Tommy Fleetwood is attempting the rare feat of winning the same tournament in three successive years but he may be rustier this week than in the past. The defending champion has taken his game to a new level and his status in the world rankings mean he can plan a less frantic schedule. Clearly Fleetwood has a game suited to the Abu Dhabi host course and he is not a two-time winner by accident. However, although he has been quick out of the blocks in the last two years Fleetwood could be vulnerable this time to a hot putter who can take advantage of the scoring conditions.
The desert course is exposed and it has few defences in still conditions. Big hitters have dominated in recent years and there is no great penalty for inaccuracy off the tee. However, nine of the 12 winners on the course for this event finished in the top 10 for greens in regulation over 72 holes. First time winners are rare in this tournament because the lucrative prize fund attracts the better players. The star attractions from the US Tour this week are Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. The former is no price and his one time mate has poor course form so other players are preferred.
Abu Dhabi measures 7,583 yards and puts a premium on distance over accuracy. Low scoring a few years ago led to more bunkers, tighter fairways and more penal rough but over time scores returned to the low levels of the past. Water is in play on several holes and the greens are above average in size. Despite the modifications the course is vulnerable and only severe wind will make this tough. The main skill for good scoring is power but any potential winner must have a great week on the greens. The 72 holes record is 24 under and the lowest score over one round is 62.
Thomas Pieters ticks many of the right boxes and has finished in the top five three times in the last four years. He is coming off a season in which he won the World Cup with Belgium so may have not put in the hard yards over Christmas. Haotong Li won on a desert course last season and has a game suited to the course. Driving distance and touch on and around the greens are the skills that can help Li get in the mix this week and record a third European Tour win.
The US PGA Tour event also returns to a regular host location but the Desert Classic is being played on three courses at La Quinta in California. This is a pro-am event with a slightly complicated format that involves individuals and teams. Each host course has a par of 72 and two of the tracks averaged below 70 last year. There have been no modifications over the last year so we have a similar scenario to in Abu Dhabi whereby a hot putter will be required to contend. Driving distance is more important than driving accuracy on these relatively easy desert courses.
Justin Rose is playing in the tournament for the first time in nine years. That means he has no recent course form and his game is not a good fit for the conditions. Jon Rahm is the defending champion and is perfect for the course but he has obligations as the winner from last year. Phil Mickelson is a two-time winner on the track but may take some time to find his best game. Charles Howell has great course form but rarely wins so Ryan Palmer is the selection who can be backed at a working man’s price. The tip combines course form with recent form and his game is made for the course.