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Monday, 17 December, 2018

Powerhouse Pieters can trouble the market leaders

Martin Kaymer is King of Abu Dhabi

Thomas Pieters made a bright return to action in Malaysia
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Palmer's top tip
Thomas Pieters 45-1

Rory McIlroy makes his eagerly awaited return to action this week and will be looking to lay to rest the ghost of Abu Dhabi.

The Northern Irishman has been desperately unlucky not to win this title in his nine attempts and has to be considered a serious contender despite his lack of recent competition.

McIlroy, who has not been seen since finishing 63rd in the Dunhill Links Championship in the second week of October, is likely to tee off full of bounce and determination after his spell of recuperation. And Abu Dhabi is an ideal starting point.

The four-times Major champ has Abu Dhabi Championship form of 11-5-3-2-2-MC-2-2-3. The missed cut came after he had just made a complete equipment switch, moving to Nike, so it is easily forgiven. And his runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2014 were due to penalty shots.

Specials market selections

CareerBuilder Challenge preview

McIlroy suffered a two-shot penalty in 2012 for brushing some sand off a fringe, losing by a shot to Robert Rock, then in 2014 the caddie of his playing partner insisted his foot had been touching a spectator walkway after relief had been taken. Another two-shot penalty resulted and he lost by one to Pablo Larrazabal.

McIlroy has won four times in the Gulf – two Desert Classics and two Tour Championships – and it is mightily tempting to jump immediately aboard the Rory train for his seasonal reappearance. Bookmakers are giving nothing away though – 8-1 is the top offer – and after more than three months outside the ropes the little master may need a few more outings before he finds top gear.

Dustin Johnson must be respected after the way he ripped an elite field to shreds in the Sentry Tournament of Champions the week before last, but, again, the layers have his measure with a best-price 5-1.

Johnson is an inexperienced Middle East campaigner – he made his Gulf debut when finishing tied for second in this event last year – and European Tour regulars are far more comfortable in the region. Abu Dhabi Golf Club will demand more accuracy off the tee than the Plantation Course did for the Sentry.

Justin Rose finished last year in spectacular style, signing off with a ridiculous 29-under-par total in the Indonesian Masters just before Christmas. In this form, Rose can win anywhere, but he has competed in only two of the previous 12 Abu Dhabi editions (second in 2013, 12th in 2015) and has never won in the Gulf, so 8-1 fails to set the pulse racing.

McIlroy, Johnson or Rose could triumph, but in the hunt for value, the much bigger prices next to the name of Thomas Pieters are preferred. Pieters is not frightened by elite company, as underlined with his 2016 Ryder Cup brilliance, followed by fourth place in the 2017 Masters, and two top-five finishes in WGC events.

Pieters struggles for consistency and can lose interest when out of contention, but there is no question he has the ability to become Abu Dhabi champion on Sunday, and an encouraging warm-up in the EurAsia Cup last week has bred confidence.

Pieters carried partner Matthew Fitzpatrick in the fourballs, the Belgian's score counting on 11 of the 17 holes played, then the duo produced 16 bogey-free holes to win their foursomes match 3&2.

On Sunday, Pieters registered the winning point for Europe, defeating a tough opponent, Byeong Hun An, in the singles, so he jetted to Abu Dhabi in high spirits to tackle a course on which he is proven.

A missed cut last year is easily forgiven – Pieters was complaining of mental fatigue in the final few weeks of 2016, then went on a long skiing holiday just before the Abu Dhabi Championship, giving himself only a few days to adjust to a new driver on his return. He was not in the right state to perform.

Punters are advised to ignore that failure and focus instead on his runner-up Abu Dhabi finish behind Rickie Fowler in 2016, and his fourth place in 2015, when he faded over the weekend as a young European Tour maiden. A place on the leaderboard holds no fears for the cocksure 25-year-old these days and this track sets up perfectly for him.

Next best
Martin Kaymer 30-1

McIlroy is the former world number one who will command most attention at the start of this event, but it is worth remembering that less than seven years ago Martin Kaymer was the top dog. Kaymer's rise to the rankings summit came shortly after an eight-shot victory in the 2011 Abu Dhabi Championship. The German has better course credentials than anyone this week.

Kaymer has been Abu Dhabi champion three times, winning his maiden European Tour title there by four shots in 2008, and a fourth success looked a formality in 2015 when he assumed a ten-shot lead through five holes of the final round. This previously unflappable Ryder Cup star amazingly let that advantage slip and has not won a tournament since, but the two-time Major champion seems close to rediscovering his A-game.

Kaymer, who was second at Abu Dhabi in 2009, sixth in 2013 and fourth last year, adores this layout, and this could be the week he reasserts himself as the King of Abu Dhabi. He turned 33 in December, so still has plenty of time to enhance his trophy cabinet, and a switch back to blades (rather than cavity-back irons) at the end of last year could speed up the process.

Kaymer has been loving the feel of hitting blades again and he finished fifth in the Nedbank Challenge in the middle of November, before signing off for the year with 17th in the DP World Tour Championship. He played well in the Abu Dhabi Invitational on Friday and Saturday, so is nicely settled in the region, and this class act can trouble the market leaders.

Other selections
Dean Burmester 110-1
Thorbjorn Olesen 80-1

There is some excellent each-way value to be had this week, with standard terms for a field of just 126, and it is a shock to find Dean Burmester at three-figure prices.

The 28-year-old South African is one of the most powerful players in the world and he loves the way the Gulf courses are set up. He has made just three starts in the region – all last season – finishing seventh in Abu Dhabi, 41st in Qatar and fourth in the DP World Tour Championship.

That bold Dubai effort in November has bolstered the belief of Burmester, who has come to realise he belongs in elite competition. Six low-grade Sunshine Tour wins were followed by a European Tour breakthrough in the Tshwane Open last March, but a week on the DP leaderboard with Jon Rahm, Sergio Garcia, Rose and others, has done wonders for his confidence.

Also boosting Burmester is his new TaylorMade M3 driver. TaylorMade have introduced Twist Face technology this year, which Burmester and others have described as game-changer. Twist Face has allowed players to be more aggressive through the ball in the knowledge that off-centre strikes will still go fairly straight, so it favours sluggers such as Burmester. Dustin Johnson used a Twist Face driver for the first time in the Sentry, with awesome results.

Burmester was so lavish in his praise of the new weapon prior to the SA Open last week that he perhaps put himself under too much pressure to get immediate results. Glendower, a tight, tree-lined track, was not a great place to be regularly unleashing the driver, and he opened with a 77. A 67 followed the next day, though, and he got four rounds of action under his belt.

Burmester should enjoy the conditions in Abu Dhabi, as should fellow TaylorMade pro Thorbjorn Olesen, who completes the staking plan. Olesen relishes the Desert Swing and has regularly contended in all three of these tournaments. He was second in the 2013 Abu Dhabi Championship, losing by a shot.

After a consistent but winless 2017, aside from the GolfSixes pairs event, expect four-time European Tour champion Olesen to make a purposeful and strong start to this campaign.

Others to note
Byeong Hun An
The Korean is a proven desert rat, who loves this type of course, and 66-1 is a fair price. His recent form has been uninspiring though.

Paul Casey
The Englishman, eager to regain a place on the European Ryder Cup team, has won this tournament twice before and must be respected.

Tyrrell Hatton
The Englishman claimed maximum points for Europe in the EurAsia Cup last week. He finished 2017 strongly and has slipped straight back into a groove.

Tommy Fleetwood
The defending champion also impressed in Malaysia last week, taking three points from three EurAsia Cup matches, and his confidence has never been higher.

Matthew Fitzpatrick
The four-time European Tour champion won the 2016 DP World Tour Championship on a long Gulf layout, so must be in calculations, but he failed to sparkle in Malaysia last week.

Henrik Stenson
The Swede would love to triumph in Abu Dhabi – the only one of the four European Tour Gulf events which he has failed to conquer. He is a dangerman, but others are much preferred.

Staking plan
T Pieters
2pts each-way 45-1 BetBright

M Kaymer
2pts each-way 30-1 Betfair, Paddy Power

D Burmester
1pt each-way 110-1 Sky Bet

T Olesen
1pt each-way 80-1 Betfred

The Lowdown

Course Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Prize money €2.5m (€461,689 to the winner)

Length 7,583 yards

Par 72

Field 126

Course records – 72 holes 264 Martin Kaymer (2011) 18 holes 62 Henrik Stenson (2006)

Course winners taking part Paul Casey (twice), Martin Kaymer (three times), Robert Rock, Jamie Donaldson, Pablo Larrazabal, Gary Stal, Tommy Fleetwood

When to bet By 3.20am Thursday

Where to watch Live on Sky Sports from 3.30am Thursday

Time difference Abu Dhabi is four hours ahead of the UK & Ireland

Last week – SA Open 1 C Paisley (150-1), 2 B Grace (13-2), 3 JC Ritchie (750-1), T4 S Vincent (late qualifier, price n/a), J Kruyswijk (200-1), J Blaauw (250-1)

Course overview Abu Dhabi is a long, desert layout, which has traditionally been a birdie-fest, the European Tour's bombers firing at wide fairways with gay abandon since the event became part of the schedule in 2006. Prior to the 2012 running, winning scores of 21, 21 and 24 under par were registered. The tournament organisers, though, added bunkers, tightened fairways, pushed back a couple of tees and lengthened the rough, providing a tougher challenge. The course is flat and exposed, with water in play on nine holes, so any wind significantly adds to the difficulty. The greens are large

Story of last year A final-hole birdie was enough for Tommy Fleetwood to defeat Pablo Larrazabal and Dustin Johnson by a shot

Weather forecast Sunny with light breezes for the first three days, before moderate winds on Sunday

Type of player suited to challenge Big-hitters have dominated this tournament – Martin Kaymer and Paul Casey have won five of the 12 runnings by employing length to devastating effect – and exposed desert layouts lend themselves to aggressive golf. Rickie Fowler and Tommy Fleetwood, two other powerhouses, have won the last two.

Key attribute Power

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A place on the leaderboard holds no fears for the cocksure 25-year-old these days and this track sets up perfectly for him
E.W. Terms
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