Abu Dhabi preview
Dave Tindall's in-depth preview and best bets for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
Last Updated: 21/01/13 9:55pm
After the rather low-key start to the season in South Africa, Abu Dhabi is when the Race To Dubai gets serious and the big guns come out to play.
So, for the first time this season, welcome to the stage Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Martin Kaymer and Justin Rose.
It doesn't stop there though with four other Ryder Cuppers also on show.
Rory and Tiger have been paired together over the first two rounds and their rivalry takes on an extra dimension here with McIlroy having joined Woods as a Nike Tour player after a big ceremony at the nearby Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel on Monday.
The two star names are out early in round one so set those alarm clocks early, as Sky Sports have brought their coverage forward to 3.30am to catch every shot they hit.
Abu Dhabi Golf Club is situated 30 minutes from the city centre of Abu Dhabi. Chris Card, the Group General Manager of Abu Dhabi Golf Club, told Sky Sports: "The course is in absolutely spectacular condition. I'd like to think that this is one of, if not the best, conditioned course the tour professionals play all year - that's certainly the feedback we've been getting from the players who have already been out on the course practising over the past few days. Typically the winning score has always been fairly low - 20-under par used to be the benchmark, but that changed last year when Robert won with 13-under. We grew the rough up last year and that obviously had an impact on the scores, but it's not quite as high this year. So, my guess would be somewhere in the middle of -20 and -13....I'll go for -17."
As you'd expect, little sunshine symbols dominate the Abu Dhabi weather forecast with temperatures a very pleasant 21 degrees. The wind will blow in the practice rounds but it's predicted to drop to between 5 and 10mph during the tournament.
Last year - Robert Rock
In one of the great underdog stories, England's Robert Rock held off Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy to claim a sensational victory. Ranked 117th in the world at the time, Rock compiled a final round two-under 70 to hold off playing partner Woods, whose 72 left him in tied third. McIlroy was runner-up for the second year running and was left to rue an incident in the second round when he brushed sand away just off the green. It resulted in a two-shot penalty, the significance of which was obvious when McIlroy ended up losing the tournament by a shot.
The leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
(UAE form refers to the last four results from the three European Tour events played in the United Arab Emirates - this tournament, the Dubai Desert Classic and the DP World Tour Championship)
Rory McIlroy (5/1): Can Rory make a winning start with his new Nike clubs? The "beware the change of equipment" doom mongers will think not and suggest that, at best, McIlroy will need a period of adjustment. But the pro-Rory camp will be strongly backing their man to win straight out of the gate. The world number one has a superb record in this event and an excellent one in the United Arab Emirates. Having won the Dubai Desert Classic and DP World Tour Championship he's a deserved favourite to complete the UAE hat-trick by landing this one.
2013 form: n/a
Course form: 2-2-3-5
UAE form: 1-5-2-11
World ranking: 1
Tiger Woods (13/2): Tiger is all smiles so far despite clearly being usurped by McIlroy as Nike's prized asset. But you imagine the fires that still burn bright inside Tiger will be driving him on even more this week as he attempts to put one over his new 'teammate'. Woods had a great chance to win here last year but stalled in the final round and finished third but he does have winning form in the UAE after winning the 2006 and 2008 Dubai Desert Classics. Woods clearly had a strong year in 2012 but it's worth noting that he didn't win any event after July 1st and had a mixed time of it in the Ryder Cup.
2013 form: n/a
Course form: 3
UAE form: 3-20-1-3
World ranking: 2
Martin Kaymer (9/1): This course used to be Kaymer's playground with the German racking up victories in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and also finishing second in 2009. It was a massive shock therefore to see him miss the cut last year. However, that MC was indicative of a difficult time for Kaymer and there's good reason to believe that he has his mojo back after holing THAT putt in the Ryder Cup. Since Medinah, he's gone on and won the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa and he has to have a strong chance of claiming his fourth victory here.
2013 form: n/a
Course form: MC-1-1-2
UAE form: 26-13-MC-11
World ranking: 28
Justin Rose (16/1): Rose's last appearance in the UAE saw him finish second in November's DP World Tour Championship. It looked as if the Englishman's closing 62 had caught the field by surprise but Rory McIlroy birdied the final five holes to deny him victory. A star in the Ryder Cup, Rose is making his debut in the event this year but he's finished runner-up in two of his last three starts in the UAE so likes the desert conditions and these days he has a deserved seat at golf's top table. Rates a big threat to the leading three in the market.
2013 form: n/a
Course form: n/a
UAE form: 2-50-2-56
World ranking: 5
Jason Dufner (20/1): Dufner was a rather low-key 18th of 30 in Hawaii two weeks ago but he did show an encouraging ability to thrive in events a long way from home at the end of last year when runner-up in both the Perth International in Australia and the HSBC Tournament of Champions in China. The Ryder Cup star, one of just three Americans to win their Sunday Singles at Medinah, will be making his debut in the UAE but his excellent tee-to-green game looks a good fit for the course so his chances depend on how well he takes to the greens.
2013 form: 18
Course form: n/a
UAE form: n/a
World ranking: 11
Francesco Molinari (25/1): The Italian got his 2013 campaign under way in South Africa last week and produced four solid rounds to finish tied ninth. Abu Dhabi has proved a pretty happy hunting ground for the Ryder Cupper with three top 10s in the last four visits while he's also racked up a couple of top sixes in his last three outings at the Dubai World Championship season-ender. It's the standard provisio with Molinari, if his putting is strong he has a live chance as his long game is so reliable.
2013 form: 9
Course form: 8-8-13-10
UAE form: 34-16-8-6
World ranking: 30
2013 form: n/a
Course form: 35-MC-11-10
UAE form: 16-51-35-4
World ranking: 20
Paul Casey (28/1): The Englishman is a huge fan of this tournament after winning it in both 2007 and 2009. He also even had a hole-in-one (at the 12th) when 18th here on his last appearance in 2011. This time last year he was sidelined with injury but, after a spell in the doldrums, he bounced back at the end of last year with a hat-trick of top 10s. His 18th place in South Africa last week included a trio of 69s to close after a slow start so it shouldn't come as a surprise if the former world number three comes alive this week at a venue where he has such strong memories.
2013 form: 18
Course form: 18-27-1-MC
UAE form: 16-18-6-11
World ranking: 121
Best of the rest
Padraig Harrington (28/1): After admitting he worked his socks off over the Christmas period, Harrington saw some early rewards with a fourth place in last week's Volvo Golf Champions in South Africa. His week concluded with rounds of 67-68 on the weekend so he certainly has some momentum. Harrington's last visit to the UAE resulted in a ninth place in the DP World Tour Championship while, in this event, he's finished top five in two of his last four visits.
George Coetzee (33/1): The young South African is still awaiting his first European Tour win despite putting himself in position numerous times. It's asking a lot for him to make the big breakthrough in this company but he certainly has top five possibilities after finishing sixth here last year and fifth in the Dubai Desert Classic two weeks later. Last start was a 10th place in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in his native South Africa before Christmas.
Jamie Donaldson (55/1): If Robert Rock can win here, some of his peers may feel inspired to do so too. Donaldson, as did Rock before his win, has just one previous Tour victory to his name but that triumph came as recently as July when he beat a good field in the Irish Open at Royal Portrush. Since then his CV is littered with top 10s and 20s and there's a real feeling that he has a big one in him. He has three recent top 25s in this event which is superior course form to what Rock had before he won.
Sky Bet offer 9/4 that either of Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods wins (see Two Chances To Win market) but, for me, there's only one king these days and it's the young Ulsterman.
The 5/1 on Rory seems more than fair enough given his recent win ratio (four in the last nine) and I think it's a virtual certainty that he'll trade at lower odds than that at some point.
Having Tiger as a partner for the first two days is just the sort of competitive push that will help him make a fast start and, as we saw with his five-birdie finish in the DP Tour Championship last November, he has another gear at the finish.
Rory has a wonderful record in this part of the world and I expect him to give Nike an instant reward.
Justin Rose so nearly took victory in that same DP Tour Championship and, in my view, should be closer in the betting to Woods and course specialist Kaymer.
Rose may well be making his course debut but that was the case at the Tour Championship so there shouldn't be any worries there. Indeed he said only last week that he really likes playing desert tracks.
Rose is number five in the world and has the class and experience to go head to head with anyone. Take him each-way at 16s.
Finally, I'll have a dabble on the rapidly improving Jamie Donaldson.
The Welshman, who recently secured a debut start in The Masters this April, finished 19th in the Race To Dubai last year and showed his liking for the big time with a tied seventh in the USPGA.
He's got some tidy form in this event and, after the most successful year of his career in 2012, he can continue that upwards progression with a big performance here.
4pts win Rory McIlroy at 5/1
2pts e.w. Justin Rose at 16/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Jamie Donaldson at 55/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)