Golf expert Ben Coley is backing Tom Lewis to take it to Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka in this week's Saudi International.
The European Tour completes the first part of its Middle East swing with the second edition of the Saudi International and, just as was the case in Abu Dhabi a fortnight ago, the market is headed by a trio of world-class Americans.
Dustin Johnson returns to defend the title he won in fairly convincing fashion a year ago, Patrick Reed is also back as he looks to banish memories of an embarrassing 10 at the final hole of round three, while for Brooks Koepka it's a case of continuing his rehabilitation while his place atop the world rankings likely comes under further pressure.
There's an argument to be made that Koepka's return in Abu Dhabi, where he was eight-under after 20 holes but remained there at the end of 72, was perfectly encouraging and a portent to a statement victory on a course which ought to suit better than last year's T57 suggests. His waywardness should not to be so much of an issue here, for all the water that's in play, and he did start the year with 20 birdies.
Yet there remain concerns around his fitness which are hard to allay before we see him tee-off on Thursday. In fact, it won't be until Sunday - or Friday - that we really learn more about the state of his game and his health, even if practice bulletins from Claude Harmon's Dubai base have been positive.
The course, Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, is made for a player like the world number one. Typically, we'd say that par 72s are the domain of the biggest hitters, offering four and sometimes five par-fives to attack, but this par 70 threw up one of the most power-heavy leaderboards in the whole of 2019. Behind Johnson were Hao-tong Li, Tom Lewis, Min Woo Lee and Alex Levy, with Ryan Fox and Scott Hend among the best of the rest.
That's not a coincidence, nor should we be overly concerned by a sample size of one. It simply makes sense, because while there's just one par-five per nine holes, there are several short par-fours, the first, seventh, 10th and 17th in particular encouraging the bigger hitters to lash something up close to or even onto the green, and take it from there.
Li, runner-up by two shots having matched DJ throughout the first 54 holes, made four eagles in the third round of the tournament. He did so by pitching in from close to the first green, chipping in from 10 yards short of the 10th, holing from six feet after a sumptuous drive at the 17th and making another short putt at the 18th. Four eagles in a round is exceptionally rare; it's rarer still to collect them without really making a putt.
Indeed, it could have been five had a 35-foot eagle attempt not slid by at the fourth, and Li was a few yards short of driving the seventh green, settling for birdies on both. Yes, he was alone in picking up eight shots in just four holes, but he was not alone in his approach: smash the driver, clip it on, and make the simplest of birdies - if not better.
It's this which makes Johnson, rather than Koepka, the man to beat, and he's tempting at 15/2. While down to fifth in the world owing to a poor end to last season, he was better at the Presidents Cup following surgery, and seventh place in the Tournament of Champions was a decent introduction to 2020.
As with his sparring partner, there are two ways to view that performance: Johnson was close enough to the leaders having required no fewer than six penalty drops, which is promising. Then again, he needed six penalty drops because of six abysmal drives.
Ultimately, there will be better times to back the big two here, when their form and fitness does not need to be taken on trust, and in an attempt to get them beaten I'll side with two who nearly managed it last year - TOM LEWIS and MIN WOO LEE.
Lewis played very nicely last week, producing his personal best in the Dubai Desert Classic to strengthen an already excellent record in the desert, where he's spent so many winters practicing.
Third place behind Lucas Herbert, playing in some of the worst conditions, was a big step up from a missed cut on his return in Abu Dhabi - Lewis later confessed that after a successful 2019, he'd been sure to spend as much time celebrating with family as he could over Christmas.
Now that the rust has been shaken off with a severe test at the Emirates, he can step up again returned to conditions more to his liking. Ever since emerging on the scene with that remarkable Portugal Masters win in 2011, one he repeated in 2018, Lewis has been at his best under resort conditions, where he can launch those long, high drives and pick up shots without having to dazzle on the greens.
That was the case here last year - he was second in strokes-gained tee-to-green and 20th in putting - and with his European Tour formline reading 5-8-32-13-6-MC-3 since winning the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, he's entitled to approach this task with confidence.
Juggling cards on the European and PGA Tours isn't easy, and Lewis will face challenges when he heads back to the US after this, but the hope is he can do so having locked up his Masters place. That's top of his agenda right now having never played Augusta, and at 50th in the world he's never been in a better position to get the job done.
Lee, meanwhile, is in a slightly more precarious spot, after a miscalculation meant he missed out on his full card for 2020 having believed he'd secured it playing on invites.
The Australian, a former amateur star, will still have plenty of opportunities but this is his first start in the Middle East, whereas had he earned full status he'd have been able to pick and choose between Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and this week's event.
Saudi Arabia would've been top of his list regardless, as the youngster fired a pair of brilliant weekend 63s here last year to finish fourth in what was just his second start as a professional.
He led the field in driving distance in an early demonstration of his awesome potential, and while there were of courses periods of inconsistency as he found his feet, come the end of 2019 he was playing to that kind of level on a regular basis.
In just 21 events as a professional, Lee has hit the frame five times, and three of those can be found across his last half-dozen starts. He is getting better and better, and his ball-striking when third behind Adam Scott before Christmas and 15th in South Africa in January very much caught the eye.
Speaking of Scott, since he won the Australian PGA Championship, there have been further victories for Cameron Smith, Wade Ormsby, Marc Leishman and Lucas Herbert. Being Australian wasn't the primary factor in any of these triumphs, but with the ongoing havoc back home and their peers going in, you can be sure some of these were edged on towards success, Smith and Herbert gaining their breakthroughs in really tenacious fashion.
Lee has the potential to go on and carry the torch for Australian golf, his modern, power-packed game ideal for the way the sport is going, and his fearlessness was on full display here 12 months ago. I see no reason he can't produce something very similar and perhaps even land his first piece of silverware as a professional.
Martin Kaymer and Mike Lorenzo Vera have been striking the ball with real authority and merit close inspection, but that leaderboard from last year compels me to make this a one-dimensional preview - hence powerhouse Adri Arnaus was more tempting.
In to 60/1 from last week's 100/1, I just have too much of a nagging worry over the Spaniard's putting, which didn't matter so much under the tough conditions in Dubai but still ultimately cost him his first victory at this level.
As such, I'll take a slightly bigger price about a much more convincing putter in GAVIN GREEN.
This Malaysian has been regularly hinting that his turn is close over the last year or so, and no doubt has taken some inspiration from the continued success of college team-mate Victor Perez as he spies a breakthrough.
He's put together back-to-back top-30 finishes in high-class Middle East events, having been 15th in South Africa before that, and in general terms he's been performing well since three top-10 finishes in four starts last summer.
Go back further, and this massive hitter was 11th in the inaugural Saudi International, ranking third in distance and fifth in greens as he took to this risk-reward course which very much suits his aggressive style of play.
For all his power, Green is also an excellent putter - he ranked ninth last season and is fifth so far this - so he has the ideal game for this and he's playing really well, too.
While Royal Greens is less established than the two courses which have hosted the last two events, it's built in a similar mould and, as ever, any player on the radar for Abu Dhabi or Dubai has to be considered once again here.
If anything, I expect Abu Dhabi to prove the better form guide - conditions were easier and the course more scoreable than Sunday's grind in the sandstorms - and in that spirit I'll give SAM HORSFIELD another try at 125/1.
Horsfield actually made a bright start in Dubai, but the wheels came off late in round two and he missed the cut for the first time since last summer, having been a constant presence since taking third place in the Czech Masters.
That was one of the most power-packed leaderboards of the year, along with the Saudi International where he finished 32nd, and Horsfield's game is similar to that of Green as they blast away and rely on their putters when those inevitable foul balls arrive.
Horsfield was an excellent 12th in Abu Dhabi, which came after he'd been second at halfway in the SA Open, so for all he'll have been disappointed with last week's performance his overall form remains very strong.
On closer inspection, he simply had two very bad days with the putter, which can happen to anyone on fast, firm greens with the wind whipping through the trees, so with his long-game in shape he could do some real damage here.
Is it even a European Tour betting preview if you don't mention Thomas Pieters? Probably not, so that's done while I even considered Phil Mickelson here, as I think should everyone at 80/1. Granted, Mickelson hasn't done anything so far in 2020, but I'm not convinced he's a totally spent force and he could chip and pitch his way to a few cheap birdies here - enough, perhaps, to at least make the weekend.
However, I think there's plenty of scope for a big-hitter at an even bigger price to go very close here so I'll sign off with DEAN BURMESTER, who stands out at anything in excess of 100/1.
Though yet to win outside of South Africa, where he took the Tshwane Open for a European Tour victory in 2017, Burmester's best form away from his homeland has all come in the Middle East. He's been fourth twice in the DP World Tour Championship, he's been seventh in Abu Dhabi, and then last week he had every chance as he added another top-10.
"I don't know what it is about the Middle East, I obviously like it a lot and I think I just see the greens and the lines pretty well," he said in Dubai, where a nasty car crash during the event left him feeling fortunate to escape along with his family.
Burmester led the field in driving distance and ranked sixth in greens, these easier conditions should suit, and on the evidence of last year's final leaderboard this might be the most power-friendly course of all those he's grown fond of in this part of the world.
The price on offer reflects the fact he failed to show any kind of affection for Royal Greens last year, but it was on those greens that he really struggled, losing a whopping seven shots over two rounds. Last week, he ranked second in that department and the putter has been a weapon for quite some time now.
Callum Shinkwin was tempting at a whopping 400/1 - he has the ability and the game for this - as were Scottish duo Connor Syme and Grant Forrest at about half that, but I'm happy with the above squad of obvious outsiders, Lewis aside, against a trio of Americans each with something to prove.
- Lewis, Lee, Green, Horsfield or Burmester to win - 11/1
- Any of the five selections to finish T5 or better - 2/1
- Any two of the five to finish T5 or better - 20/1
- Any three of the five to finish T5 or better - 200/1
- Any four of the five to finish T20 or better - 40/1
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Posted at 1820 GMT on 27/01/20
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