Ben Coley expects Thomas Pieters and protege Thomas Detry to launch a strong Belgian assault on the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau venture over to the Middle East for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, as the European Tour takes centre stage in the world of golf.
But it's a European, Tommy Fleetwood, who many will see as the man to beat, having twice won this title before and signed off 2019 with an overdue victory in the Nedbank Challenge followed by second place to Jon Rahm in the DP World Tour Championship.
With Rahm and Rory McIlroy absent, there's no doubting who is the pick of the home team here and Fleetwood is entitled to be vying for favouritism, which he currently shares with Cantlay at around the 10/1 mark.
Assessing these high-class PGA Tour players when they jet in is not easy. Last year, DeChambeau won in Dubai before Dustin Johnson dominated in Saudi Arabia, but in this event they've so often been vulnerable. Johnson finished second to Fleetwood and flattered to deceive on all three visits, with Phil Mickelson and McIlroy also coming up just shy behind Pablo Larrazabal.
At least Cantlay, who was fourth in the Tournament of Champions a fortnight ago, arrives sharp. This cocksure Californian, who could have chosen to play in his home state this week, should find this American-style course to his liking and while this is his European Tour debut outside of the Open, he's among the best and most reliable players on earth, wherever it is he's playing.
He's the pick of the three, with Koepka back from injury and DeChambeau spending a little too much time in the gym - when he isn't streaming himself playing computer games online. An opening 64 here as an amateur in 2016 gives DeChambeau some course form, but he was a bystander at the Presidents Cup, poor in the Hero World Challenge before that, and was in much better form when winning last February.
My feeling is that the European Tour will hold sway, with any number of candidates offering compelling credentials. Nobody played better without winning in 2019 than Matt Fitzpatrick, Shane Lowry's warm-up in Hong Kong last week puts him at an advantage, and Louis Oosthuizen brings to the table a straightforward blend of current and course form which appears to almost guarantee a big run at 16/1.
Oosthuizen would get the vote having done little wrong last week but at twice that price, my preference is for THOMAS PIETERS, who could be set for a lucrative 2020 having laid the foundations for it from last summer onward.
Doubtless infuriating at times, Pieters held things together well to win his second Czech Masters title in Prague and from that point on demonstrated a level of calm and perseverance seldom seem from him before, grinding out a couple of weekend tee-times when his game wasn't quite there.
From August to December, the Belgian made 11 cuts in 11, only twice finishing outside the top 30, and this despite problems with the putter. Come the end of the season, he ranked second in strokes-gained tee-to-green on the European Tour, his prodigious length complemented by the best run of world-class approach play he's produced in his entire career.
He does need to find something on the greens to realise his full potential, but as demonstrated in the Czech Republic his long game is good enough to win titles without making much. He ranked 52nd in putting there, losing strokes to the field, and yet was able to edge to victory on a golf course set up for the longest hitters on the circuit.
Abu Dhabi hasn't traditionally been all about thrashing it off the tee, but this year could be a little different. There's been some seriously foul whether in the Middle East over the last fortnight, with flooding across the region, and even a modern, world-class venue like this will struggle to get that moisture from the turf.
Not that Pieters hasn't thrived here on a more level playing field should that prove to be the case. He made just one bogey through the first 54 holes when fifth in 2018, and back in 2016 was a tenacious runner-up to Fowler to start his Ryder Cup push, something he'll be looking to repeat here. In total, six visits have yielded three top-five finishes, and last year's 16th place was another excellent display.
Pieters has been warming up in Dubai, where he was sixth in the DP World Tour Championship in November, and will be licking his lips at the prospect of returning to this course after significant rain. "We hit driver wherever we can," he said a couple of years back when asked to explain why he likes it here, and his advantage may be further enhanced this time.
The golden rule with Rolex Series events is to focus on the front of the market. Since its creation in 2017, this collection of high-calibre, big-money events has been dominated by a select few, with only rare exceptions. Brandon Stone's victory in the Scottish Open stands out, but links golf is always more likely to throw up something strange, and elsewhere the best players on the circuit have dominated.
Abu Dhabi, to some extent, remains a slight unknown in that regard, as it was only last year the event had its status boosted. Yes, Shane Lowry won, and yes he was high-class even before going on to land the Open, but he was not one of the favourites - and neither was runner-up Richard Sterne.
It's that likelihood of competitive rust which means we should be open-minded, but where SERGIO GARCIA is concerned there's plenty of form in the book which tells us he goes very well fresh.
Since the turn of the century, Garcia has won twice on his annual return and bagged a whopping 13 further top-20 finishes, and while more recently he's been starting in calmer waters, not always has that been true. It stands to reason that one of the most naturally gifted players in the sport might find his A-game easier to come by after a break, which in and of itself might help a player prone to mental lapses.
That's all a little speculative, but what isn't is his course record which shows six top-20 finishes from six starts. Down the road in the Dubai Desert Classic he's been first and third over the last three years, he has three top-10 finishes in a row in the DP World Tour Championship, and he's also a winner of the Qatar Masters.
Despite not being at his best in 2019, the Spaniard added more silverware to his collection in the KLM Open, and he tied for sixth with Pieters in the Race to Dubai finale, too. Once all the numbers were added up, he ranked first for strokes-gained tee-to-green, ahead of Pieters and Fleetwood, and for all that he went through fallow periods by the end of the year his game appeared in good health.
Missing the cut in Australia wasn't ideal but it's a long flight and perhaps his heart wasn't in it, whereas resuming here in a Rolex Series event, at the start of a Ryder Cup year, ought to guarantee his focus. And yes, I can't let his 40th birthday at the start of January pass by without mention - there are many examples of players conjuring something more for hitting this milestone and realising that they need to knuckle down and make the most of the final phase of their career at this level.
Fleetwood twice won this title by pounding greens in regulation, and Garcia led the field in greens hit when third on his debut here way back in 2006. He's a prime candidate to again find upwards of 80 per cent and on a lush, lengthy course, his ball-striking can take him a long way towards what would be a 17th European Tour title. He's won at least one piece of silverware every year since 2011.
The final thing to say regarding his chance is that winners here have so often been brilliant links or wind-golf exponents. Lowry, Fowler, Fleetwood, Donaldson, Rock, even Chris DiMarco - these are players who've all won or gone close on a UK links and wind has been a consistent factor here in the past, just as it tends to be in Doha.
Garcia is up there with the best links golfers of his generation and, at 40/1, I can't help but feel his chances here have been underestimated. He's quoted at the same odds as Robert MacIntyre, who didn't touch a club at all in December owing to an ongoing hand injury which a specialist told him absolutely needed rest. For my money, Garcia is alongside Pieters in being one of the biggest threats to those priced between 10 and 20/1 and should be backed accordingly.
Next on the list is MARTIN KAYMER, a three-time course winner who could just rekindle those glory days now Craig Connelly is back on the bag.
Kaymer has been immensely frustrating since spurning a 10-shot lead here in 2015, and for many patience wears thin. Gladly, the two-time major champion is prepared to wait for good things to happen, and said here last year that rather than set goals for 2019, he was working on a two-year timescale with a return to the Ryder Cup at the forefront of his mind along with the Tokyo Olympics.
At present he's on course to represent Germany in Japan, but the Ryder Cup requires much more and I remain of the belief that a player of his undoubted class is more than capable of doing what he needs to do. Rewind to last year, and Graeme McDowell - another former US Open winner - started out with a clear goal in mind, to make the Open Championship. He did it, and that speaks to the value of having something beyond the scorecard in your hand to focus on.
Kaymer ended his 2019 at the Nedbank Challenge, where he was let down badly by the putter in 21st place. A few weeks earlier, he did everything well for fifth in France, an event he's won before, and if he can bring similar play to Abu Dhabi - the course he calls his favourite - then a big run at the title is expected.
As well as winning this three times in four years, during which he also finished second, Kaymer has been third, fourth and sixth, and in 12 starts since an inauspicious debut he's missed one cut. All his other visits have been solid - 31st place or better - and last year he ranked second for greens hit to again underline just how comfortable he is around here.
"Some golf courses, you need to work to shoot four- or five-under," he said in 2017. "The golf course for me doesn't feel like I need to do a lot of special things in order to play well."
Remember, that collapse which handed the title to Stal was made remarkable by the play which preceded it. Kaymer had reached 23-under through 58 holes, making birdie at 25 of them, in an exhibition of front-running brilliance just like that of the previous summer's US Open. No doubt, what followed left deep wounds, but so much of what he did last year suggests they are finally healing and I don't think there's much if any doubt that he will be winning again.
All the form is in the book - hence the 70/1 opening show being gobbled up - but it's those motivating factors and the return of the caddie with whom he reached the top of the sport which really pique my interest. Kaymer goes in at 50/1, considered fully capable of laying some ghosts to rest on Sunday.
Going back to some of those more surprising wins, and it's notable that Stal, Rock and Donaldson had all shaken off the rust - especially Rock, who managed to squeeze in two starts in South Africa before fending off Tiger Woods and co here in 2012. Stal had just been fifth in the SA Open, and Donaldson had also played well there.
It's definitely to their advantage that Lowry, Oosthuizen and Branden Grace both played and contended last week, and there's a chance that someone like Tapio Pulkkanen pops up in the frame having played in the SA Open, too. The big-hitting Finn has the tools for this test and will catch many an eye in the first-round leader market, where Grant Forrest and Richard Bland should also be considered.
I'll stick to something a little more sensible from the also-rans at Randpark, with THOMAS DETRY capable of joining his World Cup team-mate Pieters in launching a bid for what would be his first European Tour title.
Detry really began to flourish towards the end of last year, finishing eighth in France, third in the Nedbank, fourth in Mauritius and then second in Thailand, when unfortunate to bump into a flying Jazz Janewattananond as he sealed the Asian Tour Order of Merit.
It's clear that he's among the most likely candidates to get off the mark in the early part of 2020, and last week's top-30 finish in Johannesburg was a nice way to get ready for this with his iron play and putting offering real encouragement.
Detry mentioned in his blog that staying sharp in Thailand and South Africa with a view to starting the year strongly was very much part of the plan, and he's entitled to come on again at a course where he finished ninth on debut two years ago.
He's preferred to Victor Perez, who is probably still a little underestimated by the layers compared to Matthias Schwab and the aforementioned MacIntyre. The Frenchman has some strong Middle East form of his own but I'm a little concerned he's not played since November and for that reason alone he's overlooked.
The same is true of ADRI ARNAUS, but at twice the price I'm willing to chance him each-way.
Arnaus won his sole Challenge Tour title in the UAE and was 22nd here last year, an excellent effort in what was just his fourth European Tour event as a full member.
He ranked first in strokes-gained off-the-tee in a field packed with great drivers, an indication of where his strengths lie, and with 14th place in Qatar and a solid 28th in the DP World Tour Championship now also in the form book, he's beginning to show that this style of course suits just as well as you'd think.
That rainfall I mentioned earlier is in favour of one of the longest hitters in the field and he doesn't lack for ambition, using his friend Rahm as his inspiration as he spies a bid for Race to Dubai glory this year.
Arnaus has taken significant steps towards achieving his goals and they include moving to Dubai, which mitigates concerns over rust, and while he'd be a surprising winner it wouldn't shock anyone were he in the mix if this does turn into a slugfest.
Others of note include Romain Langasque, who ranked 14th last season in total strokes-gained on the European Tour. That should tell you he remains a player to keep on the right side of, whatever happens this week. Kalle Samooja, meanwhile, caught the eye with his ball-striking more than once and might pick up a small event in the coming months.
However, RYAN FOX is preferred having appeared at every corner when analysing this event.
First and foremost, he's played here three times without missing a cut and clearly likes the layout. On debut, the New Zealander ranked fourth for greens hit, a category in which he was 11th last year, and on all three visits he's been second in driving distance to underline how much the rain will have suited him.
He's not quite put it all together to threaten to win, but 19-32-27 is a form line which tells you how close he's been - and the way he played towards the end of last year suggests he could be ready to get inside the top 10.
Fox also has a strong book of form in the Open de France, which provides a curious but very strong correlation with this through Larrazabal, Lowry, Fleetwood, Donaldson, Kaymer and many more besides. Fox has been sixth, 44th and 18th there, the latter coming despite a poor putting display back in October.
Links form? He has that, too, courtesy of four top-six finishes from just six starts across the Scottish and Irish Opens. That in turn means he's contended for Rolex Series events in the past, and having won last February he's no longer one of the best maidens around.
Fox also has evidence of more good golf in the desert - he was sixth in the inaugural Saudi International - and he begins this new decade on the front foot having won the Order of Merit in Australia in December, which in turn means rust is less of a worry.
At 150/1, he's more than capable of forcing his way into contention.
Posted at 1805 GMT on 13/01/20.
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