Are sportsmen motivated by money? You damn right they are: you can find examples of the big names having decisions made for them by the lure of a big payday: it’s why footballers like Neymar leave brilliant clubs like Barcelona to play for franchises like PSG, it’s why basketball and American football stars leave their hometown teams to join the mega-bucks elite, and it’s why tennis aces travel to all four corners of the globe in the hunt for the loot.
Golfers are by no means an exception to the rule, and while the European Tour routinely struggles to convince the best players in the world to grace their events, they know that ‘money talks and bull**** walks’, in the infamous words of Spinal Tap.
So are we surprised that some of the sport’s elite performers are heading out to the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, a tournament boasting a season’s best kitty of $3 million? Of course not.
Whatever their motivations, at least the assembled field will put on a good show this week in the first of the ‘Desert Swing’ events on the European Tour. The weather is nice and hot, as you would expect, and a scoreable course means that some fantastic golf is in the offing.
The host venue is the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, handily, whose National course offers enough of a test to the players to make life competitive. It’s a long old stretch at a shade over 7,500 yards, and the flat, exposed terrain is peppered with bunkers, lakes and rough areas that are ready to lap up any off-centre striking.
As discussed, this is a high quality field. Dustin Johnson will be looking to go one better here after finishing second 12 months ago, and he will be tracked by Rory McIlroy – making his competitive return after three months out with injury, the in-form Justin Rose and defending champion Tommy Fleetwood, whose outstanding 2017 was kickstarted with victory at this very course.
So where is the smart money going?
The Market Leaders
World number one Johnson arrives in Abu Dhabi on the back of a season-opening victory at the Tournament of Champions, and as such he is a worthy favourite with the bookmakers at 5/1. He is the most likely in the field to lift the trophy, but can we justify backing him at such a short price in a field of this quality? Punters will have to make their own minds up on that front.
There are two other fancies at sub-10/1 prices, and we’re happy enough to swerve both. McIlroy has finished in the top-three an incredible six times at this course without ever getting over the line. Returning from injury, and up against DJ, Justin Rose and co, it’s hard to imagine that this will be the occasion where he finally takes top spot.
Rose’s scarcely believable formline reads 1-5-10-4-1-1, and it is incredible that a relative elder statesman of the game is playing some of the best golf of his life as he nears his fourth decade. The caveat for punters is that he has only played here once in the last four years, finishing a creditable 12th in 2015, but that is enough of a seed of doubt to suggest his odds of 8/1 are a little stingy.
Longer Odds Chances
Opposing the top three in the market brings with it risks and potential rewards for punters. The risk is that betting against three of the finest golfers on the planet can be made to look foolish; the reward being that the rest of the field is generously priced as a consequence.
Do we consider a 28/1 poke to be a longshot? Maybe, maybe not, it depends on your own wagering strategy, but we would consider Tyrrell Hatton to be value at those odds. The Englishman can be categorised as a regular winner these days with three victories since October 2016, and his form in the majors – he has finished fifth in The Open and tenth at the PGA Championship – suggests he isn’t afraid to mix it with the big boys. Factor in some decent desert form and Hatton becomes a must play this week.
You’ll find odds of 80/1 available on Haotong Li, the talented young Chinese ace, and those are fair enough with most sportsbooks paying five or six places on each way wagers.
Li played well during the EurAsia Cup last week to blow away the cobwebs, and we believe that his long, straight hitting should suit this Abu Dhabi stretch down to a tee. And if the wind does get up on Friday, as predicted, then we can feel confident in the Chinaman’s technique: this is a player with a top-three finish at the British Open to his name.
Fans of huge longshot value can lap up the 250/1 about Shubhankar Sharma. The Indian broke his European Tour title duck in December at the Joburg Open, and would follow up shortly after with another win at the McLeod Russel Tour Championship. Winning is a habit, so they say, and Sharma is slowly turning into a player to believe in.