Spieth missed the cut last week and I knew it was a risk although his 2nd round 66 suggested that may have found something along the way. It was a value bet though if nothing else and I’ll always struggle not to back him at such a price in what proved to be a very weak field indeed. Thompson fared a lot better and actually found himself up as high as 4th during his front 9 on Friday. As is the norm though when backing him he slowly forgot how to play golf and had a stinker over the weekend.
The European Tour returns this week in Abu Dhabi while the PGA Tour heads to the West coast to begin its California swing.
It’s yet another name change for what was named the CareerBuilder Challenge last year and we now have the Desert Classic which isn’t to be confused with next week’s European Tour event the Dubai Desert Classic. While the name has changed the courses remain the same 3 that have been in play since the 2016 renewal; PGA West Stadium, PGA West and La Quinta.
The event is a pro-am format where everyone plays each course once before a cut takes place prior to a final round at PGA West Stadium. It’s a Pete Dye designed course and is the toughest of the 3 although still fairly low scoring. It’s very much a birdie fest each year with conditions rather soft and easy for the amateurs in the field. Various different types of players have found success here as the short nature of the courses means that everyone can compete. Due to that competitive nature we see a lot of unfashionable plodder types take part as they know they can contend with a good putting week.
It’s pretty much that simple, keep the ball in play and then attack as many flags as possible. Classic PGA Tour target golf stuff. The winning score is always in excess of -20 so anyone looking to contend will have to make a whole load of birdies.
I have backed Jamie Lovemark a couple of times here and I like his price of 125/1 having put him up at just 35/1 two years ago. Despite his often erratic driving there is something I like about him on short Pete Dye courses as they face here for two rounds. He was 6th here on his only visit with the current course rotation. On his second visit to Dye’s Sawgrass he finished 17th but closed 67-68-67 having opened with a 76. Lovemark was also runner-up with team-mate Benny An around Dye’s TPC Louisiana in 2016. He had 5 top 20s last season with 3 of those coming on Pete Dye layouts. His iron play is generally better the more loft that he has and with his power off the tee he should be attacking most of these easy pro-am flags. He has looked like a future winner the last couple of seasons and while he missed the cut last week I’m not overly concerned as his 17th at the Players also followed a MC so he can find his form quickly. The Hawaii missed cut was his first start since November and it means we get a very nice each way price.
Pat Perez used to be a golfer I didn’t take too seriously until he won a couple of times within a year in 2016/2017. I started paying more attention to him on shorter courses and it was very interesting to see him contend for a couple of rounds at Carnoustie last summer. I remember listening to post round interview in which he said he loved the set up as the baked fairways meant he could get the ball out there and was hitting a lot of wedges which suits his game. He also noted how the slower greens suited him as he felt he was a confident putter when he could give the ball a run at the hole. So I immediately noted him down for events like this, not even realising that he is a former event winner. He is also a runner-up at TPC Louisiana and has a top 20 at Sawgrass. The easy flags and slower greens in play here for the amateurs will be ideal for Perez as will the fact that the 3 courses are fairly short par 72s. Perez is also coming off a missed cut in Hawaii so again we get a very solid each way price of 80/1.
Charley Hoffman fits a similar mould to Perez but he is probably an even better player. Hoffman has a solid record in this event too and is also a former winner back in 2007. It hasn’t taken the bookies too long to forget how solid a player Hoffman is these days and I think he has to be backed at the 100-125/1 that is available. He has finished in the top 22 of 6 of the last 8 majors and has really taken his game to a new consistent level in that time. Things tailed off for him a little after the Open last year but he has had a decent break and will enjoy getting back to his native California. In fact the desert event is pretty much halfway between where he lives now and San Diego where he was born. Few will be as comfortable in this environment so lets just hope he has been working hard over the last 2 weeks and if he has he can make his price look very silly.
The European Tour returns after it’s winter break and the first stop is the starting point of the Middle East Swing in Abu Dhabi. Normally we have three great events in a row from the area with form usually tying in nicely across all three. But this year the Qatar Masters has been moved back to March so it’s just the two in a row which doesn’t feel too much like a swing. The first point to note is that it’s a Wednesday start this week so that gives us one less day to prepare.
The Abu Dhabi Championship has been a staple on the Tour since 2006 and is always held at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, giving us plenty form to look at. It is form very much worth looking at too as 3 men account for 7 of the 13 events to date and the same names crop up on the leaderboard year after year. Tommy Fleetwood returns looking for a three-peat having won here in 2017 and 2018. The fairways are wide with plenty of water in play but generally the rough is playable, certainly for the longer hitters and that gives them a bit of an advantage on a course that already measures 7600 yards. Only the truly errant who find the water off the tee are punished and it sets up very much as a 2nd shot course. The layout is also quite exposed which sets up well for an attacking game and unless the wind blows we can expect the winning score to be somewhere around -20.
Statistically GIR has always been the best pointer in with the last 4 winners having an average GIR ranking for their win of just 6th. Unexpectedly they all scored highly in driving accuracy too averaging 7th. So while finding the fairway isn’t imperative it clearly helps to be playing from the fairways if you want to get close enough to the flag to make the required number of birdies.
The field is as strong as we have seen for some time on the European Tour with the event having been added to the Rolex Series this year. Dustin Johnson is in town as the 7/1 favourite and while he is suited to the event he doesn’t make too much appeal to me. With many of the players returning from their festive break the same can be said about most of the market leaders. With so much guesswork to do I’m far happier going after the juicier each way prices this week and with so many of the Tour’s big names playing there are plenty of those.
Big things have been expected from Thomas Detry for some time and having won the World Cup in November with Thomas Pieters I think the confidence gained from that will bring about his first European Tour title in 2019. There is no question that he is at his best on links style layouts as his excellent short game comes to the fore around hard, fast and undulating green complexes. If he can hold his form over I think this looks like the perfect place for Detry to get off the mark. He was 9th here last year on his debut with the highlight being a Saturday 64. The young Belgian has exactly the right combination of strong iron play and a silky touch that prospers in Abu Dhabi. This was evident throughout 2018 as he ranked 27th in GIR, 19th in strokes gained: putting and 28th in scrambling. With him having played so well in that World Cup win alongside Pieters I was a little surprised that he opened as big as 50/1. Hopefully readers took that after I tweeted on Monday but there is still a little bit around although 40/1 is probably still ok.
Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of both Erik Van Rooyen and Ryan Fox and I’m determined not to miss out when they do get their win. I’m in profit on both however as generally the market misses them most of the time. Abu Dhabi Golf Club should very much suit them both.
Ryan Fox has played here twice and finished 19th on his debut in 2017 before a 31st last year. Fox’s game is all about hitting greens and he ranked 10th for GIR on Tour last year. That meant that more often than not when playing on a links style course he contended. The relatively wide fairways and lack of trees will help Fox off the tee as he tends to relax when he has an open view in front of him on the tee-box. If his putter behaves I’m hopeful he can improve on his two finishes to date.
Erik Van Rooyen makes his debut here this week but that didn’t stop him recording Top 10s at numerous venues last season in his rookie year. In fact it’s a season that the bookies seem to have ignored by pricing him up at 110/1 here. There haven’t been too many more consistent debut seasons in Europe in recent times which saw him finish 22nd in stroke average and 38th on the Race To Dubai. He also ranked 12th in GIR and I think he will take to this ball-strikers course. He showed his enjoyment of links golf when he contended for 3 rounds at Carnoustie last summer and with the emphasis here on approaches the South African will surely be relishing a test that also includes grainy greens similar to back home. Looks an excellent each way price.
I wasn’t sure whether to back Thomas Pieters as you never really know what you’re going to get with him. But his form figures here are excellent and there is every chance that his World Cup win has had a good effect on him as well as Detry. The 25/1 looks very fair and I’ll throw him in as a bit of a saver from the front of the market.
Summary of bets
Jamie Lovemark – 0.75pt ew @ 125/1 (1/5 odds 7 places Betfair)
Pat Perez – 0.75pt ew @ 80/1 (1/5 odds 6 places)
Charley Hoffman – 0.75pt ew @ 100/1 (1/5 odds 7 places Skybet)
Abu Dhabi Championship
Thomas Detry – 1pt ew @ 50/1 (1/5 odds 6 places Unibet/888)
Ryan Fox – 0.75pt ew @ 100/1 (1/5 odds 6 places Skybet)
Erik Van Rooyen – 0.75pt ew @ 100/1 (1/5 odds 6 places Skybet)
Thomas Pieters – 1pt ew @ 22/1 (1/5 odds 7 places Paddy Power)
Weekly points = 11.5pts