Golf expert Ben Coley looks to end a hugely profitable year on a high with five selections for the DP World Tour Championship.
0.5pt e.w. Romain Langasque at 100/1 (1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7) (out of the event due to positive Covid-19 test)
The Race to Dubai reaches its climax with the DP World Tour Championship and, fittingly, everything is off-kilter.
Part of the allure of this tournament is that it represents a firm end of the season, and a chance for the standout players to battle for not just a prestigious title, but a place in the history books alongside some of the sport's most iconic names.
The idea is that through a months-long meritocratic process, we are left with the pick of the European Tour showing off as the PGA Tour takes a break. In seasons past, we've enjoyed master versus apprentice in 2009, the bromance battle of 2018, and a host of thrilling finishes at the end of which someone was richly rewarded.
This time, we've a Race to Dubai leader who has barely played on the European Tour this year, and a close rival who is yet to play a single event on the circuit. None of this is intended to belittle Patrick Reed or Collin Morikawa, nor the European Tour itself, which has navigated rough seas with diligence. It is simply where we are, and there will be something unsatisfactory about Sunday's conclusion unless someone like Christiaan Bezuidenhout or Rasmus Hojgaard wins again, and with it succeeds Jon Rahm as the Race to Dubai champion.
There is a chance that will happen, because what it lacks in terms of legitimacy, the 2020 Race to Dubai makes up for in number of permutations. Two years ago, Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood had it between them, while in 2019 there were five who could end the year atop the standings. This time you can probably draw the line at twenty-something, but mathematically speaking there are more still who can theoretically take advantage of circumstances and win both trophies which are on offer.
Reed leads, and should he finish second then only one of the four closest to him would steal the prize with victory. Such is the drop-off in points, however, that if he finishes fifth, suddenly 19th-placed Thomas Detry could do it. Detry enters this week having not yet won on the European Tour. Perhaps no player better embodies the unique opportunity which is available to so many, and should make for an exciting end to a piecemeal season.
It's difficult to work out how or indeed if these strange circumstances will affect the tournament and whatever impact that they have may be called negligible, but at the very least TOMMY FLEETWOOD might be free to focus on one thing only and it could make all the difference.
Fleetwood would have won the Race to Dubai for a second time in 2019 had anyone but Rahm beaten him in this tournament, and he might have won it in 2018 had he slipped a tranquilliser into Francesco Molinari's pain au raisin. Instead, he finished second last year and third previously, two mighty efforts after he rather fell over the line at the end of a transformative 2017.
Given that he's in second now he again knows he'll win it by winning the DP World Tour Championship, but the build-up and focus is totally different and there are so many permutations that there isn't going to be time to dwell on whether second or fourth or a tie for third might be enough. Essentially, everyone in the field knows you have to win.
The European Tour took an age to publish the field as the admin team presumably scrambled to find out whether Viktor Hovland was going to come in on the party plane from Mexico, whether Sungjae Im would choose this over the QBE Shootout, and so on. It's a totally different animal this year and it could help those towards the top of the list to know that it's not just one or two players - in groups right in front or behind - they need to worry about.
Fleetwood then can just go out and get down to business, which is what he's done in every European Tour appearance this year. His only starts on this side of the Atlantic since the spring have been Portugal, where he flushed his way to third; Scotland, where he ought to have won and instead finished second, and Wentworth, where he was 13th following a poor final round having been in fourth place at the start of it.
Rewind to those glorious, pre-Covid-19 months at the back-end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020, and he'd gone 5-1-2-2-11. If we widen the lens slightly to the 2019 Open Championship, his European Tour form shows 11 starts, a win, four runner-up finishes, a third, a fifth, and an eighth. Only once during this run has he finished worse than 13th.
All of this ties in broadly with his form at this level since he found his game again at the end of 2016, and then began the following year with a wonderful victory in Abu Dhabi. From then to now covers 41 events, four of which he's won, and he's been placed 40 per cent of the time. There will be those reading this who have their own views about his effort at the Honda Classic and his final round in the US PGA and so on, but over here he's reliable and pretty prolific.
As for the specifics of this course, it's plainly similar to Abu Dhabi, where he's won twice, and his long driving and relentless greens-hitting is the formula which works best. Fleetwood has ranked first, third and fourth for greens hit across his last four visits and flushed his way to second last year while overwhelming the par-fives.
Any doubt as to how dangerous he is here should be removed by this: over the last three years, i.e. 12 rounds, he's shot 65 on three occasions. There have been 677 rounds played in total, and just 25 have been 65 or lower. He has three, McIlroy has three, and Tyrrell Hatton has two. Fleetwood is well used to waltzing round here in seven-under and I don't think there's a single player in the field better suited to the layout.
Finally then, we have the price, and 14/1 looks generous. The best way I can demonstrate it is to say that Reed has halved in price from last year, as have Matt Wallace, Thomas Pieters and numerous others. Bezuidenhout is of course considerably shorter, along with Andy Sullivan, but even someone like Ian Poulter is 45/1 from 80 and Hatton is 12/1 from 18/1.
This all reflects the absence of Rahm and McIlroy, 13/2 and 4/1 respectively ahead of the 2019 renewal which saw Rory go odds-on in the very first round. Suddenly things are considerably more open, with the highest-ranked player in the field being Morikawa, who makes his debut and appears a little out of sorts. Fleetwood was 14/1 last year and while that reflected his win at the Nedbank Challenge, his European Tour form has been of a similar level since.
To my eye the place part looks astonishing value, with seven on offer in a field of 65 which contains plenty who would not ordinarily have qualified. Fleetwood, who will presumably tee off with Reed in the final group out on Thursday, can eliminate the one big number which cost him in 2017 and 2018, possibly a result of having an eye on someone else in both cases. If he reproduces his 2019 performance, he'll take some stopping.
Hitting greens and dominating the par-fives is the watered-down formula here and there can be little doubt that a little extra off the tee is helpful. The Earth Course is longer than its neighbour, which hosted the shootout won by Antoine Rozner in such sensational fashion, and it'll be tougher, too. Not by much, but enough to keep this lot on their toes - especially if the breeze does get up to double-figures, which is a possibility dangled by the forecast.
All this helps Fleetwood and it should also play to the strengths of ROBERT MACINTYRE, who drove the ball beautifully last week and looked like he might be the one when playing the first seven holes of the third round in seven-under.
A couple of short misses, one in particular at the final hole of the same round which made for ugly viewing, ended MacIntyre's challenge but he was making all the right noises throughout the first 54 holes and it's clear he's full of confidence after his recent win in the Cyprus Showdown.
That victory may come with an asterisk - his was not the best score over 72 holes in an experimental format - but having been third a week earlier and rallied for sixth at Leopard Creek, there can be no disputing how well he's playing. What must be especially pleasing is that it's come after a caddie switch which he didn't take lightly, but which was done with his chief goal in mind: to become a European Tour winner.
Rewind to last year and MacIntyre's goal, since way back in the middle of summer, had been to win the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year award. He'd been out in front for a while until a week prior to this event, when Kurt Kitayama moved back in front. Spying the narrative, the European Tour paired the two together in Turkey and in South Africa, and by the time they reached Dubai they were together again by virtue of the fact they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the rankings.
Read through MacIntyre's interviews after a messy first two rounds and you'll see that it was a constant topic of conversation, and that it'd been a wearying run. He noted that Kitayama wasn't one who wanted to chat through the tension and there can be no doubt it was a distraction for both of them.
Perhaps it's telling, then, that once separated after 36 holes, MacIntyre took off, playing the final two rounds in seven-under - a score beaten by a handful, including the winner and Fleetwood. With Kitayama going the other way, he had done what he set out to do and said afterwards that the award meant a lot, particularly to his family. I certainly wouldn't underestimate the toll it had taken on him for all that it also helped keep his head in the game to the end.
Put another way, finishing 14th under those circumstances was a brilliant effort, made more so by the fact that he'd been on the go for a while. Only one player ahead of him on the final leaderboard was playing their fourth event in a row, and while ordinarily that's not a heavy workload, it is when the sequence goes China, Turkey, South Africa, Dubai. MacIntyre managed to get close to the places here playing on fumes, and under immense pressure.
Now, he can go out there as a European Tour winner, and I'm baffled as to why his chance today is considered the same as it was last year, when he was a rookie, a course debutant, who had not yet won and who had in fact looked a little fragile under the gun. He simply must be a more likely winner, especially now Rahm and McIlroy are out, and odds of 25/1 look to underestimate his chance.
"Actually I quite like the golf course. I don't find it as difficult as I'm making it look," he said after the first couple of rounds of his debut at the Earth Course. After two more, those words had been backed up by two quality rounds and with a scoring average of 67.56 since the start of November, few arrive here playing as well as he does.
That all adds up to an improved display and the fact he likely needs to hit the places to make the world's top 50 and earn a Masters invite is the icing on the cake. Fresher than he was and with a goal to achieve, similar to the one he ticked off on his first visit, MacIntyre can make his second one even more memorable.
Bernd Wiesberger falls into a similar category having struggled with a target on his back in 2019. The Austrian, who was the Race to Dubai leader, said that when he teed off on Thursday it felt like a Sunday and clearly it affected him. Although he's not matched his 2019 fireworks there have been much better signs lately and he rates a threat along with Sullivan, providing he can get over the disappointment of having his pocket picked in an event he'd dominated.
Thomas Pieters didn't drive the ball well enough last week to be given a second spin and while Martin Kaymer has often hit plenty of greens here, the fact is he's never been close to winning. For all he's been right back to something like his best this year and would be a hugely appropriate and popular champion, it's hard to fathom why exactly he would leave some pretty rank course form behind after a ho-hum return at the Fire Course.
HENRIK STENSON on the other hand is a course specialist with two wins here to his name, and he has to be worth chancing after a final-round 63 in the RSM Classic.
One swallow does not a summer make, and the Swede was poor here last November, but he did go on to win at the expense of Rahm, Reed and Tiger Woods in the Bahamas so we're not that far removed from some world-class golf.
That final round in Georgia did come courtesy of a hot putter to a large extent, but he hit 12 fairways out of 14 and 17 of 18 greens and there were definite positives in the long-game, too. He did it without making birdie on either par-five, missing two good chances, and there must be a chance he finds another jolt of improvement back at one of his favourite courses.
Once a Dubai resident, Stenson has won this twice and the Dubai Desert Classic once, and like Fleetwood I could see him getting more competitive for a return to the European Tour. That's what happened last summer when he came over and finished fourth, 20th and third in successive starts before looking like the man to beat for the first two rounds at Wentworth, and that breeze which is in the forecast will only help after he found comfort by the coast last time.
There are risks of course but Stenson can return to the world's top 50 by winning this and it is not beyond him.
The final two on my shortlist were JORDAN SMITH and ROMAIN LANGASQUE* and, after some deliberation, I'm going to back both.
Smith loves playing in the desert and after a couple of eye-catching rounds on his debut here, he shot 66-68-69 to earn a place in the penultimate group ahead of the final round in 2018. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was playing with Lee Westwood who I daresay is an idol of his, Smith struggled towards the end of a Rolex Series event but 12th place was nevertheless a strong end to a good campaign.
He's not quite kicked on since winning in Germany in 2017, and there's some irony in that. Victory for Smith came after Alex Levy missed a two-foot putt, and since then Smith himself has had more struggles on the greens than just about anyone in this field.
If you're looking for someone to roll them in from anywhere then he really isn't for you, having lost strokes with the putter in each of his last eight starts, and ranked 49th of 50 in this event last year. That said, his long-game is of an extraordinarily high standard right now, especially off the tee, and at a course where dominating the par-fives is key he could get away with just a slightly improved display.
There is nothing I can really say to provide optimism that he's about to do it, except the fact his best performance since the Tour started registering strokes-gained data came on similarly grainy surfaces in Abu Dhabi. Ultimately we have to hope but the point here is that a player hitting the ball as long and as straight as he is, on a course touching 7,600 yards, and who is one good week with the putter from a serious performance, might be worth chancing.
Smith is a big fan of the course and the way he's hitting it, he might have three good looks at eagle every day. That and his effort here two years ago mark him down as a live outsider.
Langasque meanwhile was in last week's staking plan at 50/1, and now finds himself on offer at twice that generally and 125/1 in a place having been forced to miss the event following a positive Covid-19 test.
Those who played really well at the Fire Course have broadly held their positions in the market - Fisher, Wallace, Sullivan, for instance - but having seen how things unfolded, I expect Langasque will find the Earth Course more to his liking if he is passed fit to play.
Although unable to show it on debut, Langasque should find the longer, harder layout to his liking and he's a player of huge ability who impressed when winning at Celtic Manor. As argued last week, there's been nothing wrong with his form since - like Fisher, his missed cut in the Showdown wasn't really a missed cut - and he's been in Dubai for a few weeks now preparing for what could be a famous end to a famous campaign.
A spanner was thrown in the works a week ago, but that will only make him more determined should he get the all-clear this time and he'll have spent Sunday watching his compatriots Antoine Rozner and Mike Lorenzo Vera contend next door. That should set him up perfectly and at three-figure prices, I can't leave him out.
Posted at 2015 GMT on 07/12/20
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