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Koepka back for desert swing

By Wes Reynolds  () 

Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

 

The three-week desert swing begins this week with the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. Abu Dhabi also serves as a European Tour Rolex Series event, which entails an increased prize pool of more than $7 million and increased Race to Dubai points. Fifteen of the world’s top 50 in the OWGR will tee it up. While no official appearance fees are paid, this event always draws a strong field due to golfers receiving extra money through tournament organizers and sponsors. World No. 1 Brooks Koepka returns to competitive golf for the first time since October, when he withdrew from the CJ Cup in South Korea with a knee injury. However, at 12/1, he’s not the outright favorite. Patrick Cantlay and two-time Abu Dhabi champion Tommy Fleetwood share that distinction at 10/1. Louis Oosthuizen (16/1) was the runner-up in his home South African Open last week to countryman Branden Grace (25/1), who shot a 9-under 62 on just 22 putts in Sunday’s final round to win his first title since late 2017. Defending Abu Dhabi and British Open champion Shane Lowry, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Bryson DeChambeau follow in the marketplace at 20/1.

 

The event

The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship debuted in 2006. The event has always had strong financial support with current title sponsor HSBC, the London-based seventh-largest bank in the world; presenting sponsor EGA (Emirates Global Aluminum), one of the world’s largest aluminum producers, and the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. In its short history, the event has had three multiple winners: Martin Kaymer (2008, ’10, ’11), Paul Casey (2007, ’09) and Tommy Fleetwood (2017, ’18). Although big names have won here, it is rare for the betting favorite to come out on top.

 

2013: Rory McIlroy (5/1) — MC; Tiger Woods (15/2) — MC

2014: Rory McIlroy (6/1) — T2, Henrik Stenson (8/1) — MC

2015: Rory McIlroy (4/1) — 2nd

2016: Rory McIlroy (4/1) — T3; Jordan Spieth (9/2) — T5

2017: Dustin Johnson (6/1) — T2; Henrik Stenson (7/1) — T8

2018: Dustin Johnson (5/1) — T9; Justin Rose (8/1) — T22; Rory McIlroy (8/1) — T3

2019: Dustin Johnson (6/1) — T16; Brooks Koepka (9/1) — T9; Tommy Fleetwood (10/1) — T42

 

The course

 

The Abu Dhabi Golf Club was designed in 1998 by Peter Harradine, who also constructed Doha Golf Club, site of the Qatar Masters in March. It plays as a par-72 of slightly less than 7,600 yards and is a fairly typical flat and exposed desert track. However, the fairways are relatively tight, and thick rough can punish errant shots. The course also has 90 bunkers and a few lakes. The Bermuda greens are quick (12-6 on the Stimpmeter) but can be had. Top ball strikers who rank highly in the category of Greens In Regulation tend to fare well here. Abu Dhabi got some rain last week, so the course should play a bit softer than normal. The weather this week should be fairly typical in the mid-70s with light winds.

 

Recent history/winners

 

2019: Shane Lowry (-18/270); 60/1

2018: Tommy Fleetwood (-22/266); 20/1

2017: Tommy Fleetwood (-17/271); 60/1

2016: Rickie Fowler (-16/272); 16/1

2015: Gary Stal (-19/269); 150/1

2014: Pablo Larrazabal (-14/274); 125/1

2013: Jamie Donaldson (-14/274); 66/1

2012: Robert Rock (-13/275); 150/1

2011: Martin Kaymer (-24/264); 8/1

2010: Martin Kaymer (-21/267); 14/1

 

Selections

 

Thomas Pieters 25/1

Pieters last won in August at the Czech Masters but has finished 20th or better in seven of his last 10 events. The Belgian ranked second on the European Tour last season in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green (+2.08 strokes per round) and Strokes Gained: Approach (+1.29 strokes per round). He has done well here, with three top-5s in his last five trips, including as a one-shot bridesmaid to Rickie Fowler in 2016. Pieters has also been warming up in nearby Dubai for the last couple of weeks.

 

Sergio Garcia 30/1

Garcia turned 40 this month, and his first son is due in April. This is a Ryder Cup year, and no one gets more juiced for that event than Europe’s all-time point scorer. Garcia has won twice in the Middle East, at the 2014 Qatar Masters and 2017 Dubai Desert Classic. He finished sixth at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai to conclude last season and was seventh in Putting Average on the same Bermuda greens he will see this week. In addition, Garcia was tops on the European Tour last season in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee (+1.09) and in Strokes Gained: Tee To Green (+2.31).

 

Danny Willett 40/1

While he has never had success on this track with just one top-10 in nine appearances, Willett has won twice in the United Arab Emirates, including the 2016 Dubai Desert Classic and the 2018 DP World Tour Championship. He did post a 63, one shot off the course record, in Round 2 in 2014, so he can play this track. Willett is also looking to make the European Ryder Cup team this fall, and the desert swing, kind to him in the past, is a perfect place to begin that quest.

 

Martin Kaymer 40/1

No one has won in Abu Dhabi more than Kaymer, with three trophies here. He should have had a fourth in 2015 but lost a 10-shot lead and finished third behind long shot Gary Stal and Rory McIlroy. Kaymer led the European Tour in GIR last season, hitting 77.66% of greens, and ranked eighth in Strokes Gained: Tee To Green (+1.47). He calls Abu Dhabi GC his favorite course, and it’s a perfect place for him to get off to a good start in returning to the European Ryder Cup team and representing Germany in the Olympics this summer in Tokyo.

 

Thomas Detry 50/1

Detry has been knocking on the door for several months and has three top-4 finishes in the last three months. He was ninth here two years ago. Detry is a solid ball striker and is excellent on the greens, ranking 15th in Strokes Gained: Putting (+0.75) last season.

 

Andy Sullivan 100/1

Sullivan opened his final round at the South African Open with three straight birdies to tie for the lead before a thinned chip shot on No. 6 led to a double bogey, and then the wheels came off. He rallied to finish sixth but ended up second in the field for Strokes Gained: Approach and in Putting Average. Sullivan has several top-10 finishes in the desert, including last season’s finale at the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.

 

Adri Arnaus 100/1

Though he went winless in his rookie season on the European Tour, Arnaus showed flashes with three runners-up (Czech Masters, Kenya Open, Andalucia Masters). He ranked fourth last season in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee (+0.83) and 13th in GIR (73.1%). Arnaus did win in the United Arab Emirates two years ago on the Challenge Tour.

 

 

The American Express

 

Cameron Smith (50/1) won a playoff at last week’s Sony Open over Brendan Steele, who lost a two-shot lead with two holes to play. Kevin Kisner (40/1) and Graeme McDowell (150/1), both tipped in last week’s column, tied for fourth. This week the PGA Tour returns stateside to start the West Coast swing in Palm Springs, Calif., for the American Express. This event will long be remembered as the Bob Hope Classic and played on three courses over the first three rounds before the TPC Stadium Course at PGA West hosts the final round Sunday. Rickie Fowler, who began his 2020 campaign with a T5 in Maui, leads the market at 12/1. Sungjae Im (18/1) reached the first page of the leaderboard last week at the Sony before falling to T21. Paul Casey (20/1) has won twice in Abu Dhabi but is electing to play in Palm Springs instead. Tony Finau finished fifth last week at the Hong Kong Open and is priced at 25/1. Phil Mickelson, a two-time winner here who serves as the event host, checks in at 40/1. Defending champion Adam Long won his maiden PGA Tour event here last season as a 500/1 long shot and is listed as a long shot once again, but this time at just 100/1.

 

The event

 

The American Express has had many names since its inception in 1960, when it was established as the Palm Springs Classic. Most remember and still refer to this event as the Bob Hope, since it bore the entertainer’s name from 1965-2011. Hope served as the event’s host and chairman of the board for many years. The list of tournament winners is a “who’s who” of legends, including Arnold Palmer (1960, ’62, ’68, ’71, ’73), Jack Nicklaus (1963), Billy Casper (1965, ’69), Johnny Miller (1975, ’76) and Phil Mickelson (2002, ’04). A “who’s who” of celebrities have also participated in the pro-am portion of the event. In 1995, history was made as three presidents — Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford — teed it up in the pro-am with Hope and then-defending champion Scott Hoch. Until 2012, the event was played over five days on four courses before switching to its current structure of a four-day event using three courses.

 

The course

 

The American Express is now played on a three-course rotation: the PGA West Stadium Course, the PGA West Tournament Course and La Quinta Country Club.

 

The PGA West Stadium Course is played by each golfer in one of the first three rounds and again for the final round. The track was designed in 1986 by the legendary Pete Dye, who died last week at 94. It is a par-72 of 7,113 yards and usually plays between 1.5 and 2.5 strokes harder than the other two courses. Water is in play on nine holes. Bermudagrass with Ryegrass compose the fairways and rough, while Tifdwarf Bermudagrass makes up the greens. The average score over the last four years is 70.96.

 

The PGA West Tournament Course was designed by Nicklaus in 1987. It plays as a par-72 of 7,159 yards. The greens, 10-5 on the Stimpmeter, are slightly slower than those on the other two tracks. Bermuda overseeded with Rye is also the primary surface for this relatively easy resort course. The average score over the last four years is 69.55.

 

La Quinta Country Club was designed by Lawrence Hughes in 1959 and had a Damian Pascuzzo redesign in 1999. It is a par-72 of 7,060 yards. La Quinta is also an easy resort course with the widest fairways and largest greens of the three courses. It had a 69.06 scoring average over the last three years.

 

La Quinta and the PGA West Tournament Course played as the two easiest courses on the tour last season.

 

If betting in-play wagering, keep in mind that no player has won starting his first round on the tougher PGA West Stadium Course since this event went to the current rotation in 2016.

 

Recent history/winners

 

2019: Adam Long (-26/262); 500/1

2018: Jon Rahm (-22/266); 10/1*

2017: Hudson Swafford (-20/268); 66/1

2016: Jason Dufner (-25/263); 40/1**

2015: Bill Haas (-22/266); 30/1

2014: Patrick Reed (-28/260); 135/1

2013: Brian Gay (-25/263); 80/1***

2012: Mark Wilson (-24/264); 125/1

 

* - Playoff win over Andrew Landry

** - Playoff win over David Lingmerth

*** - Playoff win over Charles Howell III and David Lingmerth

 

Selections

 

Brendon Todd 50/1

He has come back to Earth a little after winning back-to-back events in November in Bermuda and at Mayakoba in Mexico. However, Todd is worth a stab in a wide-open event where the betting favorites aren’t in form yet. He was sixth here in 2014, which before this season was his career year, when he won the Byron Nelson and made the cut in all three majors he played. Todd ranks second on tour in Driving Accuracy (76.99%) and fourth in Total Birdies, which is important in an event in which you’ll likely have to shoot at least 20 under to win.

 

Vaughn Taylor 60/1

Taylor is in very solid form. He finished November with a T2 at Mayakoba behind Todd and a T10 at the RSM Classic. Then he opened the 2020 calendar year last week with a T12 at the Sony Open. Taylor lives in Augusta, Ga., and is hunting that Masters invitation. He last played there in 2016 and is playing his best golf since that year. He has three top-10s in this event. The course designer angles also fit here as Taylor likes Pete Dye designs, including a fourth last season at TPC River Highlands. He’s also done well on Nicklaus designs, with two of his three PGA Tour wins coming on another desert-style course at Montreux G&CC in Lake Tahoe.

 

Andrew Putnam 60/1

He has made every cut this season and is one of the better putters week in and week out on the PGA Tour. Like Taylor, Putnam won at Montreux in 2018, so he does have some pedigree playing desert golf.

 

Rory Sabbatini 80/1

Sabbatini changed his citizenship last year from South Africa to Slovakia, the home country of his wife and stepson, mainly to be able to more easily qualify for the 2020 Olympics. He has made five straight cuts and got the taste of winning back for the first time since 2011 when he and partner Kevin Tway took the QBE Shootout in December.

 

Carlos Ortiz 100/1

Ortiz was the Web.com (now Korn Ferry Tour) player of the year in 2014, when he won three events and earned the battlefield promotion directly to the PGA Tour. His game looks to be maturing, with six straight cuts made and three top-4 finishes (T2 Mayakoba, T4 Houston, T4 Sanderson Farms) during the fall series.

 

Bo Hoag 150/1

A PGA Tour rookie who earned his card from the Korn Ferry Tour last season, Hoag has made eight straight cuts. He got his first taste of leading a PGA Tour event Saturday at the Sony Open before tying for ninth and earning his first top-10 finish on the big tour.

 

Tom Hoge 200/1

Hoge made 17 birdies last weekend in tough conditions at Waialae in the Sony Open. He ended up T12 but shot 7 under over the final 54 holes. He gained some milestones in 2019 by making his first cut in a major (T43 U.S. Open) and earning his best PGA Tour finish (second at Greenbrier). Hoge is another player who has fared well at Montreux with a fourth in 2017 and a sixth in 2019. He looks like a player who’s figuring it out and comes in with some confidence.  

 

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