Henrik Stenson finally won his first major championship when beating Phil Mickelson in the final round of the 2016 Open Championship with one of the best 18 holes in the history of golf at the highest level. However, it is another Swedish player in Alex Noren who is the player to back to win the Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour for which Rory McIlroy is absent due to injury.
The Career Builder Challenge on the US PGA Tour has been played under several guises. However, one common factor is the easy resort courses that host the event on which birdie conversion is a key skill. Mickelson has the best putting stats of the field from last season and he excels at this time of the year. On the back of his usual three month winter break Mickelson can win his 38th regular tour event.
For the better players the first few months of the season are about honing their game for the US Masters in April. That is certainly the case with McIlroy who just needs a Green Jacket to achieve the career Grand Slam. Only five payers have won all four major championships at least once and only Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have won the lot when younger than McIlroy. He would like to get the monkey of his back as soon as possible and he is proven at Augusta National.
McIlroy was scheduled to play this week but he has withdrawn due to injury. He seemed to have the SA Open in his pocket last week but lost in a playoff to Graeme Storm who had tipped McIlroy to win. The former world number one has a good record in Abu Dhabi but he is happy to sacrifice another chance to win if resting and recovering increases his prospects for the Masters, the championship he craves most.
Even if McIlroy arrives at Augusta in good nick he won’t be the main story. The media will be all over Tiger Woods and his reappearance on Tour and the Masters in particular. The former dominant player of his generation has not played competitively for more than a year and the Masters will be his first major back in the fold. Woods has won 14 majors and he still thinks he can surpass Nicklaus’s record of 18. The Masters will be his best chance of getting closer to that haul.
Stenson has looked like a major champion about to happen for the last three years. He put it all together in the Open at Troon last July when only Mickelson could stay with him. Noren won four tournaments in six months almost under the radar and is a class act who can win again this week. The Abu Dhabi Championship takes place at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club in the UAE. The course puts a premium on accuracy and putting and Noren has a good profile in this context.
Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler are playing in the event. Johnson was in the top 50 last season for the three main skills’ disciplines required for good scoring and Fowler is the defending champion and therefore a course winner. However, Branden Grace is a more viable alternative to Stenson and can be backed at a bigger price but on balance Noren is the number one pick and he can be the winner for Sweden.
Mickelson is another player who just needs one major to join the select group of career Grand Slam winners. The US Open is the big one missing from his CV and he has been runner up six times in his national championship. Despite chasing home Stenson in the Open winning more majors looks beyond Mickelson but can still be competitive in regular events like the one taking place this week. He has the game and temperament to handle the three courses in California used in rotation in the pro-am format.
The average winning score over the last six years is 25 under so birdie conversion is more important than bogey avoidance. The courses are set to be not too difficult for the amateurs competing but the pros make hay on the greens. Mickelson was in the top 10 for birdies and total putts last season and that makes him the player to beat this week in the States. Noren is the golfer to make up the double in the Abu Dhabi Championship on the European Tour.