2015 got off to a bang on the European Tour last week, as we were in South Africa for the The South African Open Championship, which ended in dramatic fashion.
Charl Schwartzel, one of the pre-tournament favourites led the event after 54 holes, holding a five-shot lead and we looked set for a fairly boring Sunday, as it looked like Schwartzel had the event all but wrapped up.
Even with just five holes to go on Sunday, it still looked as though Schwartzel had the event won, as he still had a five-shot lead, despite not playing well throughout the round.
His bad shots finally caught up with him, and he threw away that lead, finally dropping to -11, which Andy Sullivan was already in the clubhouse with. The two went back to the 18th for the first play-off hole, and once again Schwartzel missed the fairway, by some margin and so did Sullivan.
Schwartzel had to chip out, whilst Sullivan found the green with a wonderful second shot out the trees. That looked game, set and match until Schwartzel put his 3rd in tight, putting pressure on Sullivan once again. Sullivan holed his putt for birdie, and claimed his maiden victory, denying Schwartzel of his home title.
On to this week, and we leave South Africa behind, and start the Middle-Eastern swing. First up is the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
This is one of the more prestigious events on the European Tour, and as a result we tend to see one of the strongest fields of the season, and this year is no exception. This week both the World No.1 and No.2 are in the field as both Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson tee it up, and will head the betting.
As well as the top European Tour players, we normally see a top player from the PGA Tour make the trip, with Phil Mickelson playing and finishing tied 2nd here last year, and Tiger Woods coming here in 2013, finishing a disappointing 71st after finishing tied 3rd in 2012. This year it is Rickie Fowler who represents the USA, and he will be keen to get another win under his belt.
Fowler was very impressive in 2014 finishing in the top-5 of all four majors, but yet again failed to add another win to his collection and for all his talent, two wins worldwide is not enough for a player of his calibre. He has moved into the Top-10 of the Official World Golf Rankings, and he will no doubt have his sights set on a multiple win season in 2015, and this would be a great place to start.
Last season we saw Spain’s, Pablo Larrazabal pick up his 3rd European Tour win, and his first since 2011, fighting off some top competition in the process.
Both Larrazabal and Rory McIlroy started round 3, three shots behind 54-hole leader, Craig Lee and one behind Gaganjeet Bhullar and Phil Mickelson but both would be heavily involved on Sunday.
Larrazabal shot a final round 67 (-5) in order to beat both McIlroy and Mickelson by one shot. Larrazabal put his approach shot on the 18th to four feet, and had to make it to avoid a play-off which he managed, to secure his best win to date.
Rory McIlroy is in much better form than he was coming into this event last year, as we all know all too well and the World No.1 will be hoping to finally win this event, after finishing 2nd here in 3 of the last four years, and also 3rd and 5th before that. Rory has played here seven times, missed the cut just once and finished no lower than 11th when he has made the weekend, so he will be a worthy favourite this week.
Abu Dhabi GC stretches over 7,600 yards, but Driving Distance won’t necessarily be a big factor this week. Larrazabal who won here last year, ranked 19th in Driving Distance and unsurprisingly runner-up, McIlroy ranked 1st, but George Coetzee who finished 4th ranked 30th and Joost Luiten who finished 6th ranked 57th so you don’t need to be a bomber off the tee to get round this course.
It’s hard to identify one key statistic that stands out this week, as when you look at the numbers from last year, nothing particularly stands out. Hitting greens in regulation and making your fair share of putts will be as important as ever, and the fairways are fairly narrow so a good all-round game will be necessary this week.
There are water hazards on holes, 4, 6, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 17 and 18 so players will want to avoid these, in order to keep a good round going.
The 18th tee has changed this year, moving to the left and now elevated, making the hole five metres shorter, but making it a straighter tee shot.
Rory McIlroy – 9/2
Henrik Stenson – 11/1
Justin Rose – 11/1
Rickie Fowler – 14/1
Martin Kaymer – 16/1
All five of the above players deserve to be in this position in the betting, with Fowler being the only one to not at least finish runner-up at this event in the past, and that is because he hasn’t played here.
McIlroy has three runner-up finishes, Stenson has two back in 2006 and 2008, and Rose finished 2nd here on his only start in 2013. The outsider of the five is Martin Kaymer, who has three wins and a runner-up finish here, and with him finding some of the best form of his career in 2014, it will be interesting to see how he starts 2015.
Thanks to the strength of the field, there is some great value to be had especially further down the market, and although these five will be hard to beat, it can be done, as proved by the likes of Pablo Larrazabal, Jamie Donaldson and Robert Rock in the last three years.
Whilst these players are all good players in their own right, they had to fight off some top competition, including the likes of McIlroy, Mickelson and Woods and there’s no reason why a player further down the market can’t come out on top once again.
With all this in mind, here are my selections for the 2015 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
Thorbjorn Olesen 45/1 (StanJames) 1pt e/w: Thorbjorn Olesen has struggled with consistency, since his breakout year on the European Tour in 2012, but he keeps reminding us what a great talent he is, and I am hoping he can prove that to us once again this week.
Olesen grabbed his second European Tour win last October, when he held of Victor Dubuisson to win the Perth International by three shots.
He fell behind by one shot at the end of the second round, but other than that led the tournament the whole way, after an impressive opening round of -8.
This win came after a rather below par run of form, but since his win he has kicked on, and found some consistency, including a T6 finish at the WGC-HSBC Champions event, and also a T12 finish at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship.
Despite not playing his best, week in week out on the European Tour in 2014 he only missed one cut, therefore continually giving himself a chance to improve his finishing position and of course his prize money each week.
Olesen has played here in Abu Dhabi on three occasions, and twice finished inside the top-10 so it looks as though he has a certain affinity with the course.
He finished 8th on his debut here in 2012 and followed that up with a runner-up finish in 2013. He finished a disappointing 56th here last year, but then saw out the Middle-East swing with a 3rd place finish at the Qatar Masters and a 5th place finish at the Dubai Desert Classic, so it’s clear he likes the period of the Tour schedule.
From 2012 onwards, Olesen has finished in the top-10 of at least one of these three Middle-east events aforementioned, and at 45/1 I am willing to take a chance that he contends here. If he wins here, his career will take yet another step forward and I believe he has all the qualities to do so.
He has finished in the top-10 of both the Masters (T6 on debut) and the Open Championship (T9 in 2012) so he doesn’t shy away from the big events. Although he came from behind at Augusta and had a great final round to sneak into that sixth place as it were, he certainly looks to flourish on the big stage.
Branden Grace 50/1 (PaddyPower 6 places):
Branden Grace has finally started to find some of his best form again, and he has got his 2015 European Tour season off to the perfect start.
Grace won four events on the European Tour in 2012, and because of that expectations went through the roof. Many were surprised when he went through 2013 without a win, and it looked like he was also going to go another calender year without a win in 2014, until he managed to grab his 5th European Tour win at the Alfed Dunhill Championship in December.
Not only did Grace win the Alfred Dunhill Championship, he dominated it. He won the event by seven strokes, from fellow compatriot, Louis Oosthuizen, helped by an opening round 62.
Grace followed this win up with a T15 finish in his National Open last week, so he looks to be in very steady form of late. He finished in the top-20 of all the final series events he played in, finishing T16 at the BMW Masters, followed by a T19 finish in Turkey before ending the 2014 season on a high, with a top-10 in Dubai.
Now that he seems to be back playing some of his better golf, he is worth a second look at most events, especially when he opens up at 50/1 for the week. This is no small part down to the strength of the field, but Grace is no stranger to playing in big events these days, and the company shouldn’t bother him.
In terms of course form, it’s a mixed bag for him, here in Abu Dhabi but a 5th place finish in 2013 provides some hope, despite missing the cut in 2012 and finishing 52nd here last year.
If he keeps his current form up, we could be looking at another multiple win season for the South African and he won’t be 50/1 many weeks, especially if he performs well again here.
It’s as much the price as it is his form that attracted me this week, and I really think 50/1 is fair about a 5-time European Tour winner, who has finished 1st and 15th in his first two events of the season.
Robert Karlsson 66/1 (General) 1pt e/w: Robert Karlsson had a nice comeback season in 2014, after a couple of years of suffering, and he will take heart from what his fellow Swede, Henrik Stenson has done over the last two seasons.
He managed to post five top-10 finishes in 2014, including a T6 in his last event, the DP World Tour Championship. One of his other top-10’s last year came at this very event, when he finished T8 and hopefully he can build on that this time around.
Karlsson has not missed a cut in seven appearances here, since 2006 and although his top-10 last year was his only one, he has also finished 11th and 14th, so he definitely seems comfortable with this layout.
As a former Order of Merit (Race to Dubai) winner, who has eleven European Tour victories to his name, it’s fair to say Karlsson clearly has what it takes to win, and with him showing glimpses of his best golf again 2014, it would be nice to see him get back in the winner’s circle this year, after a four-year absence. His last win came at the Dubai World Championship in December 2010, and earlier that year he also won the Qatar Masters, so he’s proven he likes this part of the world.
He will be keen to back up a strong season last year with another this term and a win will certainly boost his confidence as he looks to climb the World Rankings once again. Karlsson previously reached a high of 6th in the World Rankings, and for someone who has finished inside the top-10 of every major in his career, his current ranking of 99 is far from ideal.
Given his good form here in the past, and his general good play last year, I thought 66/1 was a good price and hopefully he can continue where he left off, when finishhing strongly in Dubai last month.
Tyrell Hatton 100/1 (Bet365 & Ladbrokes) 0.5pt e/w: Tyrell Hatton had a very good rookie season on the European Tour in 2014, and at 23, Hatton certainly has time on his side to improve on a fantastic start.
Hatton posted five top-10 finishes in his first year on the European Tour, and finished a very respectable 36th in the Race to Dubai, so it will be very interesting to see what he can do, after a full year’s experience under his belt.
Included in those five top-10’s is his runner-up finish at the Joburg Open, where he finished just three shots shy of home winner, George Coetzee. This was just his sixth start on the European Tour in 2014 and that week gave him the belief to finish strongly at other events over the course of the year.
As well as that finish in South Africa, Hatton finished T4 at the Scottish Open, T3 at the European Masters and impressively T6 at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. All of these results were very impressive, and if it wasn’t for a lack of composure at times, he may well of bettered each of those finishes.
Unfortunately Hatton does seem to get flustered when the going gets tough and things aren’t going his way, so hopefully he can work on that this year and remain positive, even when it seems like it’s going against him.
He has played this course, finishing 10th on his first effort here last year and that is another positive that works in his favour this week. Sometimes players need a look or two at a course before they start to perform there, but the fact he finished 10th first time out was very promising.
It may be a bit of an ask for him to win his first European Tour event here, in a field as strong as this, but he has played well in good company before so hopefully he can repeat that.
He does need to work on his attitude when in contention, and for that reason I am slightly reluctant to back him at shorter prices, but at three-figure odds I am happy to take a chance on him, especially when he has previously finished well at the course.
I don’t think 100/1 will be available on him too often this year, and if he finishes well this week, we could see his price drop significantly even as early as next week.
This is my first preview of 2015 and it would be nice to get off to a good start. This is a great field, possibly one of the best we will see all year so it’s definitely an event to watch this week. Whilst there are so many strong players at the head of the betting, I definitely feel there is value elsewhere as highlighted in my selections.
If you have any feedback or questions you wish to ask, you can find me on Twitter @TJacobsGolf
Best of luck for the 2015 season!
Profit/Loss for 2015: N/A