ONCE up upon a time, three wise men carrying gifts followed a star across the Middle East. These days, it is three-balls, boasting caddies rather than camels, who traipse across the region and they’re chasing bulging purses, not bright lights in the night sky.
All of which is a long-winded way of introducing the first of the European Tour’s Rolex Series events, the lucrative tournaments that offer huge prize funds and with it attract the first world class field of the season. The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship has been a constant since 2006 so we have plenty of course form.
The list of winners at Abu Dhabi GC is largely high quality. Chris Dimarco claimed the first tournament in 2006, around the time when, but for Tiger Woods, he would have been a mightily impressive winner of two major championships. Rickie Fowler has won here, another golfer who ought to have claimed a major. Martin Kaymer has won three times (and it should have been four), whilst Tommy Fleetwood is a two-time champion. European Ryder Cup stars Jamie Donaldson and Paul Casey have also landed wins and so, too, last year did Shane Lowry ahead of his Open triumph. It suggests we’re seeking a superior performer and not just because the field is good – also because the Pete Harradine track filters the wheat from the chaff.
That is, of course, a well-appreciated trend so the favourites are everyone you’d expect – past winners Fleetwood and Lowry, in-form South Africans Branden Grace and Louis Oosthuizen, plus the American raiders Brooks Koepka, Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau. I nominate, instead, a player who might very soon be regularly rated among that class of players. The 22-year-old Viktor Hovland has made 12 starts as a professional and eight of them were top 20s. His only European Tour start was when 11th at the BMW PGA Championship, he’s set to be a future star and he can shine brightly this week.
There has always been a feeling that this course suits excellent ball-strikers – or, at least, players whose long game is in fine fettle. The Strokes Gained stats from last year back that up, showing that the players who finished in the top five also ranked top five for the Tee to Green category. Those five performers also thrived in other long game categories whilst none were top ten for Putting. A look at last season’s ranking for SG: Tee to Green further fuels this theory because multiple course winners Fleetwood and Kaymer rank third and eighth whilst two course specialists (Thomas Pieters and Joost Luiten) are second and fourth.
— مجلس أبوظبي الرياضي (@AbuDhabiSC) January 6, 2020
And who topped the 2019 rankings? Sergio Garcia whose fondness for the layout was already in no doubt because he’s played it six times and never ended the week outside the top 20. He was a winner late last year and also sixth last time out on the European Tour. He’s opted not to play in this week’s Singapore Open, an event he presumably collects a hefty appearance fee for and also accrues plenty of prize money. He’s nonetheless rocked up in the desert. He’s dropped a hint so take it.
Whilst the track has undoubtedly identified high quality winners, it has also thrown up a course specialist win (Pablo Larrazabal), a surprise (Robert Rock going toe-to-toe with Tiger Woods and prevailing) and a complete gobsmacker (unheralded Frenchman Gary Stal pouncing when Kaymer disintegrated in 2015). A win for Victor Perez would not be on the same scale as his compatriot Stal’s triumph, because he was incredibly impressive in the autumn of 2019, but there are plenty of reasons to believe that his game is still rising and that contending with a world class field is not beyond him.
The first clue is his presence at ninth in the 2019 SG: Tee to Green rankings which suggests his fine long game is a good fit for the test (it might also matter more this week given the unlikely heavy rain which has hit the course in the last week). His course debut last year got off to a poor start with a 75, but he made the cut courtesy of a second round 66 and closed with a 69. And when he broke into the big time late last year he finished fourth in his WGC debut and made a play-off in the Turkish Airlines Open. There’s lots to like about his chances.