes together this week - much, I suspect, will depend on how he starts on Thursday.
As you'd expect, there are plenty of likeable candidates here with Rafa Cabrera Bello almost certain to play well, DeChambeau a very tempting price given his undoubted class, and the flying Jazz Janewattananond adding an interesting dynamic as he continues his ascent.
However, none strike me as overpriced or worth the attached risks, whereas DANNY WILLETT must be worth a bet at 50/1 in a place and 45/1 generally.
Willett was a tenacious winner here in 2016, a performance which triggered his Masters breakthrough and all that came after it. He's played poorly in two subsequent visits, but remember he was in a terrible place in early 2017, and hadn't yet found light at the end of the tunnel a year later.
Having missed the 2019 edition as he focused on the PGA Tour, this is Willett's first realistic opportunity to join Woods, Ernie Els and Stephen Gallacher as a multiple winner of the event, and at the price there's very little downside here.
Yes, he missed the cut in Abu Dhabi, but Willett has been nothing if not inconsistent throughout his career. When he won the BMW PGA Championship last September he'd missed the cut at a course he loves on his previous start and when he won the DP World Tour Championship in 2018 he'd finished 50th in a small field in South Africa.
His win here in 2016 came after he'd finished 54th in Abu Dhabi, and his breakthrough back in 2012 was both preceded and followed by missed cuts, so his failure to advance to Saturday on his seasonal return really doesn't bother me.
Had he played well, we could clearly be talking about a 20-25/1 chance here, but with Willett it's preferable to accept a few more negatives for a bigger price - typically, his victories have been when away from the front of the market, one exception being the European Masters.
With two wins and two more top-five finishes from his last seven starts in Dubai, it's clear this and the DP World Tour Championship are his preferred Middle East destinations, and I've no doubt he'll have taken something from watching his friend Westwood win last week.
In fact, when Willett last won in the desert, it was the week after an emotional Westwood had taken the Nedbank. It's not much of a stretch to see history repeating itself at a course where he's entered the weekend inside the top five on three previous occasions.
I've respect for the French contingent here - even qualifier Romain Wattel, albeit namesake Langasque is preferred - while Matthias Schwab and Jason Scrivener ought to go well, but I'll finish with two more selections at three-figure prices.
ADRI ARNAUS was bogey-free for the first 36 holes last week and played the par-fives well, enough to speculate that he could take a step forward from his return to action and contend.
This Spanish talent is going to get better and better and he's already one of the best drivers on the circuit, which means he could set up enough chances across the par-fives and short par-fours to mitigate ongoing issues with the putter.
If it does fire, he's a definite candidate to spring a surprise having made an excellent debut here last year, finishing 29th with a stats book very similar to that which he produced in Abu Dhabi, where he again drove it better than anyone else.
This week, Arnaus gets to stay in his new house - he spent the off-season buying property in Dubai, following the lead of compatriot and former champion Cabrera Bello - and there's little doubt he has the right game for this challenge.
Finally, BRANDON STONE looks close to his best - he has done for a few months now - and is value to add to his seventh-placed finish here in 2017.
There have been missed cuts either side, but this talented South African is ideally suited to a shootout in the desert and there was a lot to like about 21st place in Abu Dhabi, where all aspects of his game were firing.
A runner-up in Portugal last October - that event correlates well with this one, both courses being resort-style, lacking in the way of rough and revolving around the scoring holes - Stone looks ready to push on again and he's already won a more valuable event than this one.
Go back to those 2017 stats and you'll see he ranked eighth in driving distance, third in accuracy and eighth in greens, suggesting he really likes the way the Emirates sets up for him off the tee, and I can see him putting it all together as another who dominated the par-fives last week.
Posted at 1815 GMT on 20/01/20
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