After 11 months of the 51st official season of the DP World Tour, we arrive at the finale – the DP World Championship, held at the Earth Course, Jumeirah Golf Estate in Dubai.
A genuine test of the very best, the 7600-yard course asks questions of every facet about the game, wearing players down by its length, and often asking players to battle against desert cross-winds.
Players can score well here. Indeed, every one of the 13 winners has recorded a final score well into double-figures ranging between 14-under and 25-under, with a mix of scoring well on the longer par-fours and the four par-fives, determined by quality putting on Bermuda greens.
It’s not Valderrama, the venue previously used as the season closer, but that doesn’t take away the thrilling nature of the track, one that may have not seen a play-off since 2010, but has seen five of the last seven determined by a single stroke.
In a limited elite field, often there is an option somewhere to avoid the top of the market, but here there seems little choice but to row along.
Four players have won this event twice, and three return to tee it up again this week.
Rory McIlroy is the undisputed best player in the world and victory here would wrap up the titles on both sides of the Atlantic.
He doesn’t have to win this week to do that, but Rory isn’t a player to sit in laurels and will surely attempt to continue a stunning run of form that includes giving former world number one, Scottie Scheffler, a start and beating at East Lake, sauntering home when defending the CJ Cup, and in-between having chances in Italy and at Wentworth.
However, he hasn’t played competitive golf for a few weeks and it’s worth recalling that he led after the first and third rounds last year before falling to sixth, whilst he had a chance to win in 2019 before a final round 73 saw him finish well behind this week’s market rival, Jon Rahm.
For me, the Spanish star hasn’t been at his best for a while, his only victory since May coming in a much lower-class field at his home Open.
I’m happy to leave both alone in favour of the man that says, ‘I know this one like the back of my hand and feel so comfortable here. That has to count in my favour.”
Given his course record of seven starts, two wins, one-runner-up, fourth and ninth, there is no question that Matt Fitzpatrick enjoys the trial of these four days.
Now armed with length off the tee, he has a natural ability to save par – crucial when in elite fields – whilst also ranking highly in par-five performance.
As he showed in his two course wins, both by a shot from proven links players Tyrrell Hatton and Lee Westwood, he is tenacious in battle and simply keeps grinding away, as he did when winning his first major, at Brookline in June this year.
His play-off loss to Robert McIntyre in Italy was maybe a surprise, but that player is himself a major contender of the future, something crucial to the outcome of this event, and he did have McIlroy, Hatton and Viktor Hovland behind.
Of the top trio, the 28-year-old is the least likely to spit out the dummy and keep going. He can be the first to win the DP World Championship for the third time.
The last ten champions have all been existing major champions, or (as with Fitzpatrick) future major winners and it looks likely the outcome will be the same.
Viktor Hovland hasn’t won one yet, and his last win was almost 11 months ago (although admittedly from an excellent field) at nearby Emirates Club, so at a few points bigger, take proven major winner and contender Shane Lowry.
The 35-year-old Irishman is simply a big-time player, with his victories including a six-shot Open victory in tough conditions at Royal Portrush and a win from an elite field at the WGC Bridgestone, all starting from a win at the 2009 Irish Open as an amateur.
Aside from his win at the 148th Open Championship, Lowry has six top-10s in majors through 12 years and European wins in Portugal, Abu Dhabi, and latterly Wentworth, where motivated by some LIV discussion, he beat both McIlroy and Rahm by a shot, with Hovland et al well beaten off.
Rather like the headline selection, Lowry is a big-time player that turns out against the very best and enjoys it around here, a course at which he led at halfway in 2021 before a benign back-nine caused him to drift out of contention, still finishing on the front page of the board.
Admittedly, rather like Tommy Fleetwood, Lowry would rather conditions became a tad more difficult, but he finished ninth and 12th in the past two runnings of this prestigious event despite losing shots off the tee, and any slight improvement in that, plus his standard top-grade iron play and short game, should see him stave off much of the lesser-knowns in this field. I’ll also be looking out for match-bets against Hovland.
Away from the stars, it’s very difficult to see a shock winner. Although the likes of Antoine Rozner and Eddie Pepperell are playing well, and have huge links form, it’s asking an awful lot for them to beat players they rarely finish in front of, and especially on a course proven to reward the very best.
Instead of tilting at windmills, I’m playing two names that are links-positive and who have pretensions to performing at majors, particularly at The Open.
Kiwi Ryan Fox is playing his best golf of a 10-year career.
Previously hard to win with, mainly because of a very poor short game, Fox has elevated himself to number two on the DP World Tour rankings, just behind McIlroy and in front of much of the top lot taking part here this week.
Fox has played more DP events, but his run over the past 10 months has been nothing short of sensational, taking him from a world ranking outside of the top-200, to a current place inside the top-30.
In his last 20 starts, the 35-year-old son of New Zealand rugby legend Grant, has won in Ras Al Khaimah and at the Dunhill Links, finished runner-up four times, including last weekend when one final-hole error let in course specialist Tommy Fleetwood, and posted four further to-five finishes.
Over the last three months, Fox ranks third in all-round rankings behind you-know-who and Jordan Smith, comprising 15th for driving, 34th for greens-in-regulation and top-10 for putting.
Although course form is average, Fox is on a different level now from the player seen in 2018 and proved so by finishing runner-up last week on a course he had not previously finished inside the top-50.
One of only a few that can be fancied to mix it up with the big boys, and with the motivation to challenge the big boys to the title, he admits:
“I’ll just try to do the same thing – go out and beat the golf course then see what happens. I’m looking forward to it.”
I’m struggling a little with Robert MacIntyre.
Although still believing he is capable of a big run in a big event, the Scot’s inconsistency makes him very hard to read, and punters should take care where to back him.
However, when he is right, as when beating Fitzpatrick in a play-off for the Italian Open (McIlroy behind), he looks like the player that finished tied-sixth and tied-eighth in two of the three Open Championships he has contested in a short career.
12th and 23rd at The Masters shows the 26-year-old has the class to contend in this field whilst repeat performances at the Dunhill Links, Alfred Dunhill (South Africa) and Italian Open (two different courses) suggest he can turn it on when conditions suit.
At the Earth Course, we can upgrade MacIntyre’s finishes of 4/23/14 as he was second, 12th and fourth through three rounds of the 2020 running, whilst he was never out of the top-five last season, after a run of four missed-cuts and a best of tied-24th in seven outings.
This year he comes into the event in a good frame of mind. Having made all eight cuts from all of his recent outings, his form of two top-10s and a pair of top-20 finishes, suggests he could again put in a performance that will shake-up the ante-post odds for Hoylake in July next year.
Matt Fitzpatrick Win
Shane Lowry Win
Ryan Fox Win AND Top-10
Robert MacIntyre Win AND Top-10