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Hovland to end on a high while McIlroy can clinch rankings race

Rory McIlroy and Viktor Hovland played together in the final round of the Open Championship during the summer, and while they were left disappointed then, both might have reasons to be cheerful come Sunday night, with McIlroy in pole position to win the season-long rankings race, and the Norwegian fancied to claim DP World Tour Champioship glory
Odds & Ends with Michael McWilliams

WHILE the eyes of the sporting world will be fixed mainly on Qatar and the opening game of the World Cup come Sunday, just 240 miles away the best golfers Europe has to offer will be bringing the curtain down on a long and bruising season.

The DP World Tour Championship takes place at its now traditional home on the Earth Course at Dubai’s Jumeirah Golf Estates, with both the season-long rankings title and the tournament itself up for grabs.

The DP Tour season began last November in South Africa, and things are still in the melting pot heading into the 44th and final event, with the two main contenders to crowned the year’s top player taking very different routes to this point.

Rory McIlroy sits on top of what was the Race To Dubai at present, and while his Major drought wasn’t ended in 2022, it has been a superb year nonetheless, and being crowned Europe’s number one for the fourth time – and first since 2015 – would put the icing on the cake.

McIlroy is already back at the top of the world rankings and claimed the FedEx Cup on the PGA Tour, so things are going very well and he could hardly be in better form, having won the CJ Cup in South Carolina last time out.

He has only played nine events counting towards the DP World Tour title in 2022, actually winning none of those, but top-three finishes at The Masters and the Open accumulated a lot of points.

By contrast, Ryan Fox has been in DP World Tour action 23 times, winning in Ras Al Khaimah at the start of the year and again at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, and also finishing second in the Dutch and Irish Opens and in the Nedbank Challenge on Sunday.

Had the New Zealander won in South Africa, he’d be number one heading into the finale, but a 72nd hole bogey handed the title to Tommy Fleetwood and saw Fox stay a measly 128 points adrift of McIlroy.

It’s all to play for between the pair, but their respective pedigrees at the sprawling Earth Course would suggest that Rory holds all the aces, and it would be a mild surprise were he not the rankings champion come Sunday.

He is also the favourite to win the DP World Tour Championship itself for the third time, having clinched that title in 2012 and 2015.

The first of those successes started a run of Earth Course winners from the very highest echelons of the game, with the last 10 winners all having claimed Major titles either before or since their Dubai victories.

In that time, McIlroy, Henrik Stenson, Matt Fitzpatrick and Jon Rahm have all won this event twice, with Danny Willett and last year’s champion Collin Morikawa adding to a superb roll of honour.

Morikawa isn’t back in the Gulf to defend his title, but Rahm (5/1 generally) is seen as the big danger to McIlroy, who is no bigger than 100/30 this week.

History suggests that either of those two European heavyweights could be celebrating on Sunday, but the prices are hard to get interested in, especially with the core of next year’s Ryder Cup team also in the field.

Fitzpatrick is a 9/1 shot to take his third Earth Course win, while Shane Lowry (14/1) would hope to go one better than his second to Rahm in 2017.

In amongst those talents is the name of Viktor Hovland, who could just be the forgotten man despite being no bigger than 10/1 this week.

The Norwegian threatened to shoot the lights out after winning three times either side of Christmas, and while the season hasn’t ultimately hit the great heights he would have liked, there are signs he is coming into top form again at his time of year.

Hovland was fifth in the Zozo Championship in Japan last month, and 10th when seeking a third successive win at Mayakoba last time out.

His iron play was stellar in the latter event, but a very poor putting week cost him an chance of defending his title, although that isn’t a consistent weakness, and the Earth Course really should play to his strengths.

This venue always throws up a quality champion whose
ball-striking and long game are
top-notch, and there are very few better in that regard than Hovland, whose chipping often holds him back.

The big, rolling greens of the Earth Course should negate that weakness, and there is every chance he could match, if not better, his third on debut here in 2020.

That result showed a liking for the Gulf region, something that was backed up when he saw off McIlroy to win the Dubai Desert Classic at the start of 2022, a week after finishing fourth in neighbouring Abu Dhabi.

An undoubted Major champion of the future, Hovland could follow the recent trends at the DP World Tour Championship and put another trophy in his cabinet.

Trying to find each-way contenders at bigger prices is a bit compromised this week given that is very hard not to see the likes of Rory and Rahm in the shake-up, and six places is as good as it gets in that regard.

Some firms are offering ‘without the big two’ markets which may be of interest, but I’ve picked out a pair rising stars who could be mixing it with the big boys this week, and indeed for seasons to come.

The first is Jordan Smith, who leads the DP World Tour stats for driving in 2022, and is eighth for approach play, but can struggle with a cold putter at times.

That wasn’t an issue when rattling off a 30-under total to win in Portugal two weeks ago, continuing recent improvement with the flat stick, and Smith was then 13th at Sun City, recovering from an opening 75 to be one of the best players in the field over the weekend.

A best of 12th from four outings at the Earth Course is hardly eye-catching, but Smith has never arrived in better heart, and he played very well in the Gulf earlier this season with 12th in Abu Dhabi, followed by ninth in the Desert Classic and second in Ras Al Khaimah.

He has every chance of placing at 28/1 (Paddy Power), while a victory in this company would elevate his career to another level.

Min Woo Lee has already got the better of a similar standard of field by winning the Scottish Open in 2021, and the powerful Aussie will be hopeful of taking another big title this week.

Lee hits it miles off the tee, and has a feather touch around the greens, which helped him to 14th on his Masters debut this year.

His iron play stopped him competing for the Nedbank win on Sunday, but a share of eighth was a fine effort after nearly a month off, while his previous two starts both ended in third-placed finishes in Spain.

Lee made a solid Earth Course debut when 16th last term, a week after finishing fourth on the
neighbouring Fire Course, so he likes Dubai and could also be a factor this week at 28s as a gruelling campaign comes to a fitting conclusion. 

SELECTIONS

Dp World Tour Championship
Viktor Hovland, e/w, 10/1 (General)

Jordan Smith, e/w, 28/1 (Paddy Power)

Min Woo Lee, e/w, 28/1 (Sky Bet)  

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