This week sees the first of three events on the Middle East swing of the European Tour as the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship kicks things off, while the old Humana Challenge on the PGA Tour has a new sponsor: The now CareerBuilder Challenge will take it's usual place at PGA West in the Coachella Valley by Palm Springs. 2016 will see new courses on the rotation with the Nicklaus and Palmer Private courses dropped for the Nicklaus Tournament course and the Pete Dye designed TPC Stadium course, which will host. LA Quinta - usually the hardest of the tracks - remains on the roster. The CareerBuilder Challenge is in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and runs in a pro-am format.
Jordan Spieth - 5.50 - ventures over to the European Tour and Abu Dhabi this week where he is vying for favouritism with last year's Race To Dubai winner Rory McIlroy - 5.00. The world class duo will get to look each other in the eye as the battle for the number 1 spot recommences. Rickie Fowler - 17.00 - will have his eye on pushing for the top few spots in the rankings this year too and he travels over with Spieth in what is a top heavy field. Gary Stal will defend after a miraculous final day which saw him gain 10 strokes on once runaway leader Martin Kaymer in 2015.
The CareerBuilder Challenge market is spearheaded by the in form Patrick Reed - 10.00 - a former winner of this event and indeed a big priced winner for this column that week in 2014. Event specialist and two time winner Bill Haas returns to defend at 29.00. This event will be low scoring and always sees debuts for some of the rookies; keep an eye out for huge outsider Martin Piller - 401.0 - who thrived in the birdie fests on the Webcom tour in 2015. In fact, of his five wins on that tour, four of them - all coming since 2014 - have exceeded the -22 total, with his scores in last year's Digital Ally and Albertsons Boise victories totalling a whopping -54 under par.
Courses - key features, stats and trends
CareerBuilder Challenge - La Quinta (par 72, 7,060 yards) - TPC Stadium course: (par 72, 7,113 yards) - Nicklaus Tournament (par 72, 7,159 yards)
La Quinta sits in the backdrop of the Santa Rosa Mountains, and Coachella Valley's PGA West resort will play host once again. From the La Quinta site, it is described as "not your typical desert track". It's tight, treelined and strategically placed bunkering and water features throughout. It's a thinking man's course where careful shot selection is needed. The host course, TPC Stadium, is a Pete Dye design and as with all of his masterpieces, a strong short game will prove pivotal around and on the greens. Being a pro-am event, the setup over the first 3 days should be conducive to low scoring. Be prepared for an exciting finish on Sunday with the Stadium Course mimicking Dye's Sawgrass, comprising an island green 17th and a water lined finishing hole. It won't be over until it's over. Birdies will be the brief in a pro-am format.
Abu Dhabi GC - 7,600 yards par 72
A look back at the stats from the 2015 renewal will show a strong trend of total driving efficiency from the leaders. 7 and 6 players from the top 10 finished in the top 20 of driving accuracy and distance respectively. The par 5s are the real scoring holes ranking 15-18 in the stroke index. From my notes, GIR% is hugely important with thick rough surrounding the greens. Last year there was overseeded Rye rough or bush laden desert terrain lining what I've noted as "lengthy fairways". The greens are of average size and generally run pure. Greenside bunkering is a strong feature also.
Top Betting Tips - Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship
Martin Kaymer - 19.00 or 4.75 - carries a course form line with him this week of 1-2-1-1-mc-6-31-3 at Abu Dhabi GC. This is his playground. Kaymer was runaway leader after 54 holes last year - so far ahead that perhaps complacency got the better of him. Complacency and some bad luck with the desert bush and poor drops. Martin knows the greens extremely well at Abu Dhabi GC and in my opinion this is key to his success here. A ranking of 8th in 2015 in the GIR department certainly doesn't hinder either and the German will be looking to make up for his disappointment last season.
Andy Sullivan - 51.00 or 10.00 - is being a little overlooked this week in my opinion. Sully went 3 for 3 at the EurAsia cup, partnering with Shane Lowry, and then dispatching Thongchai Jaidee 4&3 in the singles. Confidence will be high. I may be a little worried about his driving distance if he hadn't blitzed the field in Portugal last year on a lengthy resort track. Sullivan always sticks around when in contention and showed he could hang with the big boys during an epic battle at the DP World Tour Championship versus Rory McIroy at the end of 1015.
David Lingmerth - 61.00 or 13.00 - is simmering right now with three consecutive top 15 finishes around the turn of Christmas. The Swede was 13th in Hawaii last week, closing with a 64. He has previous here in this event with a T2 finish back in 2013, losing out in a playoff, and has really moved up a level after holding off Justin Rose to win at Memorial. Lingmerth ranks 37th in driving accuracy which could be an important factor on the new courses
I want both Tony Finau - 46.00 or 10.00 - and Scott Pinckney - 176.0 or 36.00 - onside this week. They will have an advantage on many of the field having finished 2nd and 3rd respectively over at PGA West back in the 2013 Webdotcom Qschool finals. Pinckney was also bang in contention after 54 in this event last year but couldn't hole a putt on Sunday. Stats show a MC last week at Sony but there's some hidden form there having closed with a R2 66 so there are positive signs. Big hitting Tony Finau went 65-69-69-71 at Waialae - a course that on paper doesn't suit. It was a decent warm up for Finau who returns to a familiar venue.
It's Harold Varner - 81.00 or 17.00 - who has been on my radar for this event for a while: Varner can send it out there and go low as he showed with a 2nd round 62 at Mayakoba. He sits 7th in birdies on the PGA Tour in 2016 and clocked T5 and T2 finishes in his last 4. At the Sony Open last week, Harold put together progressive 69-68-66-65 rounds for a T13 and confidence is flying. He also featured here at Webcom Qschool in 2013, finishing 32nd so he knows the venue well.