The top four players in the betting for the Abu Dhabi Championship have all won majors and the favourite is the current world number one. The event forms part of the Middle East Swing and money appears to be no object. Dustin Johnson is statistically the best player in the world and if he brings his best game to the UAE he wins. However, Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson have won at the highest level at others further down the field are contenders.
The tournament has always been played at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club since its first year in 2006. The course had been recreational in nature but was altered significantly to provide a genuine test. Thirty bunkers and a hundred trees were added which means the course now puts a premium on accuracy over distance. The par 72 track measures over 7,500 yards which is average my modern standards.
Johnson finished one shot behind Tommy Fleetwood last year. He made a slow start but a 64 on moving day which was the low round of the week got him into contention but Fleetwood hung on to secure a second win on the European Tour. He went on to contend in the US Open and won the Race to Dubai which is the current version of the European Order of Merit. Fleetwood plays for the first time this season and might not have his game in full working order.
The player he beat a year ago almost lapped the field in the season-opening Tournament of Champions. Johnson always looked like winning this limited field tournament for which only the winners from the previous calendar year qualified. The American hits the ball long and straight and his driving sets up relatively short approach shots and plenty of eagle and birdie opportunities.
Martin Kaymer is trying to win the tournament for a fourth time but his form has dipped since throwing away another winning chance in 2015. He had a ten-shot lead after five holes of his final round but found trouble in several bunkers and was overhauled. Matt Kuchar could contend as the Open runner-up has a game suited to the conditions. Matthew Fitzpatrick has won in the area so cannot be dismissed.
Rose made his name on the links at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 Open. If wind is a factor in Abu Dhabi he has the temperament and techniques to maintain his form. His only major weakness is putting and that could count against him in a tournament that is known for low-scoring that can develop into a putting contest. Rose can be unreliable but when putting is a massive factor but his iron play should keep him out of trouble.
Stenson won the Open Championship in 2016 but in attempting not to be a one-major wonder age is against him. The Swede is now past his 40th birthday but is now competing against players in their early to mid-twenties. Stenson is a brilliant ball striker who excels when accuracy is more important than distance. He has the game to contend this week and won’t be put off if the wind blows.
McIlroy has had just a single hole-in-one in his professional career and that was on this week’s host course. He has also finished second four times in this event and his first professional win was in the UAE in 2009. Therefore, he has positive mental associations with the area and a game suited to the course. McIlroy is playing for the first time for three months after an injury break and can get his career on track by winning for the 14th time on the European Tour.