THE DP World Tour’s 2024 campaign gets started with a new event in Dubai on Thursday, and already it is abundantly clear this could be a difficult year for the Europe-based circuit.
A field of 60 players go to post for the Dubai Invitational, a gentle pro-am opener to blow the rust away before next week’s Desert Classic, but many of the continent’s leading lights are either taking an extended break, playing in the Sony Open in Hawaii, or in Jon Rahm’s case getting ready for the start of the LIV season in February.
Indeed, the three names at the top of the betting for the Sony Open are European Ryder Cup stars in Ludvig Aberg, Tyrrell Hatton and Matthew Fitzpatrick, all of whom have made the straightforward call that it is easier to make a short hop from last week’s Sentry to Honolulu than wing it halfway round the world to the Middle-East.
Tommy Fleetwood has made that arduous trek to tee it up in Dubai, where the organisers will be hugely grateful the DP World Tour’s biggest remaining star, Rory McIlroy, is also in attendance.
After Rahm’s defection, there will be a huge onus on McIlroy in terms of carrying his home tour, and while he says he simply wants to focus on his game and keep busy in the build-up to The Masters in April, there are sure to be plenty of demands on his time.
The world number two goes to post for the inaugural Dubai Invitational as a hot favourite, with only smatterings of 3/1 still on offer at the time of writing.
This event is hosted at the Dubai Creek Resort, which held two renewals of the Desert Classic way back in 1999 and 2000, so it will be new to most of the players, in terms of competitive play at least.
That said, McIlroy spends plenty of time in the Gulf region and has a stellar record there, while a host of DP World Tour regulars are residents in the area and should be familiar enough with the short par 71 lay-out that awaits from Thursday morning.
The big debate is whether you want to get involved with McIlroy at 3/1, and while the course is a bit of an unknown, he has won in Dubai five times over the years, most recently at the Desert Classic 12 months ago.
That was his seasonal bow, and the Holywood man has a fine record on his first outings of the campaign, with 15 top-fives in 18 years.
It should be pointed out that 2023 was the first time he was won his first event, however, and there has to be a chance someone could go better than him again this week in what is very likely to be a low-scoring competition.
Fleetwood also has a fine record in Dubai, where he now lives, and has won twice in Abu Dhabi, but he was average at best in Hawaii at the weekend and I can pass over the 7/1.
The Hojgaard twins, Nicolai and Rasmus, are also big contenders and love the Gulf region, but of those towards the head of the betting I’ve just about come down on the side of Adrian Meronk at 14/1 with Betway.
The Polish star has full PGA Tour rights this term but starts off in Dubai, where he lives and feels right at home.
He should also be very comfortable at Dubai Creek, where the emphasis will be on placement for the most part, but will reward power on three short par-fives and a pair of reachable par-fours.
Meronk combines power and precision and was third on tour last term from tee-to-green, while he loves playing in the Middle-East, having racked up six top-10s in his last nine outings in the region.
He was 10th in Abu Dhabi to start last term and followed it with a fourth in Ras Al-Khaimah, while he has also become a regular winner on all sorts of courses.
Meronk also played a bit later in 2023 than most of his rivals here, finishing eighth in the Australian Open at the start of December, and might just have the edge in terms of sharpness, so he should be backed at the 14s on offer.
Thorbjorn Olesen is another Dubai resident who has to come into the equation at 20/1 after a strong finish to 2023 that saw him go close to winning the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa before finishing third behind Max Homa.
That came on the back of a ninth in Qatar, the latest in a long line of strong results in the Gulf going back over a decade, while the fact he is a great iron player and makes birdies for fun should stand Olesen in good stead here.
Finally, it might be worth taking a chance on the erratic Adri Arnaus at 90/1 given his record in Dubai – where he also lives – and the Middle-East in general.
The Spaniard either misses the cut or goes very well in his adopted home and given there is no halfway jeopardy here, he is worth a punt on the back of a sixth in Ras Al-Khaimah and 13th in the Desert Classic last year, and a seventh in the DP World Tour Championship and third in Saudi Arabia in 2022.
He is often playing rubbish coming into these events and still performs well, and on this occasion there have been decent signs of late, so the 90/1 could prove quite generous.
DUBAI INVITATIONAL SELECTIONS
Adrian Meronk, e/w, 14/1 (Betway);
Thorbjorn Olesen, e/w, 20/1 (Paddy Power);
Adri Arnaus, e/w, 90/1 (Paddy Power); top-20 finish, 5/2 (Sky Bet)
Sony delight could be in store for Harman
As for the Sony Open in Hawaii, Aberg, Hatton and Fitzpatrick contest favouritism, but the fact they are all 16/1 in places suggests this could be a wide open affair.
All three are also making their debuts at Waialae GC in Honolulu, a tricky, short course that generally rewards experience, and I can look past them all in favour of Open champion Brian Harman, who is a great each-way bet at 22/1.
Eight of the last 10 Sony winners have had the benefit of a spin in The Sentry at Kapalua the week before, and Harman performed well there in finishing fifth on Sunday night.
That venue should actually be a bit on the big side for the crafty left-hander, but Waialae is a better fit despite his patchy record over the years.
Harman was fourth here in 2018 and has another couple of top-15s to his name, while crucially he has never been so confident.
His short game was brilliant last week, and with another birdie blitz in the offing this red-hot putter could be the man to beat.
Chris Kirk made off with The Sentry title on Sunday, and it might not be beyond him to sweep the boards in Hawaii, as Justin Thomas did in 2017.
Kirk has a great record in the Sony, finishing second twice, most recently in 2021, while he was third last year and has all the tools to go close again, as long as he is focussed, and the 28/1 offered by Paddy Power makes him of some appeal.
Matt Kuchar, Andrew Putnam and Corey Conners were also on the radar here, but my last vote goes to Lucas Glover, who finished in midfield at The Sentry but led the way for approach play and was fourth from tee-to-green.
Those skills will be needed this week, and if he can get his putter to behave even moderately well, a return to the form that saw him win back-to-back last August is possible.
Glover is a 55/1 shot with Paddy Power and could at least emulate his fifth from the 2022 Sony Open as the golfing season starts to go up a gear or two.
SONY OPEN IN HAWAII SELECTIONS
Brian Harman, e/w, 22/1 (Sky Bet);
Chris Kirk, e/w, 28/1 (Paddy Power);
Lucas Glover, e/w, 55/1 (Paddy Power)