Sporting Life continues a new series of weekend tipping articles exclusively for our members with Ben Coley's take on the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Ben ended 2021 almost 700 points in profit after a lucrative 2020, with two winners at 150/1 and many more besides ensuring it was another year to remember for his followers.
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2pts Thomas Pieters to win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship at 100/30 (Sky Bet)
Winning professional golf tournaments is extremely difficult, a fact to which Scott Jamieson can attest. Jamieson leads the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a round to go, in what's his 300th start on the tour formerly known as European. It would be his first 72-hole victory and by far the most significant achievement of an excellent career, whose highlight so far is victory in the Nelson Mandela Championship almost a decade ago.
A win is a win, they say, but the Nelson Mandela came with a significant set of caveats. Horrendous weather that week not only reduced the par of the course so significantly that Jamieson shot 66-57 and finished on seven-under, but it meant just those two rounds were required. The likeable Scotsman still gets to call himself a European Tour winner and rightly so, but the play-off he won there is a world away from the challenge he faces on Sunday.
So far he's had all the answers, and yet odds of 9/2 that he converts a one-shot advantage probably won't appeal to many. Not only does Jamieson lack experience in this situation, but when he has faced it, he's struggled. When entering the final round T2 or better he averages 72.77, and if that doesn't sound too bad, note that his average in the third round across these nine events reads 67.11 – more than five strokes lower. What's come easily on Saturday has been hard to find on Sunday.
All three of his solo leads so far came in South Africa, scene of that 2012 success, and he shot rounds of 72, 70, and 72. One of them came in a valuable Rolex Series event at Sun City in 2018, when he fared reasonably well, but the bottom line is he began the day one ahead and ended it three short of the champion. His lead in the 2013 Volvo Golf Champions had been five, and he was beaten by one.
I won't be alone in expecting something similar on Sunday, that is a round in the low 70s which isn't quite enough. Partly that view is shaped by the prize fund, the magnitude of the event, the things we've learned in 299 previous DP World Tour appearances. Mainly, however, it's shaped by the fact he could hardly have asked for a more threatening group of would-be champions staring him down.
OK, Collin Morikawa is well off the pace, and whatever your view on Rory McIlroy, no doubt Jamieson backers are glad these two at least are not involved. But Shane Lowry and THOMAS PIETERS, who share second, are probably the two not-quite-elite (clearly, peak Lowry is elite; he is a major champion) DP World Tour players I'd have most faith in on Sundays.
Pieters has entered round four in first or second eight times at this level, and he's won four of those tournaments. Given that he required a couple of sighters early in his career, a better reflection of his final-round prowess can be found in the fact he's four-from-six since. Adding the time he contended in a WGC on US soil, he's been in this kind of situation eight times, and only on his first try, at a tough course in Spain when still a rookie, has he failed to break par.
Most golf followers find Pieters a little frustrating, because with his swing and his power and his ice-cold-killer performance at the 2016 Ryder Cup, he hasn't quite met his potential. But one thing he has done reliably is produce the goods when he's had a chance to win. With the longer-shafted putter he's carrying seemingly having bedded in well, and with fresh memories of having won the Portugal Masters late last year, he has an excellent chance.
Choosing between Pieters and Lowry isn't easy, and evens the two is a tempting way to go. However, just as was the case in the first of two previous editions of this column, the favourite with a round to go is already on-side via our pre-tournament preview. Lowry was advised at 25/1 and, despite missing a host of short putts during the week and then riding his luck on the 18th hole on Saturday, he's bang in the mix.
Lowry's record is similar to that of Pieters, if statistically just a little less impressive. He's three from eight in this position but has converted his last two leads, first in this tournament and then at the Open Championship, in impressive fashion. The frustration since Portrush has been that too often he's been on the fringes at this stage, rather than in the mix, which is where he plays much of his best golf. Pieters might have the stats edge, but Lowry has both a major and a World Golf Championship, not to mention an Irish Open, on his CV.
Indeed Lowry reminds me of his friend, mentor and Ryder Cup captain, Padraig Harrington, in some respects. Both will confess to occasionally lacking the necessary focus for the week-to-week grind, but when they're in with a chance, they tend not to fail for the feelings associated with being there. Lowry can be trusted to stand tall on Sunday and I'll be disappointed if he doesn't go close.
Picking between the two wouldn't be easy, but Pieters is a bigger price and Lowry is a great result, so the decision is made. Those without a pre-tournament position should consider splitting stakes between the two or else making their own determination as to which of these Ryder Cup players they'd rather have batting for them. I really do find them difficult to split.
The elephant in the room is Viktor Hovland, who missed several good birdie chances late on in round three and made a big mistake on the 18th hole, three-putting from no distance to drop a shot. Given that Lowry looked like he'd hit his second into water but walked off with par, and Hovland appeared set to birdie but instead made bogey, it could prove a significant swing in terms of the outcome of the tournament.
Three shots is of course a gap Hovland can bridge and some will consider it to be two, but he's handed daylight to those ahead of him and in Lowry and Pieters, he faces two players I don't see backing down. Perhaps significantly, he's also away from the final group, and Lowry and Pieters had a ball playing together on Saturday. With enough of a breeze to keep a lid on scoring, my expectation is that something in the region of 68 from either man will do it and it should be great viewing regardless.
With such a fascinating tournament to enjoy I will confess to having found little enthusiasm for a proper look at the final-round three-balls, but it's not difficult to envisage Andrea Pavan struggling now a welcome cheque is in sight, and taking him on with either Charl Schwartzel or Robert Rock makes some sense.
Pavan's last top-10 finish came late in 2019, when on the fringes of the world's top 50. Since then his ranking has plummeted to 1664th, as dramatic a fall as you're likely to see in the timeframe, and his destructive driving saw him miss 14 of 19 cuts last year. He withdrew from two other tournaments and was disqualified from another.
Pavan has now failed to make the weekend in 28 of his last 30 starts and it's very early days if this is indeed the start of a comeback. That said, his driving stats – though still poor and getting worse with each round – are better this week, and he's actually ahead of Schwartzel, albeit because the South African had a nightmare third round. He'd still be favourite in a strokes-gained head-to-head and considerably so.
All this established, while focus is on the top of the leaderboard, I would encourage those looking at their phones for more detail to instead hope that Pavan does indeed finish things off, and that two years' worth of torment are coming to an end. Perhaps the Italian can secure his first top-10 finish since 2019 on the day Lowry secures his first win since the same summer, but at the prices a cover shot on Pieters is the only play.
Posted at 1455 GMT on 22/01/22
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