As Max Homa picked up his first international success with an emphatic four-stroke win at the Nedbank Challenge yesterday, the result of that event had more significant ramifications for our final event of the 2022/23 DP World Tour season this week in Dubai, and indeed the culmination of the Race to Dubai.
With Adrian Meronk and Ryan Fox unable to make a sizable mark at Gary Player Country Club, it leaves Rory McIlroy with an unassailable lead atop the R2D and means somewhat of an anti-climax to the end of the season.
Having said that, Rory is obviously a very deserving winner, having won two of the strongest events on the calendar this year, claiming his third Dubai Desert Classic at the start of 2023 and producing that sublime finish to take the Scottish Open back in July. Add in the fact that he’s hit the top 10 in three majors and these rankings – which are/were supposed to reward season-long excellence – are going to a player who has represented just that.
No matter what happens this week, he will collect his fifth Harry Vardon Trophy, putting him solo 3rd on the all-time list behind Colin Montgomerie (8) and Seve Ballesteros (6).
We do still have the matter of what should be a fantastic golf tournament to finish off the season, as the stars arrive for the DP World Tour Championship at Jumeirah Estates – Earth Course.
The DP World Tour Championship debuted in 2009 (as the Dubai World Championship), replacing the Volvo Masters as the season-ending event on the DP World Tour.
That first edition was won by Lee Westwood with a score of -23 and his six-stroke victory there is the record winning margin in the event, a feat he shares with 2013 winner, Henrik Stenson, who shot a record -25 winning score.
The Swede became both the first person to win this event twice and first player to retain the title when winning in 2014. Two more players have won the event twice: Rory McIlroy (2012, 2015) and Matt Fitzpatrick (2016, 2020), though they all trail Jon Rahm, who recorded his third victory in the event last year, after previously winning the 2017 and 2019 renewals. He returns looking for title #4 this week.
The pristine Jumeirah Estates – Earth Course was completed in 2008 and is designed by Greg Norman. It has hosted every renewal of the DP World Tour Championship since 2009 and boasts an average winning score of -19 over the fourteen editions to date.
The Earth Course is a par 72 and will this week play to 7675 yards. It contains ten par 4s (371-499 yards), four par 5s (572-626 yards) and four par 3s (186-245 yards).
This is your typical, open Middle-Eastern desert track. The landing areas in the rolling fairways are generally wide, though they do tighten the further you go and are protected by deviously strategic bunkering, which frame the holes and with most large and deep, represents the primary defence of the course. With the rough not too difficult to play out of and the tree-smattered waste areas which border most holes only in-play for the most wayward.
Elevation changes into the huge, undulating and varied greens are frequent. Greens which are often fronted by those penalizing bunkers and have added protection in the way of often-steep run-off areas around the majority.
Whilst the putting surfaces are easy to hit, possessing the 8th-highest GIR numbers on the DPWT, they are tough to putt on and very difficult to scramble around, ranking inside the top 10 in both scrambling and putting difficulty on tour. It’s into and on/around these greens where the tournament is usually won and lost.
Water is in-play on five holes but only really comes into play over the back nine. It makes up one of the most exciting finishes on the DPWT, with the 16th, 17th and 18th all occupied by water hazards.
The 16th is the final par 4 and a lengthy 486 yards. Water sits to the far right of the wide fairway, which has two bunkers in the landing area for protection. Avoiding these hazards is not even half of your job done, with the shallow green protected by bunkers short and long, and water directly to the right.
Get out of there with a par and you are then tasked with the 195-yard par 3 17th – a hole surrounded by water on all sides. It has one of the smallest and most quirkily-shaped greens on the course, with certain pin placements hard to find and four bunkers for protection if the water danger alone wasn’t enough.
The famous final hole is a 620-yard risk/reward par 5. A creak dominates the hole, protecting the fairway to the right and the narrow, sloping green to the left. Players often bail out off-the-tee into the bunkers left and hit layups into the rough on the right to avoid the water. Two quality shots will be needed to reach the green in two but disaster lurks for anyone who is slightly off when taking an aggressive line with driver or in approach. It is a fabulously dramatic finish to the event.
You’ll likely need a little bit of everything to be successful at Jumeirah Estates this week but I want to lean particularly on the strongest iron players and putters, which would’ve proven a fruitful tactic in recent renewals. This is no surprise into tough green complexes, where precise approach play is needed to access the pins and when you inevitably don’t hit the correct spot, you’re going to need to rely on the flatstick.
Jon Rahm was at his best in both of these areas when winning last year, ranking 2nd in approach and 2nd in putting. Runner-up, Alex Noren was 2nd on the greens, 3rd in GIR and 7th in approach, whilst Tyrrell Hatton (also 2nd) ranked 5th in approach and 6th in putting.
Collin Morikawa produced a solid all-round display to win in 2021, though his closest challengers in 2nd, Alexander Bjork and Matt Fitzpatrick, ranked 1st and 2nd with the putter respectively.
Fitzpatrick putted well when winning the previous year, ranking 1st on the greens, followed home by the 4th, 6th and 7th-best approach players for the week; 2019 and 2018 winners, Jon Rahm and Danny Willett, both excelled in approach; Rahm ranking 4th and Willett ranking 2nd.
Though the fairways are wide, the bunkers do make this a relatively challenging driving course and few have been able to contend without at least driving the ball solidly. Of the last five winners, Rahm in 2019 ranked 4th off-the-tee; Collin Morikawa and Matt Fitzpatrick ranked 8th.
CORRELATING EVENTS (COURSES)
Events around the Middle East are a good place to start here with the style of golf pretty similar right across the region. There are three that stand out – all in the UAE – most in relation to this week’s challenge, whilst back in Europe there are a couple of events I’m relying on to give us further clues for this week’s tournament.
Abu Dhabi Championship (Abu Dhabi Golf Club)
First up is the Abu Dhabi Championship. Whilst current host, Yas Links should work too, it’s the previous host, Abu Dhabi Golf Club – which hosted the event up to and including 2021 – that appeals most.
Much like the Earth Course, it is your typically well-manicured, generous desert course; possessing similar birdie/bogey averages and has large greens which are easy to hit.
Notable Correlating Form:
DPWTC (1st) / Abu Dhabi (1st)
DPWTC (2nd, 2nd) / Abu Dhabi (1st)
DPWTC (2nd, 5th) / Abu Dhabi (1st, 1st, 2nd)
DPWTC (1st, 1st, 2nd) / Abu Dhabi (2nd, 3rd)
DPWTC (2nd, 5th) / Abu Dhabi (1st, 4th)
DPWTC (6th, 7th) / Abu Dhabi (2nd, 9th)
DPWTC (2nd, 9th) / Abu Dhabi (4th)
DPWTC (4th, 4th, 6th) / Abu Dhabi (7th)
DPWTC (7th) / Abu Dhabi (2nd)
Dubai Desert Classic (Emirates Golf Club)
Emirates Golf Club is a more penal ball-striking test but it’s a course where those who are strongest with the long game have usually thrived. Which has produced many telling form-ties.
Notable Correlating Form:
DPWTC (1st, 1st) / DDC (1st,1st, 1st)
DPWTC (1st, 4th, 5th) / DDC (1st)
DPWTC (1st) / DDC (1st)
DPWTC (2nd, 2nd) / DDC (3rd, 3rd, 4th)
DPWTC (9th, 9th, 10th) / DDC (3rd, 9th)
DPWTC (2nd, 10th) / DDC (2nd, 4th, 6th)
DPWTC (4th, 4th, 6th) / DDC (3rd)
DPWTC (6th, 7th) / DDC (3rd)
Dubai Championship (Jumeirah Estates – Fire Course)
There were only two editions of the Dubai Championship staged in 2020 and 2021, acting as a stand-in during the pandemic. Taking place at the same golf complex as this week and also designed by Greg Norman, the Fire Course is a touch more linksy in feel but is big, open and full of scoring opportunities.
Notable Correlating Form:
DPWTC (9th) / Dubai Championship (1st)
DPWTC (2nd, 10th) / Dubai Championship (2nd, 4th)
DPWTC (2nd) / Dubai Championship (2nd)
DPWTC (3rd) / Dubai Championship (2nd)
DPWTC (7th) / Dubai Championship (8th)
Portugal Masters (Dom Pedro – Victoria Course)
Over to Europe and the Dom Pedro Victoria Course looks a great comp this week. This open resort course has many form-ties with the Earth Course with golfers experiencing similarities into and on the large, undulating putting surfaces.
Notable Correlating Form:
DPWTC (1st) / Portugal (1st)
DPWTC (1st) / Portugal (1st)
DPWTC (2nd, 5th) / Portugal (1st, 6th)
DPWTC (2nd, 10th) / Portugal (1st, 2nd)
DPWTC (6th, 7th) / Portugal (1st, 1st)
DPWTC (9th, 9th) / Portugal (6th, 8th)
Alfred Dunhill Links Championship
The Alfred Dunhill Links Championship possesses similar averages to this week’s event in GIR, scrambling and putting. With this, several compelling form-ties have developed.
Notable Correlating Form:
DPWTC (1st, 1st, 2nd) / Dunhill Links (1st)
DPWTC (1st, 4th, 5th) / Dunhill Links (1st, 2nd)
DPWTC (2nd, 2nd) / Dunhill Links (1st, 1st, 2nd)
DPWTC (2nd, 5th) / Dunhill Links (2nd, 2nd)
DPWTC (2nd, 5th) / Dunhill Links (3rd, 4th, 6th)
DPWTC (6th, 7th) / Dunhill Links (3rd, 5th)
DPWTC (2nd, 9th) / Dunhill Links (4th)
Conditions are warm and dry before the start of the event, though there is scheduled to be some afternoon showers during Thursday’s first round, along with gusty winds that could blow at close to 30mph. That is forecast to disappear from Friday, though the winds may return for Sunday’s final round.
This year’s Race to Dubai winner, Rory McIlroy, is the top-ranked player in the field at #2 in the world and is one of seven from inside the top 15, along with: #3 Jon Rahm, #4 Viktor Hovland, #8 Matt Fitzpatrick, #11 Tom Kim, #12 Tyrrell Hatton and #15 Tommy Fleetwood.
Tom Kim is one of thirteen debutants in attendance, joined by several first-time winners on the DPWT this season, including Open de France winner, Ryo Hisatsune and British Masters champion, Daniel Hillier.
Ryder Cup stars, Shane Lowry and Sepp Straka return to action after being absent since the that exhilarating win for Team Europe in Italy.
The top 50 of the Race to Dubai are all eligible and teeing it up this week. Daniel Brown was the last man in, just about hanging on to his spot, dropping five spots to 50th after last week. Two players moved inside the top 50 after last week: Matt Wallace and Jens Dantorp; Marcus Helligkilde and Ockie Strydom were the unfortunate duo to drop out.
The top of the betting is very strong, with Rory McIlroy as our 4/1 favourite this week. He is followed by Jon Rahm and Viktor Hovland at 5/1.
Winners of this event are always of the highest order, with each of the last eleven DP World Tour Championship victors a then or future major winner. Whilst that leading trio are of course hugely respected, the prices make very little appeal to me. However, there is one player who looks the clear value at the top end of the betting, just outside the top three: two-time winner of this event Matt Fitzpatrick, and he goes in as my main selection in Dubai.
3 pts Matt Fitzpatrick each way (1/5 – 7 places) – 12/1
Following on from last year’s US Open major success, Fitzpatrick has continued to make noise in the golfing world this year. He initially struggled for form at the beginning of 2023, with the long game looking an issue. Though after a first full-field top 10 of the year coming back in April at The Masters, where the ball-striking had started to pick up, he recorded his second victory in the U.S and first in a regular PGA Tour event by claiming the RBC Heritage, in a playoff over Jordan Spieth.
The form of the Sheffield man was a little in-and-out following that success but he rediscovered it again in the FedExCup Playoffs, finishing second in the BMW Championship and then came 9th in the season-ending Tour Championship.
Fitzpatrick maintained his form when heading back over to Europe for the Ryder Cup, finishing 3rd in the European Masters and 18th at Wentworth, before earning his second win of the year in the weather-shortened Alfred Dunhill Links Championship on his last stroke-play start, a little over a month ago.
He has been good in all areas this year but it’s with that trusty putter that he has done the most damage, ranking 11th on the PGA Tour, something he often puts to good use in this event. Whilst not as strong as last year, the ball-striking has been solid, with the driver looking particularly good over the last three months, ranking 32nd for this period.
Fitzpatrick’s record here is superb, with two wins, a 2nd and he finished 5th last year. He has gained strokes on these greens every year since at least 2017 and his win in the Dunhill Links last-time-out gives me confidence that his game is in a good enough place for another strong showing at the Earth Course this year.
1.75 pts Ryan Fox each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 30/1
Ryan Fox has been a little underwhelming on his last two starts but I’m expecting him to bounce back at a course that should suit this week.
Fox’s rise over the last couple of years saw him make new ground in his golfing career in 2023. After a positive start to the year on the DPWT, Fox spent a four-month stint on the PGA Tour where he played ultra-consistent golf, missing just two cuts in a twelve-event stretch and recorded five top 25s.
He headed back over to Europe in September, first finishing 3rd in the Irish Open and then produced a scintillating back-nine performance at Wentworth in the BMW PGA Championship on the Sunday to gain the biggest victory of his career; against many of the elite opponents that he will once again face this week.
Fox subsequently finished, 2nd to Fitzpatrick in the Dunhill Links three starts ago, though will need to be forgiven two below-par efforts on his two latest starts, where he’s finished 52nd in the Andalucia Masters and was 51st in last week’s Nedbank Challenge.
The New Zealander has gained strokes in all areas this year, ranking a solid top 40 in approach, off-the-tee and on the greens on the DP World Tour.
After finishing 28th on debut in 2017 and 45th in 2018, he returned to the Earth Course for the first time in four years in 2022, recording his best finish yet of 19th. Where he got better as the week went on, finishing off with a 4-under 68.
Fox’s win in the Dunhill Links last year should work well, whilst he’s no stranger to winning in the UAE, having won the Ras Al Khaimah Championship last year. His win at Wentworth gives me and should certainly give him the confidence that he has what it takes to get the better of this elite field and break further ground this week.
1 pt Lucas Herbert each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 50/1
Though Lucas Herbert has largely struggled for form on the PGA Tour this year, he’s looked a different player when making a rare step back to DPWT action and with his record at this course trending in a positive direction, I’m taking the talented Aussie to go better again this week.
In fourteen regular events on the PGA Tour this year, Herbert has missed five cuts but only recorded one official top 10, which came at the WGC-Match Play. This is in stark contrast to his DPWT form in 2023, where he finished 3rd in the Dubai Desert Classic on his first start of the year and won the Korea Championship on his second start on the tour at the end of April.
He does arrive with a little more consistency in his recent PGA Tour results however, finishing 31st or better in four of his last five starts and can hopefully build on that here.
We know what to expect with Herbert’s game. For all his approach play can be a little erratic, he makes up for it with the quality of his putting and driving, ranking 30th on the greens and 65th OTT on the PGA Tour this season. Indeed the putter has been his biggest weapon since turning pro and has looked excellent of late, ranking as the 5th-best putter around over the last three months.
He finished 21st at the Earth Course on his last visit in 2021, shooting three rounds under par. This was a marked improvement on his debut finish of 49th in 2018.
Herbert’s excellent record in the Dubai Desert Classic, where he’s won and finished 3rd gives me confidence he is capable of even better here, as does a 2nd-place finish in Portugal. With rounds of 64 and 66 in Bermuda last week showing his game isn’t all that far away, I fancy him to be a player this week.
1 pt Matt Wallace each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 60/1
Matt Wallace earned his spot in this week’s field after a promising 15th-place finish in the Nedbank Championship last week. He should be in a positive yet relaxed mood following that and with recent form and course form good, he can go well in Dubai.
Wallace became a PGA Tour winner earlier in the year when taking home the Corales Puntacana Championship. Though his form stuttered following that breakthrough victory, he’s looked a different beast back on the DPWT over the last few months.
He made his first DPWT start in seven months at the Czech Masters at the end of August, where he was an arguably unlucky runner-up to an inspired Todd Clements. Since then he has made a further eight starts and missed zero cuts, recording four top 25s. Two of them top 10s, when 6th in the Dunhill Links and 9th in Qatar two starts ago.
Despite this, Wallace still sat outside that all-important top 50 needed to get into this week but made that jump with his 15th at Sun City. A week which promised and would’ve delivered even more if it wasn’t for a damaging three hole spell where he dropped five shots on Saturday.
His tee-to-green play has been very strong on the DPWT this year, ranking 3rd. He has looked particularly strong with his irons, ranking 4th for GIR and 9th in approach. Something he showed last week, as the 6th-best iron player in the field in South Africa.
Wallace was an excellent runner-up here on debut in 2018 and has been a perfectly solid 29th and 28th on his two subsequent starts in the event. With finishes of 2nd at the Fire Course in 2020, 2nd in the 2019 Dubai Desert Classic and top 10s in Abu Dhabi, Portugal and the Dunhill Links, his correlating form is stronger than most and can lead him to contending for a first DPWT success in five years.