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Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship preview

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It’s the start of the Middle-Eastern swing on the European Tour, with a host of top players featuring this week.

Dustin Johnson joins Rickie Fowler as the representatives from the PGA Tour. Johnson was battling it out with last week’s runner-up, Rory McIlroy for favouritism this week, but that has all changed. This will be Johnson’s first look at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, whilst it would have been McIlroy’s 10th start in the event.

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In his nine starts here, Rory has finished runner-up four times, 3rd twice and 5th once. In that span he has missed just one cut and even on his course debut in 2008 finished 11th. 2008 was McIlroy’s first full season on Tour, so it was a promising start.

McIlroy just lost out to Graeme Storm in a play-off last week at the South Africa Open. Whilst more than gracious in defeat, McIlroy did confirm he would be undergoing an MRI scan on his back ahead of this week. He tweaked his upper back before the 2nd round last week, but managed to play through the pain. McIlroy has now confirmed he will not play this week, as the scan showed signs of a rib injury.

Fowler comes into the week as defending champion, after winning here last year on his second start in the event. The American edged out Thomas Pieters by one stroke, to secure his second win on the European Tour. Fowler had previously won the Scottish Open in 2015.

Aside from the three mentioned; Henrik Stenson, Danny Willett, Thomas Pieters and Alex Noren are all notable participants this week.

What will it take to win the Abu Dhabi Championship?

In last year’s preview I highlighted the importance of hitting Greens in Regulation. Paul McGinley was the only previous winner in the history of the event to have led in GIR for the week and not finish inside the top-5 (he finished 9th). Last year, McIlroy led the field in GIR and finished 3rd. Winner, Fowler ranked 10th however Pieters who finished between the two ranked 43rd. Pieters made up for this by ranking top-5 in both Putts per Round (3rd) and Putts per GIR (5th).

Interestingly, David Drysdale tied McIlroy in Greens in Regulation and also ranked 6th in Driving Accuracy but only managed to finish 22nd. It was however the putter (47th Putts per GIR and 67th Putts per Round) that let him down as opposed to his clearly excellent ball-striking that week.

Another key pointer is course experience. Apart from Chris DiMarco who won the inaugural staging, no one has ever won on their first start on this course, with every other winner having played the course/event at least once before. Gary Stal and Fowler won after playing the event just once before, however previous winners; Pablo Larrazabal (2014), Jamie Donaldson (2013) and Robert Rock (2012) had all played here on four occasions before their wins.

Whilst trends are bucked all the time, it’s clear having at least one year’s experience here under your belt is advantageous.

With the news that Rory has withdrawn the market has adjusted and therefore prices will be a bit shorter than expected. This is just the way it goes when the 9/2 favourite pulls out.

Here are my picks for the 2017 Abu Dhabi Championship.

Tyrell Hatton 30/1 (Betfred) 2pts e/w

One man that will certainly be trying to catch Thomas Bjorn’s eye this week is Tyrell Hatton, as he looks to make the Dane’s team at next year’s Ryder Cup in Paris.

Hatton has generally played well in this event, with two top-10’s in just three starts. Although he followed those finishes of 6th and 10th with a 46th place finish last year, I certainly expect the Englishman to go well this week.

This will be the first time Hatton tees it up here as a European Tour winner, after breaking through at the Alfred Dunhill Championship last October. It felt a long time coming for Hatton who has looked like a winner ever since getting his European Tour card in 2014.

Frustration was a big part of Hatton’s downfall at times, as he failed to control his temper multiple times in contention. It is worth remembering that Hatton is still just 25 years of age and is still relatively inexperienced. That looks to have changed in the last twelve months though, hence the 30/1 odds.

After winning last year, and finishing inside the top-10 of both the Open Championship (T5) and the PGA Championship (T10), he certainly looks to have become the player many expected him to be.

Given his two top-10’s already here, and new-found belief, I do believe Hatton has every chance to win here, even if 30/1 doesn’t look that big.

After winning in Scotland, Hatton finished T9 a week later at the British Masters and nearly won again, losing out to Matthew Fitzpatrick by one stroke at the season-ending DP World Tour Championship. Sandwiched between those results were a T10 at the Turkish Airlines Open and T23 finish at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

It’s clear looking at his results since his win, that Hatton has no intentions of slowing down and will head into the week full of confidence, at a course he plays well. New-found belief and a calmer attitude should serve him well this week.

Matthew Fitzpatrick 33/1 (Betfred & Ladbrokes) 1pt e/w

Fitzpatrick won twice in 2016, proving yet again just what a bright talent he is, and at just 22 there is plenty more to come. In an interview with SkySports, following his win at the DP World Tour Championship, Fitzpatrick admitted his long-term goal was to both Tours.

For the time being though, establishing himself as a perennial winner on the European Tour has to be the immediate goal and he can make a big step towards doing that this week. After winning in Dubai last November, Fitzpatrick became the youngest English three-time European Tour champion. His other wins came at the British and Nordea Masters, two prestigious events.

Given his recent win in Dubai, and his now two-years of experience at this event I think he has every chance of contending this week. Fitzpatrick missed his first cut here in 2015, but improved immensely in 2016 to finish in a tie for 26th.

Last year, he opened with a round of 68, leaving him in a tie for 7th, four shots adrift of Bryson DeChambeau. In round 2 he could only muster a -1 (71) which saw him fall into a tie for 15th. The most disappointing round of the week for him was in round 3 when he shot a one over-par (73) to drop further, to 38th. A final round 70 saw him climb back up the leaderboard and if he can start as fast as he did last year, but this time remain steady throughout the week, he could well be in with a chance.

The fact he finished 2016 with a win and two top-20’s in his last three starts, would lead him and everyone else to believe he is set for another big year, in 2017. The 20th place finish at the Nedbank wasn’t as good as it seems, given it was a reduced field (72 players) however he still finished above the middle of the pack. He did fight back after a first round 76, shooting an impressive 67 in the second round. He struggled again thereafter but his second round ensured he saved face.

A player of his talent has the ability to contend almost anywhere (see 2016 Masters) so I am confident he can win here this week. Trying to win on the very next start after a win is always difficult, but he has had enough of a break to enjoy that win and prepare again for this event.

Trevor Fisher Jnr 300/1 (PaddyPower 1-7, 1/5 odds) or (Betfair 1-5, 1/4 odds) 0.5pt e/w

Trevor Fisher Jnr has won just once on the European Tour, in his home country. He won the 2015 Africa Open, beating Matt Ford by five strokes, with a -24 winning total.

Fisher played in his first Abu Dhabi Championship last year and finished a respectable, 16th. He did so by shooting four under-par rounds, his opening 69 the lowest of the week. He followed that up with three 70’s and a final round 71.

This left Fisher eight shots shy of Fowler’s -16 winning score, but it was a good effort all the same by the South African.

Leading into this event last year, he had finished 8th at the South Africa Open and 13th at the Joburg Open. Last week, Fisher managed to finish T5 at the South Africa Open, perfect preparation for his second crack at this event.

Although he lacks European Tour wins, he has won nine times on the Sunshine Tour, so there’s no reason why if he gets in contention he couldn’t win here.

At 300/1 he is certainly a speculative play, but even if he can just crack the top-5, a 75/1 payout is certainly intriguing. He is also 16/1 for Top South African which may appeal to some (he is one of eleven runners).

Profit/Loss for 2017: +24