Koepka kicks off season in Abu Dhabi

January 15, 2020
Justin Ray

His knee healed and rehabilitated, Brooks Koepka returns to action this week for the first time in nearly three months.

Koepka will become the first reigning world number one to make his season debut in Abu Dhabi since Rory McIlroy back in 2014. It’s been a mixed bag of results for players kicking off their season on the Arabian Peninsula:

Season opening start by reigning World No. 1 – at Abu Dhabi:

2010 Lee Westwood – T-64

2011 Luke Donald – T-18

2012 Rory McIlroy – Cut

2014 Rory McIlroy – 2nd

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That Brooks completed 2019 ranked in the top spot is notable in itself: he became the first player to finish consecutive calendar years ranked number one in the world since Tiger Woods a decade prior (2008-2009). The only other players to do it since the Ranking began in 1986 are Greg Norman and Nick Faldo.

His self-proclaimed career focus may be on the major championships, but Koepka has grown into a more consistent performer week-to-week over the last two years. His scoring average rank on the PGA Tour has gone up each of the last two seasons – from 14th, to 9th, to 4th in 2019.

Koepka’s iron play week-to-week has improved significantly, as well. In 2017 – a season in which he won his first major and finished in the top-15 in all four – Brooks ranked 148th on Tour in greens in regulation and 97th in strokes gained approach. Last year, he was 11th in both statistics.

Despite this being Brooks’ first start since returning from injury, he sits as tournament co-favorite with Patrick Cantlay & Tommy Fleetwood entering the week.

COURSE TRAITS: ABU DHABI GC

This is the fourth-longest course on the European Tour all season, as some of the underlying statistics would suggest. Only one hole on the course yields greens under regulation (two shots on a par five, or one shot on a par four) at a clip higher than 10%. Great driving is rewarded here, as nearly 90% of tee shots hit the last four years in this tournament have been with driver.

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Putting is typically easier than normal at this venue. Of the 14 par 3s and 4s, 13 feature a lower putts per G.I.R. number than the European Tour season average. Each of the last six winners had a score of 17-under or lower.

NOTABLES COMPETING THIS WEEK

– With his win last week at the South African Open, Branden Grace vaulted 56 spots in the World Ranking, up to 73rd. His current rank doesn’t quite belie how prolific a winner he has been in his career to date. Grace has now racked up nine European Tour wins, all since the beginning of 2012. Only Rory McIlroy (11 wins) has more in that span.

Louis Oosthuizen nearly won his second consecutive South African Open title last week, but ultimately finished runner-up to Grace. The 2010 Open Champion has now finished sixth or better in four of his last five worldwide starts, moving him up to 18th in the World – his best position since May of 2017. Oosthuizen finished fourth in Abu Dhabi last year.

Patrick Cantlay was second on the PGA Tour last season in scoring average and strokes gained total, trailing only Rory. While his putting improved dramatically from 2018 to 2019 (he jumped from 153rd to 26th in strokes gained), his short game numbers warrant some credit, too, for his overall performance leap. Cantlay jumped from 59th to 6th in strokes gained around the green and went from 109th to 3rd in scrambling.

Tommy Fleetwood won this tournament in back-to-back years in 2017 and 2018, but his success playing desert golf has not just been limited to Abu Dhabi. Over the previous three seasons, Tommy is a combined 105-under-par playing in European Tour events on the Arabian Peninsula, best of anyone during that span. Fleetwood has six top-ten finishes in 14 starts in the region dating back to 2016.

– Few players have had more experience playing in this part of the world than Sergio Garcia, who has 140 official E.T. rounds in this region. Of the 88 players with 100 or more career rounds on the Arabian Peninsula, Sergio’s career scoring average of 69.57 ranks second only to Rory.

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– The PGA Tour shifts to the newly-named American Express (an event that was called the Desert Classic last year), where Phil Mickelson will now serve as tournament host. Lefty had a two-shot lead entering the final round of this tournament in 2019, but Adam Long birdied the 72nd hole to beat him by a shot.

This will be Phil’s first start of 2020; three times in his career he has won in his first official start of a calendar year. Twice, it happened here – in 2002 and 2004. Mickelson has won 14 PGA Tour titles in the state of California, tied with Tiger Woods for most by any player since 1960.

Rickie Fowler will tee it up at The American Express for the first time in six years, fresh off a strong T-5 finish in Maui. 2019 was Rickie’s fifth consecutive season ranked inside the top-15 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained total. Only four other players can claim that: Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Rose.

– Globe-trotting Tony Finau returns to the U.S. after finishing fifth at the Hong Kong Open last week. Finau’s last six official events have each been in different countries, all outside the United States: Japan, China, Mexico, The Bahamas, Australia (the Presidents Cup) and finally, Hong Kong. Tony has a missed cut and T-59 in two previous appearances at The American Express.

TIGER WOODS STAT OF THE WEEK

From 1999 through 2009, Tiger played in 90 tournaments sanctioned or co-sanctioned by the European Tour. That includes World Golf Championships, majors, and regular European Tour events. He won 36 of them – a clip of 40 percent – and finished in the top-three 51 times.

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[…] up for this one, too, because as Justin Ray recently pointed out, it’s turned into a bit of a long driving […]

[…] up for this one, too, because as Justin Ray recently pointed out, it’s turned into a bit of a long driving […]