Golf expert Ben Coley has four selections for the DP World Tour Championship, as the European Tour season reaches its climax in Dubai.
In golf, it's extremely rare that any tournament boils down to a battle between the best two players in the field. Think how many times you recall Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson eyeballing each other down the stretch. It's hard enough to be confident that any one player will be in contention come Sunday, let alone two. This is a sport with far too many variables.
Perhaps Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm will prove the exception this week, as the European Tour season ends with the DP World Tour Championship, but I wouldn't bet on it.
McIlroy, at 4/1, is the right and worthy favourite. He's been excellent throughout 2019, right back to his best, and it's a matter of time before he ends at least one of his unwanted, years-long sequences. Yes, the priority will be his first major since 2014, but he can't fix that until April. Expect McIlroy to return to the top of the world rankings, where last he stood in 2015, well before Augusta comes around.
Victory here won't tick that box right away, but it'll help, and McIlroy's record at the Earth Course is outstanding. This is a modern, long golf course, a par 72 of the same ilk as Sheshan, where he was a winner last time out, and it won't surprise anyone if the best player in the field bursts out of the gates with six or seven birdies, no more than one or two bogeys, and a position from which to go on and win this title for a third time.
There is a negative, though, at least a potential negative, and that's the absence of Harry Diamond. McIlroy's caddie gets flak when things aren't going perfectly, so let's give him some credit for what the man he pulls clubs for has done this year. Diamond plays a very important role in keeping McIlroy relaxed, which allows for the unleashing of the full force of his awesome talents.
McIlroy won't be carrying his own bag, of course, and reports are that Niall O'Connor has been doing his homework. A former rugby union player with Ulster and Connacht, O'Connor has taken a break from a high-flying New York City job to stand in for Diamond, and was seen walking the Earth Course over the weekend in an admirable demonstration of his professionalism.
It's likely that McIlroy will be unaffected by the switch, but it isn't certain, and that's why he's not in the staking plan.
Otherwise, the case for the favourite is bombproof, and it extends to the fact that he's no longer able to win the Race To Dubai, a factor which could just distract some of his main dangers over the coming days.
Two years ago, Justin Rose produced some uncharacteristically rank stuff when leading the tournament, not only costing him a first victory here, but also the season-long prize which went to Tommy Fleetwood. If it can happen to him, you'd think it can happen to anyone - including Rahm.
The real negative when it comes to the Spaniard, however, is a seven-week break. Rahm hasn't been seen since winning the Open de Espana, skipping a World Golf Championship and two Rolex Series events in a blow to the European Tour. It's not cost him the chance to win the Race To Dubai - he could steal it with second place here - but it may do, not because of the points he's missed out on but because he's entitled to be ring-rusty when teeing off on Thursday.
Rahm's form after a break of five weeks or more reads MC-22-34-15, and that small sample underlines the indisputable fact that it is not ideal to arrive here after almost two months away. While you could argue that the likes of Tommy Fleetwod and Bernd Wiesberger could well be burnt out, I'd rather be backing them in the hope they can find four more rounds than side with a player who has been on the sidelines for so long.
Shane Lowry's decision to skip the Nedbank Challenge could prove a genius one, but he was poor in Turkey and it's MATTHEW FITZPATRICK who heads my staking plan.
Fitzpatrick is one of those potential Race To Dubai winners, but unlike the other four his equation is as simple as it gets: he has to win to hold any chance, and even then would need other results to go his way.
That should mean he's able to focus just on the task at hand, and Fitzpatrick has the right man on his bag when it comes to doing that. His partnership with Billy Foster, a course winner here like the man he works for, is yet to yield silverware, but they've clicked wonderfully and it really is a matter of time for them.
The hope is they can end a sequence of silver medals in style by winning the most lucrative tournament in golf, one Fitzpatrick took in 2016 at the end of a duel with Tyrrell Hatton, confirming in the process that his lack of punch off the tee need not prevent him from being effective here.
That was his third European Tour win, and he's since added two more, extending his active streak of at least one in every season as a European Tour card holder. This is his final chance to keep the run going, and having that goal at the forefront of his mind is another way to remove himself from the season-long calculations.
In terms of his game at the moment, Fitzpatrick gained strokes throughout the bag in the Nedbank Challenge last week, he previously led at halfway in the HSBC Champions, and four starts back he ought to have won the Italian Open, paying heavy price for one poor shot at just the wrong time.
Five runner-up finishes since this event last year demonstrate a lack of fortune and the odd slip rather than any concerns about the temperament of one of the European Tour's toughest competitors, one who will relish the chance to take down the big two, and he looks the biggest danger to them.
As well as winning the title in 2016, Fitzpatrick was fourth on debut and then led at halfway when defending. He says he loves this course and that it doesn't play as long as the scorecard, and I expect him to play well.
Justin Rose was really tempting this week, solely on the grounds that he's 20/1 at a course where he's twice been second. Still, his iron play remains a major concern, and until he shows improvement it's hard to have faith; expect him to again flatter to deceive, as he has since early summer.
That said, arriving here slightly under the radar really isn't a bad thing. Rahm, Fitzpatrick and even McIlroy in 2015 were not playing obviously well, in relative terms, but improved for various reasons from the course to more controlled conditions than those faced in China or South Africa.
Perhaps then PAUL CASEY can benefit from a break since he was 38th in the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he said he felt exhausted early on and did not play well until freewheeling to a final-round 67 and some form of respectability.
Prior to that, Casey had ranked third in greens when 17th in the ZOZO Championship, and if we forgive him a missed cut in the Italian Open his form looks as solid as ever. Crucially, it includes two wins this year - the first time he's done that since 2011 - and there was plenty to like about the way he closed out both the European Open and the Valspar Championship.
It's a while since he played here at the Earth Course, but sixth in 2010 gives us some tangible course form and the Englishman is an excellent desert golfer. He's won twice in Abu Dhabi, once in Bahrain, and the fact that he practices in Arizona may be no bad thing - in fact, it worked for Rahm a couple of years ago and courses like Scottsdale and Whisper Rock are similar to this week's venue.
Casey should be suited by a low-key preparation and, above all else, strikes me as overpriced here. He was 33/1 for The Masters, don't forget, and a single-figure price when winning in Germany in September, where he was shorter than Patrick Reed, who had only recently won a top-class PGA Tour event.
The reasons for this are two-fold - an apparent downturn in form, and the fact he hasn't played here since 2013. Neither feels particularly significant to me, as while he will need to improve from when last seen, his form after missed cuts this year - 2-1-4-17 - tells us that his downturns tend to be limited to one or two rounds, rather than tournaments.
There's a fairly similar case for Rafa Cabrera Bello, who has five top-10 finishes on the European Tour in 2019 despite limited starts. He's another who has gone off much shorter in circumstances far less ideal, and but for the fact his long-game has gone walkabout he'd have been worth chancing at 50/1 having contended here previously.
For all that Robert MacIntyre and Matthias Schwab look to have been priced as you might expect, I can't quite work out why VICTOR PEREZ isn't up there with them by now and he looks a bet at 50/1 and bigger.
This young Frenchman impressed everyone when winning the Dunhill Links with an elite display of ball-striking, but I think I've been more taken by what he's done since. So many in his situation take time to adjust, but he had just one quiet week before finishes of 16th, fourth and second put him at the top of the Ryder Cup points list.
Three times in his last five starts he's produced what anyone would call world-class displays of iron play, each time leading the field in strokes-gained tee-to-green, and he managed to get into a play-off for the Turkish Airlines Open last time despite ranking 66th of 74 in putting.
Perez is quite simply hitting the ball as well as anyone, a massive asset anywhere but more so at a fairly long, modern course where there are bunkers he can take on, and it's questionable whether he ought to be so far down the betting.
In terms of course suitability, he's clearly shown versatility bit it doesn't hurt that he was second in the UAE at the end of the 2018 Challenge Tour season, before beginning this year with a very respectable sequence across the Middle East, culminating in a final-round 64 in Saudi Arabia.
Plus, while Perez makes his debut here, his caddie JP Fitzgerald was of course on Rory's bag in both 2012 and 2015, and that's another small factor which may work in his favour as he looks to cap a breakthrough campaign in style.
Thomas Pieters and Jordan Smith both come into calculations despite abysmal displays of putting lately. The former will go very well if he produces anything halfway decent on the greens, while Smith is a good desert golfer who likes it here, and at least he did putt better in the Nedbank Challenge.
Smith is one of three players considered at three-figure prices along with Guido Migliozzi and Jason Scrivener, but I'll keep to slightly more realistic winners with TOM LEWIS completing the staking plan.
Lewis might actually be the best bet of the lot here, odds of 80/1 appearing to underestimate an outstanding ball-striker whose game is just perfect for this type of test.
There are definite correlations with the Portugal Masters, another big-hitter-friendly resort course and one where he's a two-time winner, so it wasn't that surprising to see Lewis finish seventh here last year, leading the field in greens hit.
That was his course debut, but Lewis has spent a lot of time in Dubai over the years, so again it made sense when he started this year with ninth place in Abu Dhabi and third in the Saudi International, where he was giving chase to Dustin Johnson throughout the final round.
Lewis hasn't necessarily built on what he achieved late last year and early this, but victory in the Korn Ferry Tour Championship was seriously impressive as he dominated a very good field, and he's played well in each of his last four starts in the European Tour.
Fifth in the Dunhill Links came courtesy of a blistering weekend, eighth in Portugal was a solid title defence, 32nd in Turkey saw him open with a field-leading 65, and then last week he stepped up massively on a poor Nedbank debut to finish 13th after a solid weekend.
The fact he managed to play so well at Sun City without driving it as well as he can should be seen as a positive, and returned to a venue he knows, one where there are fewer calculations to make, expect to see Lewis right towards the top of the ball-striking stats for the week.
If that is the case, he's more than capable of producing some silly numbers and being right in the mix come Sunday, when his ability to win - something in evidence throughout his career both as an amateur and as a professional - could be the difference with so much on the line.
Posted at 2020 GMT on 18/11/19.
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