Abu Dhabi Championship Preview, Picks & Analysis
DEFENDING champion Tommy Fleetwood leads a stellar cast at the Abu Dhabi Championship as the European Tour kicks off its 2019 season. He will be joined by world No 2 Brooks Koepka and the big-hitting American Dustin Johnson as the tournament enjoys promotion to become one of the tour’s elite Rolex Series events, one of eight premium events on the 2019 European Tour’s International Schedule.
Two-time reigning champion Fleetwood will be aiming to write his name in the history books as he attempts to secure a third consecutive title at Abu Dhabi Golf Club.
The Rolex Series is the premium tournament category on the European Tour’s International Schedule, with a prize fund of $7m on offer.
Three-time major champion Koepka will be looking to continue his heroics from 2018, when he won the US Open for the second successive year and then added the US PGA Championship and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year, as well as climbing to the top of the world rankings.
It is easily forgotten that Koepka came through the European Challenge Tour. He said: “I’m very excited to be taking part in this tournament again after such a long time away. I’ve been determined to include it in my schedule as I keep hearing from DJ, Rickie, Jordan and all the American guys what a great time they’ve had in Abu Dhabi.
“I actually remember my last visit really well as it is undoubtedly one of the biggest and best events on the European Tour’s schedule. It always gathers an unbelievable field and the whole set up of the event is amazing along with the perfect weather conditions. I wasn’t surprised at all to hear it had been awarded Rolex Series status and I can’t wait to return to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA in January.”
“Last time I played in 2014, I was ranked 93rd in the world, so a lot has happened since that time. I’m looking forward to returning and hopefully adding my name to the impressive list of champions.”
For reasons that many, your correspondent included, fail to understand, Koepka remains a hugely underrated figure and it is beginning to irritate him. Remember that he missed a large part of last season because of a dreadful wrist injury. It kept him out of The Masters but he returned in sensational form and won both his majors in sensational fashion, holding off a charging Fleetwood at the US Open and an irresistible Tiger Woods at the US PGA, where Woods brought the house down with a closing round of 64 - his best ever final round in any major.
Henrik Stenson has also confirmed he will be in the field. The Swede, an 11-time European Tour winner and former Open Champion, is relishing the chance to get his 2019 season off to a flying start.
Stenson, who will be competing in Abu Dhabi for a 14th consecutive time, said: “I can’t wait to return to Abu Dhabi for one of my favourite tournaments of the year. It’s cool to have played in every edition of this tournament and experienced first-hand its growth into one of the biggest events on the European Tour with the strongest field in the Middle East.
“I’ve finished second a couple of times before and have really vivid memories of shooting 62 and breaking the course record in 2006, but eventually losing out to American Chris DiMarco. I really want my name on that Falcon Trophy and hopefully that’s going to change next January, although I’m sure there are a few players, including Brooks, Dustin and Tommy, who will have something to say about that!”
Stenson played a key role in helping to win back the Ryder Cup in Paris but only got into the team as a captain’s pick. He went close a couple of times but will be looking to get himself back into the winner’s circle again soon. Now in his 40s, he will draw some inspiration from everything that Tiger Woods achieved last season. Make no mistake, the Swede still possesses plenty of game - and a huge heart.
Fleetwood said “I have had an amazing couple of years and it all really started at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA. The 2017 win was massive but then I think defending my title earlier this year was very special as it is extremely tough to do. I think it is one of the strongest events on tour and it so deserves its place on the Rolex Series and I know this will be a popular decision amongst the players. I love everything about Abu Dhabi, from the course to the hotels to the restaurants and, of course, returning as the defending champion. I can’t wait to be back in January.”
Johnson, who has slipped to third in the world rankings, said “Having played the event for the last two years, I’m really looking forward to returning. I enjoy being in Abu Dhabi and have made several friends during my visits. The golf course is one of the best and most well-conditioned. We play all-year and it always presents a good, fair test. I’ve played OK there in the past, but hopefully, this will be my year to get the win.”
Keith Pelley, chief executive of the European Tour, and the man who has transformed the fortunes of the tour - and its players - is delighted by the quality of the field. “We are thrilled that the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship presented by EGA has become part of The Rolex Series. It is a landmark addition that broadens the Series further and helps to strengthen the European Tour both globally and in the UAE. This event attracts some of the world’s top players like Dustin and Tommy, and we are looking forward to watching four days of high-quality, compelling and dramatic golf.”
It was won in 2010 and 2011 by Martin Kaymer, in 2012 by Robert Rock, in 2013 by Jamie Donaldson, in 2014 by Pablo Larrazábal, in 2015 by Gary Stal, in 2016 by Rickie Fowler and in 2017 and 2018 by Fleetwood.
Brooks Koepka. Difficult to bet against the World No 2
Henrik Stenson. Loves this course
Tommy Fleetwood. Going for third successive victory here
Brooks Koepka. Hugely impressive physical specimen
Henrik Stenson. Ryder Cup hero looking for a big individual year
Tommy Fleetwood. Rock on Tommy!
Matthew Fitzpatrick. Came close here 12 months ago
Tyrrell Hatton. His New Year resolution should have been to count to 10
Matt Wallace. Looking to kick on after stellar 2018
Kiradech Aphibarnrat. You have just got to love this guy
Eddie Pepperell. Now a real player
Ross Fisher. Always quietly impressive
Dustin Johnson. Everybody duck!
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