Abu Dhabi Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
WHEN Tommy Fleetwood steps on to the first tee to begin the defence of his Abu Dhabi Championship he will be announced as the European Tour’s Race to Dubai winner. And for the man from Southport, this was where it all really began – a year that he will never forget, during which he established himself as one of the best golfers on the planet.
After his success in Abu Dhabi, Fleetwood gave Dustin Johnson a run for his money, finishing second to the big American at the WGC Mexico Championship before recording another runners-up finish at the Shenzhen International. Next came a fourth place at the US Open and another victory, this time at the French Open. Suddenly, Fleetwood was a player, a real player. He led the Race to Dubai all year and although Justin Rose gave him one heck of a fright by winning the Turkish Airlines Open and HSBC Champions, Fleetwood held on.
Interviewed immediately after being crowned as Europe’s No1, Fleetwood struggled to put into words what it meant to him. He had also become a father for the first time, as well as recording a couple of the best rounds of the season in events he didn’t win – a mind-boggling 63 at Carnoustie during the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and another 63 during the Italian Open. And he finished the year by marrying his long-time partner after competing in the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas. Life is sweet indeed for the man from Southport.
Martin Kaymer won this tournament in 2010 and 2011, Robert Rock in 2012, Jamie Donaldson in 2013, Pablo Larrazabal in 2014, Gary Star in 2015 and Rickie Fowler in 2015.
It will be fascinating to see how Fleetwood follows such a stellar year, but there is no reason to believe that he will not kick on. He began the new season by finishing sixth at the Hong Kong Open and is clearly in fine fettle. Fleetwood has an idiosyncratic swing but the key thing is that it repeats – over and over again. He is a slight figure but trust me when I tell you that he gives the ball a mighty whack, and finds an awful lot of fairways.
As the Middle East swing gets under way, and with all due respect to Fleetwood, all eyes are going to be on Rory McIlroy, who begins his European Tour campaign in Abu Dhabi after enduring one of the most trying years of his career. McIlroy loves this part of the world and will be keen to prove that he has been making the most of his winter layoff.
McIlroy may well be arguably the star attraction, but he has some serious opposition in what is a world-class field, including Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey and Matt Kuchar.
One man who will be desperate to make his mark is Casey, who has rejoined the European Tour after being approached by European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn, who told him that he wanted him on his team as Europe try to win back the little gold trophy. Casey had abandoned Europe at a time when he was struggling with his game, saying that he needed to focus fully on retaining his playing rights in America, where he is based. The Englishman has enjoyed a remarkable run during the past two or three years, reeling off countless top 10s. However, it is a long time since he last won a tournament anywhere. His only win on the PGA Tour was back in 2009 and his last success in Europe came at the KLM Open in 2014.
It is scarcely credible that a golfer of Casey’s quality has gone all that time without a win. In the meantime, he has banked millions of dollars, but careers are judged on victories, and this would be a good time for Casey to remember how to do it. The same can be said of Kuchar, who ran Jordan Spieth so close at The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale last year and may now be saddled with the unwanted title of best player never to have won a major. Kuchar is a remarkable player. He has actually won seven times and has finished in the top 10 in majors on 10 occasions. In 2016 alone, Kuchar had nine top 10 finishes on the PGA Tour and finished third, behind Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson at the Olympic Games.
Rose is also in the field and is looking forward to taking part. “Starting 2018 off in Abu Dhabi is something many of the players on tour look forward to,” said Rose. “I had a strong end to 2017 and I’ll be hoping to carry on that momentum as I arrive in Abu Dhabi. It is a really enjoyable and testing course which provides a terrific challenge, and I am sure that I am not the only one looking forward to trying take the trophy from Tommy this year.”
After winning The Open in 2016, Stenson admitted that he suffered something of a reaction. He throughly enjoyed his year as Open champion but it was clear that his form improved after Spieth had succeeded him as champion at Birkdale. The Swede won again on the PGA Tour, and there are many who believe that he may yet add another major to that extraordinary success at Royal Troon, when he produced a final round of 63 to beat Phil Mickelson. There are few better ball strikers in the world than Stenson and when he putts well he is very difficult to beat.
The tournament organisers are to be congratulated for being able to attract Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player. He has started 2018 in superb form, winning on the PGA Tour for the 11th year on the trot. There are many within the game who frown upon the very thought of paying appearance money to attract the world’s best players but Johnson’s participation in Abu Dhabi will attract larger crowds than would normally be expected, along with bumper TV audiences. And anybody who doesn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to watch the world’s best golfer in action really should find another sport to follow.
If Johnson arrives in Abu Dhabi feeling fresh and fit, he will be a very difficult man to beat. The European Tour will be hoping against hope that, come Sunday, we are watching McIlroy and Johnson in the final group.
Justin Rose. In the form of his life
Dustin Johnson. Crash, bang, wallop
Rory McIlroy. So many questions…
Justin Rose. Has finally found a putting stroke that works
Dustin Johnson. Could bring the course to its knees
Rory McIlroy. Let’s all hope he is back to his brilliant best
Paul Casey. Terrific competitor
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Hugely underrated
Matt Kuchar. The top-10 machine
Henrik Stenson. A great each-way bet
Tommy Fleetwood. Looking to make more progress in 2018
Tyrrell Hatton. Full of confidence
Matthew Fitzpatrick. Fantastic short game
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