The closing, and best-known leg of this ‘Gulf Swing’ section of the Race to Dubai has proved one of the most reliable betting heats ever since its inception. There has been the odd surprise winner; Richard Green and Robert Jan Derksen spring to mind; but even in those years the leaderboard was packed with high-class players. Four of the last six champions had won a Major previously, and the other two, Rory McIlroy and Henrik Stenson, are also members of golf’s elite. Only seven of the last 26 players to register a top-five in this event began the week at more than 50/1.
Course and key stats
With relatively wide fairways and four par-5s, the Emirates Course definitely offers an advantage to big-hitters. However, while driving distance and par-five performance have indeed proved to be pivotal stats here, there is more to this test than just power. In addition, high-class approach play is required to get at the pins on large, fast greens.
Such features tend to separate the best from the rest, which goes some way to explaining why Tiger Woods and Ernie Els have won four titles between them, and registered 13 top-fives out of 14 attempts. Thankfully for Europe’s finest this week, Tiger is out of action and Ernie refocussing his schedule in the States.
Interestingly, recent results suggest inexperience might be slightly less of a handicap here than elsewhere. Each of the last three renewals have seen an up and coming prospect register one of their best early results. Ross Fisher went close at a huge price here in 2007, and Martin Kaymer was beaten only by Tiger in 2008. Last year saw Rory McIlroy land his first, and only, professional victory.
4pts ew MARTIN KAYMER @ 11/1 (GENERAL)
A scintillating performance to win his second Abu Dhabi title confirmed that target golf in the desert really brings out the best in Kaymer. That result means that the German’s five attempts in the United Arab Erimates, either in Abu Dhabi or here, have produced a worst result of fourth, with two wins and two runners-up spots. It was also his third victory in his last ten tournaments. For me, he’s a live Masters candidate and worth considering in any company.
2pts ew ROSS FISHER @ 25/1 (GENERAL)
Last week’s seasonal debut was merely ordinary, but hopefully it will have sharpened up Fisher’s game ahead of one of his best opportunities of the year. If Sunday’s putting stats are anything to go by, that is the case. Fisher’s three previous attempts on this course have produced a worst of just 13th, with the par 5s offering particularly rich rewards to this very long hitter.
1pt ew GRAEME MCDOWELL @ 50/1 (GENERAL)
McDowell looked in good touch towards the end of 2009, and there was much in last week’s 14th place to suggest he’s finding the right groove once again. The key with Graeme tends to be whether he can get the putter working, with his best performances coming on courses with fast greens. The Emirates fits the bill in that regard, and fifth place a couple of years ago behind Woods also bodes well.
1pt ew ALEXANDER NOREN @ 66/1 (GENERAL)
Deciding whether to back Noren this week was one of those classic punting dilemmas concerning whether to stick with a long-held fancy or to focus on very recent form. Towards the end of 2009, the young Swede looked very much a man to follow, and this course with its emphasis on long-game excellence and par-five performance is perfect for his talents. However, his efforts over the past fortnight have left much to be desired and detailed blog entries confirm his frustration. They also suggest any problems are temporary and psychological, rather than caused by golfing deficiencies. One good scoring day could turn that around, and the enhanced 66/1 odds mean I must keep the faith.
Inexperience has not proved too much of a handicap to top youngsters such as McIlroy, Kaymer and Fisher in recent years at the Emirates, and that must bode well for Willett. I remain of the view that he has something close to their potential, and after bagging a place in Johannesburg, we are already in front backing him this term. Odds of 80/1 are probably due to this being his course debut, but they overlook the fact that the Emirates is absolutely perfect for his long-hitting talents. Even last week when reaching only a moderate finishing position, Willett topped both the par-5 and total driving stats.