Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Abu Dhabi Championship 2021 - Abu Dhabi, UAE

 The European Tour kicks off the 2021 campaign with probably the strongest field we'll see between now and July outside of the co-sanctioned WGC and Majors. The strength of field is due to this being the first of the Rolex Series events, where Justin Thomas makes a rare visit to Europe enhancing the OWGR SOF further. He heads the market alongside Rory McIlroy, but they have good company with in-form, Tyrell Hatton, Matty Fitzpatrick, Tommy Fleetwood and the 2020 R2D Champion, Lee Westwood in attendance. Added to the field are a number of Major winners and Rolex Series winners, namely course specialist, Martin Kaymer, Shane Lowry, Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Danny Willett. Given the depth and quality of the players mentioned, it's difficult to get onside and perceive any of them as value with a number of players below ready to step and mix it with the "big boys" and although the Rolex Series events to date have produced top drawer winners on a regular basis we have seen a couple of surprises and I wouldn't be surprised if we get another one here this week. The tournament hosts here used to say "Expect the Unexpected" and unfortunately we saw this when Gary Stal somehow overhauled Martin Kaymer back in 2015. Similar to the Rolex Series we have seen Brandon Stone, Aaron Rai and Thorbjorn Olesen win at big odds, not to mention Willett & Westwood doing same despite their apparent class.

Justin Thomas follows his compatriots, Chris Di Marco, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bryson Dechambeau, Rickie Fowler, Jason Dufner, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka to name a few in teeing it up here and can't be dismissed too lightly. Di Marco won the inaugural event, whilst Fowler also won, the others all delivered top results. Thomas arrives with form having fallen a shot shy in Kapalua two weeks ago despite the controversial comments he made during his third round. His subsequent removal from Ralph Lauren's sponsorship programme might affect some others but JT is a mature head on young shoulders and strikes me as the type of person/player that will be motivated to produce not only a the results but a better standing within the game, the latter which he has already achieved and the unfortunate episode serves to be a blotch on his otherwise exemplary form which he will remedy. Beware the injured animal...JT might be on a serious mission over the next few weeks and he will find Abu Dhabi GC to his liking. If he drives it well off the tee, he can put it up to his good friend Rory McIlroy who has done everything except win here. They both justifiably head the market by some mark and in doing so, for me don't give us any value. Of the leading half dozen in the market though, Fleetwood & Fitzpatrick are only of interest to me where the former is a dual winner and the latter having won the DP Tour Championship up the road in Dubai last December in his last event, appears to be moving up a gear over the past 12 - 18 months and looks set to win with more regularity. However, both are priced @ ~14/1 which is about right and like JT & Rory don't really offer long term value.

I priced Thomas Pieters as a 33/1 chance here this week on the back of a fairly decent 2020 campaign and a renewed approach to golf and life in general following the birth of his daughter. Granted, the hot tempered nature doesn't disappear over night, but the Belgian has a lot more to look forward to in his life and seems much happier, and with this year being Ryder Cup year, he'll be keen to make the team again having been the star previously. A good start to the year ahead is crucial and with additional points abegging here he can put his decent Middle East form to use and hit the ground running. Having followed him for 9 holes at the Dubai Desert Classic in 2019, I concluded that this was not a player to be getting onside too often and especially in the bigger tournaments, but his 2020 performances have been noted and he might indeed relish these type of events going forward. I also concluded that the maturity of The Emirates doesn't lend itself to his game off the tee but Abu Dhabi is now a better fit of the two. Three TOP-5s and a further TOP-20 in his 7 visits encourages me as too does his results in Dubai and neighbouring regions. Abu Dhabi calls for a strong GIR game and Pieters had good statistics last year that he can call on, having gained +3.26 shots on the fields to finish 14th in the category on tour. A happy Tomas striking it well with motivation on his side is a Thomas I'm willing to be onboard with @ 40/1 - 7 places.

Aforementioned Aaron Rai, is a another on the rise and at only 25 years of age, looks like a player that could be an ever-present on Europeantour leaderboards. He won't be fazed in these events having duly taken a Rolex Series last year when winning the Scottish Open and although he didn't play too well at The Emirates last December can take confidence from his success last year and make a step up. He's overpriced this week @ 100/1 for the 7/8 places. Rai posted great GIR figures in 2020 finishing 4th in those rankings with +5.36 only for his putting to let him down where he ranked a low 72nd. He hasn't fared well at Abu Dhabi on his two previous visits (mc-54) but his 2020 year saw him produce a win , a further 3 TOP-10s and a further 4 TOP-20s from his 16 starts. Like the vast majority of the field he tees it up fresh and therefore is not a selection to be overly confident about but this could be the biggest price we see for Aaron for the next 6 months at least and he's well capable of contending and bettering his chances than the odds suggest.

Scott Jamieson showed some level of consistency last year and comes to Abu Dhabi knowing he has played well in this part of the world before. He finished 8th last year and 11th the year previously so should have fond memories and could be worth a small interest for places @ 125/1 - 8places or indeed a TOP-20 @ 5/1.He too has strong GIR figures from last year whilst he proved profitable on the greens throughout as well. 

I could add a few more to the staking plan this week in taking on the market leaders but I am hesitant in doing so as I do expect either JT, Rory or Fitzpatrick to win but I couldn't leave out another former Rolex Series winner, Thorbjorn Olesen. Whilst JT tees it up with fresh controversary on his mind, the Dane has slipped back into tour life following his misdemeanours, and if he has his game in order could really be one to watch in 2021. He is taken here, more in hope than anything else, that he produces the golf that he is well capable of as shown when finishing runner-up in 2013 and 8th in 2012 and also by following a decent last outing in December in Dubai when finishing 13th. 

Garrick Higgo, Ha Tong Li, Paul Waring , James Morrison & Grant Forrest were all considered for place/TOP-20 efforts, and should the market leaders not prevail and my stable fail also, then lets hope Martin Kaymer can break the curse of 6 years ago and return to winning ways


Selections

1 pt e/w T. Pieters @ 40/1 - 7 places
.5 pts e/w A. Rai @ 100/1 - 8 places
.5 pts e/w S. Jamieson @ 125/1 - 8 places
.5 pts e/w T. Olesen @ 125/1 - 7 places
2.5 pts TOP-20 S. Jamieson @ 5/1
2.5 pts TOP-20 T. Olesen @ 5/1


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