Ben Coley previews the first full-field event of the year on the DP World Tour, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
Golf betting tips: Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
2pts e.w. Robert MacIntyre at 33/1 (Sky Bet, Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
1.5pts e.w. Ryan Fox at 35/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1.5pts e.w. Victor Perez at 50/1 (Paddy Power, Betfair 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7)
1.5pts e.w. Francesco Molinari at 55/1 (bet365 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)
1pt e.w. Pablo Larrazabal at 250/1 (William Hill, Unibet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6)
Three members of the beaten Great Britain and Ireland side from last week’s Hero Cup head the betting for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, an event which last year boasted three members of the game’s elite but this time around does not.
That’s no slight on Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry, each of them all but certain to play in September’s Ryder Cup, but there’s no denying this is weaker than a blockbuster 2022 edition which saw Rory McIlroy, Viktor Hovland and Collin Morikawa all take part.
Seldom is the golf course anywhere near the top of the list of reasons for absence or indeed attendance so we shouldn’t hold anything against Yas Links, widely considered superior to the old venue across town and a welcome sight once it finally graced our television screens.
As had been expected, this Kyle Phillips design proved trickier than Abu Dhabi GC thanks to a consistent breeze, though this week’s forecast and one or two lessons learned might change things a little. Still, it’s a different course in nature, far more rugged, exposed and downright interesting, and it wasn’t a big surprise that it threw up a leaderboard of all sorts.
Search for a Hero…
That contrast means we can’t assume a prep run in the Hero Cup will prove to be advantageous, but I strongly suspect that it will. In 2018, this tournament followed the EurAsia Cup, and 10 of the 11 European team members who took part in Abu Dhabi went on to finish inside the top 20, including winner Fleetwood, the runner-up, the third, the fifth, the seventh, eighth and ninth.
While the benefits of an outing hadn’t been quite so apparent two years earlier, the 2014 EurAsia Cup also threw up the Abu Dhabi champion Pablo Larrazabal who, like pretty much every winner of this early-season temperature check, had ended the previous year in good form. There’s a very good chance that this week’s champion is both sharp from the Hero Cup and was playing well at the back-end of 2022.
Such a formula won’t help you narrow things down much at the front of the betting, with Min Woo Lee the only prominent player who wasn’t in action last week. He was just about the hottest player around prior to Christmas, so unless Patrick Reed aggravates another new set of people, the market and the form book point to this tournament’s trends extending through to 2024.
Cases can be made for pretty much every Hero Cup player, but I’ve narrowed it down a tad and will begin with ROBERT MACINTYRE, who top-scored for his side along with captain Fleetwood.
I doubt anyone was surprised that MacIntyre took to team golf in the way that he did, given his hyper-aggressive playing style and the fact he’s been earmarked for Ryder Cup selection since his rookie 2019 campaign. Still, it was important to impress and he did just that, thrashing Alex Noren in the singles to go 3-1-0 for the week.
MacIntyre is a team player at heart, hence his love for shinty, and was disappointed to have been on the losing side. Despite that it was clear that he felt really pleased with his own performance, having admittedly ended an important 2022 campaign somewhat on the back foot for all that he was still competitive for the most part.
Asked what it told him, he replied: “That the work I’ve been doing over the winter is looking decent. Tee-to-green has been solid. Today it wasn’t as good off the tee but it’s been good all week.
“Yeah, I’ve been happy this week. I’ve been driving it well. I’ve been putting it well. I’ve been doing most things really well.”
MacIntyre has generally been doing that ever since a change of coach which paved the way for his coming-of-age victory in a stronger Italian Open, and with that in mind I felt he might be a little shorter here. A year ago, despite a winless 2021 and no pipe-opener, he was just a slightly bigger price – and that was in a considerably stronger field.
Improved since, his missed cut doesn’t worry me unduly as he showed in an opening 69 that he can score here, and his long-game was fine only for his short-game to let him down. Subsequent putting improvements played their part in that Italy win and while his approach work did take a hit afterwards, that’s only true of his final two starts.
That department looked really sharp for the most part in the Hero Cup and having had four good chances to win in the UAE already, he looks a good bet to all but seal his Ryder Cup place at the sort of course he really should relish.
Captain fantastic worth a wager
Of those above him in the betting, I felt Hatton deserved favouritism but was put off by the fact he said the course didn’t really suit him, for all that he did go on to finish a good sixth as defending champion. Shane Lowry loved it and might have a little point to prove after losing all four matches last week, which gives him a narrow edge over Fleetwood and Noren, the latter making his course debut.
All are respected but I’ll skip to FRANCESCO MOLINARI for the next best, and he rates the best value in the field at 50/1.
Like Noren, he does make his first trip to Yas Links and that’s a bit of a negative, but this former Open champion has a strong seaside pedigree and also boasts a fine record in the Middle East, registering multiple top-10 finishes across all three of the main events that come to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Hand on heart I’d prefer the event to be returning to the old venue, one he knows, but for all that downside there is so much upside packed into these prices. Remember, at the Italian Open in September he was a 22/1 shot alongside Hatton in a field which featured McIlroy, Hovland and Matt Fitzpatrick. Hatton is half the price here, but Molinari is double it.
That was on the back of a top-10 finish at Wentworth, and the argument is that he’s not in the same form this time having missed the cut at the RSM Classic to end 2022. However, he actually hit the ball well in an event which seldom holds any weight as a form guide, and before that he ticked over nicely with a run of good performances.
Over on the DP World Tour he’s followed 15th in the Open with that top-10 in the BMW PGA, defied a slow start in Italy to sit close to the places before a poor finish, and then finished 28th in the Dunhill Links, his best effort yet in an event he simply doesn’t enjoy.
That’s a solid return but the way he played as captain in the Hero Cup, where significantly his coach Denis Pugh was alongside him, makes me wonder whether all that Molinari did in 2022 was in readiness for a huge 2023 campaign, with the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a Ryder Cup on home soil one he’ll be desperate not to miss.
It’s the kind of incentive that can wake someone like him from a slump which began with one bad swing at the 2019 Masters, the effects of which extend to the very history of this sport as Tiger Woods went on to capture his 15th major while all those in behind were left to rue what might have been.
Clearly, it knocked all the stuffing out of Molinari, who then moved to California and went two years without seeing family back home due to Covid-19, also distancing himself from longtime coach, Pugh, and it seems only now is he moving in the right direction again.
Molinari signed off the Hero Cup not just thumping Lowry having gone out first in the singles, but doing so because he was seven-under through 16 holes. Previously thriving as the straight man alongside Nicolai Hojgaard, the fire should be well and truly lit, and we may look back on it as the week which changed everything.
French fancies hard to split
Every member of both sides came under equal consideration and it’s quite easy to argue that the market continues to underestimate Ewen Ferguson, still off the radar of many despite a two-win 2022. He played nicely enough here and three-figure prices might look generous about the reigning Qatar Masters champion.
However, I prefer the claims of French duo VICTOR PEREZ and Antoine Rozner and will narrowly come down on the side of the former.
Perez endured something of an up-and-down 2022 but it ended with a good effort in Dubai, and of course included that dramatic and scarcely believable victory in the Dutch Open.
Played at Bernardus, that’s a line of Kyle Phillips form and not the only one he has to offer, as his previous victory came in the Dunhill Links where he again showed a fondness for Kingsbarns.
You’d think Yas Links would be a fine fit then and he suggested as much last year, opening with a round of 66 to lie fourth and still in the mix at halfway before a quiet weekend, at a time when his game had been far more miss than hit.
Returning now as a two-time DP World Tour winner and another star of the European win last week, I would expect him to stick around longer granted a similar platform, with his overall record in the Middle East offering plenty of encouragement.
Perez missed out on the 2021 Ryder Cup despite having been inside the qualification spots for so long, and if he builds on last week’s performance which ended with a thumping win over Jordan Smith, he might be capable of taking a big step towards making up for that in Rome.
Rozner isn’t easy to leave out as a prolific winner with two Middle East titles to his name, especially as he was value for more than his solitary point last week.
It only took five starts after his first DP World Tour win for him to bag a second, and he won back-to-back on the Challenge Tour, so it’s easy to see him landing another quick double having dominated in Mauritius late in December – a performance which also guaranteed a level of sharpness for his return.
My only nagging doubt is that these are far deeper waters and while out of sorts at the time, he didn’t much enjoy his first start at Yas Links. With driver his favourite club, I’m just about willing to overlook him this time with an eye on some other events in the coming weeks.
Nicolai Hojgaard also missed the cut here in 2022 but only because of his short-game, and the combination of a top-10 finish in the Australian Open and then a fine Hero Cup which culminated in victory over Seamus Power certainly earned him a place on the radar at 66/1.
That said, his two wins so far have come on the most driver-dependent courses they play and while Thomas Pieters won here last year thanks in part to that club, it wasn’t vital. Both those who shared second drive the ball poorly, as does halfway contender Julien Brun, and I don’t think Hojgaard can put his biggest weapon to use in quite the way he’ll be able to next week.
As such I’ll deviate from the intended plan of Hero Cup team members to make room for RYAN FOX.
These Rolex Series events really do remain the domain of the best players on the circuit for the most part and that’s what Fox was in 2022. Indeed I think it’s worth revisiting just what he achieved to make the case for him here: two wins, three seconds, two thirds, a fourth, and two more top-10 finishes from 21 starts on the DP World Tour.
Both victories support the view that exposed courses are best for him, one coming at Al Hamra in Ras al Khaimah and the other in Scotland, and he’d have won at the Phillips-designed Bernardus but for some absurd scenes on the 18th hole albeit he had himself to blame for some of them.
Also close to nicking the Irish Open, losing out narrowly in the Soudal Open and looking set to win the Nedbank before Fleetwood’s surprise eagle, Fox was the undoubted player of the year only for Rory McIlroy to swoop in and capture the Race to Dubai, based largely on his performances in the majors.
That narrative is key to why I think Fox’s MC-MC end to the year (the latter wasn’t actually a missed cut as he was in fact 38th through 54 holes of the Australian Open) is so easily excused, as after missing out at Sun City he flew from South Africa to try to capture the Race to Dubai, and from there was straight out to Australia for another two tournaments he really could’ve done without.
Refreshed since and having carded a course record 61 on a links-style course in practise last week, Fox ought to be ready to go again and I do think Yas Links should be perfect for him, as he hinted at last year only to rank 71st of 75 players in putting before taking off a few weeks later.
That was Fox’s reappearance after a long break and having gone through various Covid quarantine procedures, so his preparation this time looks far more suitable and he’s the sort of free-flowing talent who can get back to the form which has seen him climb inside the world’s top 30.
Take a chance on former champ
For those who prefer to seek value further down the market Ferguson is among the pick of the outsiders, with a word too for Joakim Lagergren, Marcel Schneider and Jason Scrivener, the latter back to his best when last we saw him and the type to enjoy this if the breeze does play some kind of part.
But with two of those looking to win at this level for the first time, it’s worth remembering that while this isn’t the strongest renewal of a tournament which has thrown up a couple of surprises, in general it’s gone somewhat to the form book.
Perhaps though we shouldn’t ignore the one which relates to this tournament specifically, and despite the risks attached I have to include 2014 winner PABLO LARRAZABAL at the odds.
Larrazabal won twice last year to take his tally to seven, the pick of them in this event when not for the first or indeed the last time he took out some mighty names – in this case McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.
2022 was the first season in which he managed more than one victory and it’s on that basis that he was extremely disappointed to be overlooked for the Hero Cup, as were all the Spanish players including Ryder Cup hopefuls Adrian Otaegui and Adri Arnaus.
That’s the sort of thing that could conjure a response from Larrazabal, one of the toughest operators on the circuit, and where better than in an event he not only won in 2014, but almost won again three years later, and then contended when sixth in 2019.
All three performances came at Abu Dhabi GC but he was 25th here at Yas Links on his first go and, just as is the case now, he’d ended the previous campaign in largely poor form.
That’s always a worry but less so with Larrazabal, an enigmatic sort who struggles off the tee but is a wizard around the greens, the kind of formula which really seemed to work for some of those who finished on the heels of Pieters 12 months ago.
He’s far from certain to play well but just as he felt he deserved more respect from those picking the teams for the Hero Cup, I feel he deserves more from the market.
This is a player who won the Open de France after he’d shot 82 in the final round a week earlier, and it won’t surprise me whatsoever if he’s back to his best on his return.
Posted at 1750 GMT on 16/01/23
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