Abu Dhabi Championship: Big-hitting Pieters set to feature
Abu Dhabi Championship: Big-hitting Pieters set to feature

Abu Dhabi Championship: Big-hitting Pieters set to feature

Rory McIlroy may be absent through injury, but the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship can still boast a stellar field.

Rickie Fowler has returned to defend his title along with Ryder Cup team-mate and US Open champion Dustin Johnson, while the likes of Open champion Henrik Stenson, Masters champion Danny Willett and rising star Matt Fitzpatrick are all competing.

Johnson is the pre-tournament favourite at 6/1 and should be ideally suited by Abu Dhabi Golf Club, which measures more than 7,500 yards and favours long, accurate driving.

But another big hitter, Thomas Pieters, offers more appeal at 22/1 as the Belgian looks to build on a brilliant 2016 and cement his place in the world’s top 50.

Pieters, who won a record four out of five matches on his Ryder Cup debut at Hazeltine, was second behind Fowler 12 months ago – when it was also his seasonal debut – and undoubtedly has the talent to go one better this time.

Team-mate Matt Fitzpatrick endured a far less enjoyable Ryder Cup debut with two defeats in his two matches, but the 22-year-old from Sheffield had the last laugh by winning the season-ending DP World Tour Championship in Dubai against a similarly strong field.

After missing the cut on his debut in 2015, Fitzpatrick was an unremarkable 26th last year, but believes his game is “10 times better” than it was at this stage 12 months ago and can perform well once again in desert conditions at odds of 25/1.

Fowler was well-fancied last year but the four previous winners (Gary Stal, Pablo Larrazabal, Jamie Donaldson and Robert Rock) were outsiders so it’s worth taking a look at the likes of Wang Jeunghun (66/1) and Curtis Luck (150/1).

Wang won back-to-back events in Morocco and Mauritius last season and was denied a third win in the Nedbank Golf Challenge by an inspired Alex Noren, with the only negative being that it’s his debut in Abu Dhabi.

Australian Luck won the 2016 US Amateur title to earn invites to the Masters, US Open and Open Championship, and claimed a superfluous Augusta invite by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur title as well.

The 20-year-old could turn professional after the Masters and may follow in the footsteps of his predecessor as US Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau, who led after an opening 64 last year.