Golf pundit Jason Daniels is here to give his preview and best bets for the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship.
Just days after the inaugural running of the Hero Cup, we get the chance to see the first full-field event of the 2023 DP World schedule.
For the second year, the Yas Links provides the venue for the well-established Abu Dhabi Championship, but last year’s leaderboard showed not much has changed, with a board of ‘linsky’ players and also those with firm form-lines in this part of the world.
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Last year’s champion, Thomas Pieters, is one of 18 players that took part at ADGC last week, and he heads a defending leaderboard that included the likes of Rafa Cabrera-Bello, Victor Dubuisson, Ian Poulter, Tyrrell Hatton and more than a handful of others that appear regularly in the Middle East, Portugal, Holland and Denmark – just some venues that offer clues to regular top-10ers.
Continental Europe won last week’s renewal of what was in effect the old ‘Seve Trophy’ but that shouldn’t stop a strong showing from many of the beaten side. Opting between the likes of Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood and Shane Lowry is as tough as it gets, all having top class links form and a promising ending to 2022. Still, combine them with Alex Noren, playing well but winless since July 2018, and the coupled odds offer somewhere around 85-40. Despite their obvious claims, that doesn’t appeal.
It is the next group that appeals mostly this week and, whilst Thomas Pieters holds very solid claims for going back-to-back here, the pair of Robert Macintyre and Adrian Meronk are the first to go into the plan.
142 yards. Too many swear words 🤬
— Robert MacIntyre (@robert1lefty) December 7, 2022
I’ll admit a weakness for the Scot, whose talent has still not reached anything like a ceiling, but Ryder Cup year may see him raise his levels, particularly having told The Telegraph that:
"Playing for Europe has been one of my life goals since I started to believe I was half decent at this game. I’ve played Walker Cup and now I want to appear in the best event in the world and a lot of the older guys––the likes of Sam (Torrance) and Stevie (Gallacher) who we’ve spoken to here this week have told me it would be the best thing to do in my life. And I’ve got a great opportunity to do that."Robert Macintyre in the Daily Telegraph
Robert MacIntyre - Each Way
Bob’s claims to a place in the European locker room will be far stronger with a place inside the world’s top 50, which gives him access to all the majors and top events around the world.
He’s been there before, after his first win on tour, a strange lockdown-influenced event in Cyprus, but the victory was no surprise given his three runner-up finishes and a 6th at The Open in his inaugural year (2019) after which he received the Rookie of the Year award.
Available for all the four majors in 2021, he finished tied-12th at Augusta and eighth at Royal St. George’s, an event that may be significant this week.
Down the stretch on Sunday, Bob looked set to finish inside the top five before a pulled tee shot on the final par-5 (14th), a move that cost him a bogey. If I was to take just one of the recent Opens as a guide, the 2021 running may be the one.
Whilst the wind was only a zephyr, and disappointing for such a contest, conditions may well mirror the type we see this week. If not, the leaderboard certainly gives some idea with Jon Rahm in third place (three wins and a place in Dubai), Lowry and Viktor Hovland sharing 12th, Paul Casey in 15th and Sergio Garcia also just inside the top-20.
All those named have terrific form not only in the UAE but also in the immediate vicinity, and it seems the same with those beaten in last season’s Italian Open.
Held at the Marco Simone Club – this year’s Ryder Cup venue – Bob shot a final round, and best-of-the-day 64 – to reach a play-off against Matt Fitzpatrick. Winner with a birdie at the first extra hole, he also left behind the likes of Victor Perez, Rory McIlroy, Tyrrell Hatton and Jorge Campillo, all fine exponents of links golf, whilst he also joined Nicolai Hojgaard in a tiny Marco Simone winner’s club, the latter beating Tommy Fleetwood and Meronk for his maiden victory.
Macintyre followed his second victory with a top-10 at classic Le Golf National, top-20 at the Alfred Dunhill Links (11th into payday), top-10 at Valderrama and a closing 18th in Portugal at least two of those being a form guide to Yas this week.
The 26-year-old has admitted he often tries ‘too’ hard and that he plays his best golf when happy and relaxed. Having left the course yesterday with a 4&3 victory alongside Seamus Power and a heavy singles victory over Noren, he should be spot on.
In contrast to the first selection, Adrian Meronk was on the winning side over the weekend, and comes here as another improving 20-something.
Adrian Meronk - Each Way
Although the Pole was ranked around 200th at the end of the 2020 season, he caught the eye when running-up to Christiaan Bezuidenhout at Leopard Creek in November of that year, seemingly a tad naïve when challenging.
That immaturity is now a distant memory, replaced by a player that had three top three finishes in 2021, and topped by a closing top-10 finish in Dubai.
Having gone on many ‘to follow’ lists for 2022, the 29-year-old withdrew midway through this event before compensating his fans with four top six finishes in seven starts, three in this part of the world.
Belgium and the Netherlands saw Meronk finish in a closing sixth and third, the latter finish at Bernardus Golf (significantly designed by Kyle Phillips) before his (almost telegraphed) victory at Mount Juliet saw him follow in the footsteps of Lucas Herbert, another wind and links specialist.
11th in France and 22nd at the multi-course Dunhill Links works for me, as does his finish to 2022 – seventh at the DP finale, in fifth at halfway in Brisbane, and his impressive second victory at this level, by five shots at the Australian Open.
That win, by a handful from proven links and top-class players such as Adam Scott and Min Woo Lee raises the Pole to yet another level, and now just inside the world’s top 50, a huge effort that sees him receive the ultimate invite:
— Adrian Meronk (@AdrianMeronk) December 23, 2022
With confidence at a high, expect the Polish hero to enjoy the expanses of Yas Links, as he did when sitting inside the top-20 for the three rounds he did complete last year.
Nicolai Hojgaard has already been referenced as the winner of the 2021 Italian Open, and that win alone might be enough to stir interest, but take into account many of his best performances and he appeals greatly at anything around 50/1.
Nicolai Hojgaard - Each Way
The more flamboyant of the twins is much more of a bully on the course than his brother, Rasmus, for whom he deputised for at the Hero Cup. That decision was justified after an unbeaten 3.5 points saw him produce one of the more surprising performances of the weekend and that encourages me to take the hint soon after a 10th place finish at the Australian Open, where he was never off the front page at any point.
Second place at both the Portugal Masters and KLM and, of course, a win at Ras Al Kaihmah read nicely for this week’s test, whilst he can add a fourth place to his UAE record having finished strongly on his debut at the DP World Tour Championship.
Ignore the missed cut last season as the 21-year-old was lying in 17th place after the first round before experiencing very tough conditions – eventual winner Thomas Pieters was also one that was over par for Friday.
With this track sure to suit his distance off the tee – Pieters and Hovland ranked top 10 in that regard – and with his confidence up after holing the winning putt for Continental Europe, this should be time to be with him.
It’s hard to believe that a player would win two events in his rookie year and also come within a whisker of his third title, yet be triple digits for this week.
In Ewen Ferguson there is a player that not only showed class in difficult conditions in Qatar (Meronk in third) but also only got done by a superstar putting performance when going for the three-timer in Denmark.
Ewen Ferguson - Each Way
At all three victories, the Scot ranked highly in all tee-to-green aspects, something he found again towards the end of 2022, at Mallorca and the Gary Player GC. Whilst his excellent short game was lacking towards the end of the year, I’m prepared to err on the side that says it had been a long, if successful, first foray at the highest level, one that could have seen him win Rookie of the Year, although ultimately beaten to that by Thriston Lawrence.
Having been one of the success stories of the 2022 Players To Follow column, the 26-year-old more than paid his way, and it’s worth taking a chance that comes out and performs in similar conditions.
I’m watching former star Joost Luiten like a hawk, as his back-form hints to a great week now he and his health are back to something like their best, but the final selection goes to Marcus Helligkilde, another highlighted in last year’s column, and once again in 2023.
Marcus Helligkilde - Each Way
Whilst his overall profile is sketchy, we should remember that the Dane missed the middle few months of 2022 with a persistent shoulder injury, before doing enough to retain his DPWT card, something that looked unlikely as the tour approached the autumn months.
Having seen the likes of Jordan Smith and Brooks Koepka graduate from the Challenge Tour with success, much was expected of Helligkilde as he made his way through his rookie year on tour, particularly after three wins led him to a comfortable championship.
The season started in pleasing enough fashion, opening his first look at Yas Links with a 69 to lie inside the top 20, before a mid-event 66/67 saw him lie in ninth going into Payday at Ras. Back in the Middle East, the Dane came from outside the top-50 to finish 12th in Qatar and the sharks were buzzing for a coup in the near future.
However, after a couple of months, Helligkilde revealed he had been suffering with a shoulder injury for a while and would require surgery, something that meant taking at least six weeks off tour.
He admitted he was nowhere near 100 percent when re-appearing at the Irish Open, but a mid-point 22nd was encouraging, as was the trip to the KFT where he performed with credit at both the co-sanctioned events.
Among a large amount of DPWT players at the Barbasol, Helligkilde recorded 16 out of 18 greens-in-regulation on his way to a bogey-free third round of 66 before following up with the same figure on payday, resulting in a move from 64th at halfway to 8th when the cheques were being handed out.
The following week, the Dane was never outside the top-22 in finishing 13th at the Barracuda, both weeks suggesting he was close to being back to his best.
By finishing 4th in Ireland and 8th in his home event, the ‘Made In Himmerland’, Helligkilde showed he can perform when necessary, his top-30 at the Spanish Open enough to secure a place inside the top-100 on the Race To Dubai.
The Dane is far better than that number and, now injury free, is hopefully in a position to show his best, in conditions that will suit a player for whom the middle of the green is always a target.