2pts each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 14/1
2pts each-way Rory McIlroy @ 6/1
1pt each-way Lee Westwood @ 33/1
1pt each-way Matt Fitzpatrick @ 14/1
0.5pt each-way Martin Kaymer @ 33/1
0.5pt each-way Sami Valimaki @ 40/1
European Tour 2021 bursts into action with a smash-bang-wallop Abu Dhabi Championship featuring superstars Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy and a dazzling supporting cast headed by last year’s winner, the ageless Lee Westwood.
Getting up for Sky’s 3.30am first-day coverage of this elite Rolex Series supershow on Thursday is the least appealing aspect of it but if you want to beat the bookies you have to know as much as them, if not more.
If that means setting the alarm and arming yourself with every available bit of up-to-date, on-the-spot info about weather, how the 7600-yard par 72 course is playing, and what the likely contenders are saying about their preparation, then so be it. Making money is never easy.
In 2006 Abu Dhabi was the third Gulf state, after Dubai and Qatar, to join the Desert Swing and now there are five of them, Oman (2018) and Saudi Arabia (2019) having joined the party much more recently.
The Saudi sheiks are making up for lost time by spending the most money – world No. 1 and Masters champion Dustin Johnson, charismatic US Open star Bryson DeChambeau and vintage legend Phil Mickelson are just three of the treats they have in store next month – but for now Abu Dhabi has the honour of being first off the tee.
McIlroy backers will be encouraged for knowing Rory has spent two weeks in Dubai getting his game shipshape. He has plenty of scores to settle with Abu Dhabi where he has never won yet has irritatingly been runner-up on four occasions, in 2011-12-14-15, as well as finishing third to Tommy Fleetwood in 2018.
Three of those defeats came at the hands of golfers who, with all due respect, he should have wiped the floor with, Robert Rock, Pablo Larrazabal and the little-known 2015 champion Gary Stal who won’t be forgotten or forgiven by McIlroy backers.
Although he went winless through a chaotic 2020, there was a serenity about Rory towards the end of his campaign, after he had become a new Dad at the end of August, that augurs well for a fifth Major ending up in the happy McIlroy household.
I’d be backing Rory ahead of Thomas who is seeing Abu Dhabi for the first time and has been getting a bad Press for an expletive disrespectful to the gay community as he came off the green after missing a short putt on the third day at Kapalua.
He still finished third and has spent much time since apologising but winning on a first visit requires full-on concentration. He has a good mind and may well add his name to previous American imports Rickie Fowler and Chris DiMarco but, all in all, Rory looks better value.
Both 6-1 shots may be foiled by Fleetwood, something of a course specialist as champion in 2017 (beating the redoubtable DJ) and 2018 as well as being joint runner-up to Westwood last year.
After that fine start, the long-haired Southport star’s subsequently disappointing 2020 is the reason he’s more than twice the odds of the two favourites but he starts 2021 with a clean slate and a fresh mind for the job. I can see Fleetwood, like Westwood a great supporter of European golf, winning here and the Race To Dubai.
At 47, Westwood’s triumph was totally deserved as he gave the tour’s inspired post-lockdown British spin more support than any of the other marquee names. He will be standing on the first tee with far more confidence than he did 12 months ago and there is no reason, apart from the added burden of defending a title, for him to fear anybody.
Matt Fitzpatrick, winner of the Tour Championship in Dubai on his last outing in December, also has to be shortlisted. That was a belated first victory of 2020 and he has strong course credentials – third in 2018 and joint second last year.
There was a time when Martin Kaymer “owned” Abi Dhabi. In the four-year spell from 2008-11 the German played 16 rounds in an amazing 80 under par in racking up three wins and a close second to Paul Casey. In 2011 he destroyed McIlroy by eight.
That year he became world No. 1 for eight months but it came too soon and it consumed him because he never truly believed he was. He changed his swing to equip himself for the Masters where he had always performed dismally and “it was the worst thing I could have done”.
The relationship with Abu Dhabi became bitter-sweet in 2015 when he led by TEN with 13 to play and contrived to get beaten. His nerve went and has never fully returned. His last victory came in the 2014 US Open when his nerve was not tested because he won by eight.
In 2019 he led Memorial by four with 12 to play and managed to blow that. Last year he led the U.K. Championship at The Belfry with two to play but bogeyed the par-five 17th and didn’t even make the play-off. Another big opportunity was squandered at the Andalucia Masters.
So why am I putting him up as a 33-1 each-way play today? Well, the quality of his shot-making is sublime and the fragility of his chipping can be masked on a course where he broke into the big-time in 2008 and has adorned since. If Kaymer is ever to win again in top company, it will surely be in Abu Dhabi.
Tyrrell Hatton and Justin Rose – the latter returning to live in the U.K. at 40 after a decade in the States and a declining game that has seen him drop out of the world elite – could get in the mix and the best outsider may be the exciting young Finn Sami Valimaki.
The Rookie of the Year won on only his sixth start in Oman and further demonstrated his love of desert golf by taking fifth place at the all-star Tour Championship in Dubai on his most recent outing last month.
1.5pts each-way Adam Hadwin @ 50/1
1.5pts each-way Abraham Ancer @ 28/1
1pt each-way Scottie Scheffler @ 16/1
1pt each-way Hudson Swafford @ 150/1
1pt each-way Matt Wolff @ 22/1
Spain’s Jon Rahm, the warm early favourite for this week’s PGA Tour offering, The American Express, has withdrawn – no reason given – leaving the event wide open with Patrick Cantlay the new market leader at 12-1.
Longshots Adam Long and Andrew Landry have won the last two renewals and it could well be another outsider this year in Canadian Adam Hadwin. Without Rahm around, 50-1 looks a big price for a guy with his La Quinta record.
Because of Covid, it is different tournament to the normal big pro-am, the early-year jamboree we used affectionately to call the Bob Hope Desert Classic.
This year it is pro-only and played over just two desert courses rather than three at La Quinta, California. And the title ensures the sponsors get their money’s worth in the media as the name is the entire title!
The Stadium course and the Nicklaus course at PGA West are the ones being used in this one-off. The ams will be back in 2022.
Both Long and Landry shot 26 under (and have done precious little since) so a feast of birdies can be confidently predicted although it will be cooler than normal on the west coast and there’s some rain around on Friday. Also bear in mind that the absence of amateurs means there will be no need for “easy” pin positions to flatter them.
The value of past course form is slightly dubious as, without amateurs, the tournament will be played at an entirely different pace. Given that proviso, this will be mainly a putting contest and on tournament form Hadwin who went 6-2–3-2 here between 2016-19 rates a big shout.
The fact that Hadwin hasn’t had a top-five finish since July is off-putting. Hence the big price. But don’t be put off. That stellar La Quinta record has to rekindle confidence.
Monster hitter Matt Wolff will turn these two resort courses into pitch-and-putt and has to be considered as he’s a streak putter who can make birdie after birdie. So does Sunday’s 60-1 Waialae winner Kevin Na who ran third in this in 2016.
Maybe Mexico’s Abraham Ancer will make his overdue breakthrough here – he was second 12 months ago – while Scottie Scheffler is another desperate to break his duck and is playing well enough to do so. He was third, one behind Ancer, last year.
Hudson Swafford, the 2017 La Quinta winner, popped up again in September to win the Corales in the Dominican Republic and posted four solid rounds of 68 or less in Hawaii last week. He is worth an interest too despite being a 150-1 shot.
Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Cantlay have obvious chances and it is only two years since Phil Mickelson finished joint second. Not a tournament to have a confident punt in because of the change in format.
2pts each-way Nelly Korda @ 15/2
1pt each-way Austin Ernst @ 12/1
0.5pt each-way Jasmine Suwannapura @ 50/1
Canadians could also well be in the mix in the other two tournaments this week. Brooke Henderson is 5-1 favourite for the LPGA version of the Tournament of Champions being played at the Diamonds resort in Orlando, Florida.
This is a colourful part of Sky’s golfing triple-header as there are celebrities joining in the fun. It is a 72-holer on a 6651-yard par 71 layout for players who have won in the last two years but there’s no sign of the world’s top three Ko, Kim and Park.
Gaby Lopez was a surprise winner last year and if there is to be a turn-up, Jasmine Suwannapura might be the one at 50-1, a good price with only 24 to beat. The Thai, a two-time LPGA winner, impressed when runner-up at the British Open at Troon.
My main fancies are Americans. Nelly Korda, third here two years ago and a triple winner since including once in Europe, is a better golfer now and last year’s Walmart winner Austin Ernst finished her campaign strongly with seventh at the Tour Championship.
2pts each-way Mike Weir @ 22/1
2pts win Jim Furyk @ 100/30
There might be another Canadian winner in the Mitsubishi Electric in Hawaii, the senior equivalent of the Tournament of Champions which we saw in the 50th State on the main tour a couple of weeks back.
I never thought I would ever be backing 2003 Masters hero Mike Weir again as his game had become embarrassing on the main tour.
But the over-50s circuit has provided a lifeline to this tidy left-hander who posted two eye-catching top-five finishes in September and October in his rookie season, 2020.
Last week he made the cut on the main tour in Hawaii, finishing 47th alongside fellow golden oldie Jim Furyk. Yet when he was a main-tour player for years he couldn’t make a cut for love nor money.
This week he’s a 22-1 shot and Furyk is the 100-30 favourite. I shall be backing both.
Having warmed up nicely in Honolulu, they (and Jerry Kelly) may have an edge on the rest, of whom Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez look the biggest threats.