The European Tour heads to Abu Dhabi for the first of three straight weeks in the Middle East.
Sponsored once again by HSBC, the Abu Dhabi Championship is being staged for a ninth successive year.
Since first hosting the tournament in 2006, the Peter Harradine-designed layout has undergone a number of changes - mainly around the greens.
Much of this work has been carried out to create more challenging pin positions on what is generally a flat course.
The putting surfaces in Abu Dhabi are some of the fastest on Tour and, as ever, the tournament has attracted an excellent field.
The leading contenders (and Sky Bet odds)
Rory McIlroy (6/1): The two-time major winner has made this tournament his seasonal debut every year since 2008 and typically he's got off to fast starts. The Northern Irishman was 11th in 2008, fifth in 2009, third in 2010 and runner-up in both 2011 and 2012. Last year, in his first outing with Nike clubs, he missed the cut. Having ended what had been a miserable 2013 by winning the Australian Open and buoyed by his recent engagement to Caroline Wozniacki, expect normal service to be resumed with Rory mounting a big title challenge this week.
Henrik Stenson (8/1): The tall, smooth-swinging Swede has a fantastic record in the Middle East with victories in the Dubai Desert Classic, the Qatar Masters and November's DP World Tour Championship, Dubai. You can add to that record numerous near misses including a pair of runner-up finishes in this event in 2006 and 2008. Having been the best player on the planet for the second half of 2013 he holds an obvious winning chance here and, as with McIlroy, it would be a surprise if he's not in the thick of contention.
Sergio Garcia (9/1): Like Ryder Cup colleague McIlroy, Garcia waited until his last start of the season to register a win in 2013. That triumph in Thailand - with his new girlfriend caddying for him - gave the Spaniard form figures of 4-2-1 to close the campaign so he'll be keen to stay hot in the desert. Sergio has a very solid record in this part of the world and in this event he's never been outside the top 15 in five starts. His best was a third place in 2006, with his other top 10 coming in 2009.
Phil Mickelson (12/1): The younger Phil often used to start the season with a win in his native California but perhaps the bones creak a little more these days as his last five seasonal openers read 37-49-37-19-MC. The first of those 37ths came here in 2011 when he failed to break 70 in any of his four rounds despite enjoying the course. Lefty's last top 10 came back in August so he didn't finish off 2013 in good form either. There will be plenty of chances to back him this year; this doesn't look like one of them.
Martin Kaymer (16/1): The idea of Kaymer being only fifth favourite here would have seemed impossible when he won this event for the third time in four years in 2011. The streak had been 'spoiled' by a second place in 2009! He won the latter two with winning scores of 21 and 24 under so the toughening up of the course may partly explain his shock missed cut in 2012 when -13 won. Kaymer played well again to finish sixth last year so, having not won a full-field event since 2011, this is the obvious place for him to end the wait. He ended 2013 with seven straight finishes between 7th and 25th.
Thomas Bjorn (22/1): With two wins in the latter half of 2013 (European Masters in Switzerland and Nedbank Challenge in South Africa), many were predicting a big show from Bjorn in last week's Volvo Golf Champions. Then, out of the blue, he started with a 79! However, it proved an aberration as the Dane recovered to finish tied 10th and those last 54 holes will give him some momentum here. He's won in both Dubai and Qatar so needs this to complete the set of Middle East Swing events. Surprisingly, he's managed just one top 20 in Abu Dhabi although that was a third in 2012.
Luke Donald (25/1): After a difficult season, there were at least some signs of getting back to near his best as he scored a six-shot win in defence of his Dunlop Phoenix crown in Japan in November. He's also finished fifth the week before in the European Tour season finale in Dubai. Luke has teed it up in this event just twice, finishing 11th on debut in 2008 and a rather disappointing 48th in 2012. After a break from Twitter due to "grinding on the range" he put his social media hat back on this week and told us that a delayed plane flight meant his journey to Abu Dhabi took a day and a half.
Best of the restWelshman Jamie Donaldson recorded the biggest win of his career when landing this title last year although defending it will arguably prove even harder given the added attention on him. He was 13th in South Africa last week. Branden Grace (2nd) and Joost Luiten (3rd) both went close to victory in that same event in Durban so deserve plenty of respect while Peter Hanson has four top 11s here, including a second place in 2007. Padraig Harrington, despite saying he hated how he was putting, was fifth last week and has also twice finished fifth here in Abu Dhabi. Young Dane Thorbjorn Olesen missed a 15 footer that would have put him in a play-off in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago.
PLAYERS with GOOD to REASONABLE FORM at ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB
Full Tour History
Player: '06 / '07 / '08 / '09 / '10 / '11 / '12 / '13
Rafael Cabrera-Bello: - / - / - / 15 / 43 / 7 / 48 / 23
Paul Casey: 45 / Won / MC / Won / 27 / 18 / - / 23
George Coetzee: - / - / - / - / - / - / 6 / 9
Jamie Donaldson: MC / - / 23 / 50 / 21 / 11 / 30 / Won
Mark Foster: 12 / MC / 34 / 20 / 64 / MC / 17 / 39
Sergio Garcia: 3 / 14 / - / 8 / 13 / - / 12 / -
Ricardo Gonzalez: 4 / MC / 17 / 35 / MC / 8 / 63 / 52
Richard Green: 20 / 29 / 17 / 26 / 13 / 31 / 63 / 23
Peter Hanson: 61 / 2 / 43 / 10 / 11 / MC / 35 / 9
Padraig Harrington: - / 5 / 11 / 5 / - / Dq / 35 / 23
Thongchai Jaidee: 12 / 14 / 34 / 13 / 13 / 46 / MC / 9
Miguel Angel Jimenez: 5 / 2 / 43 / MC / MC / 11 / 42 / -
Robert Karlsson: 30 / 14 / 11 / - / 60 / - / 24 / -
Martin Kaymer: - / MC / Won / 2 / Won / Won / MC / 6
Paul Lawrie: MC / 20 / 30 / 20 / 27 / MC / 8 / 52
Peter Lawrie: MC / MC / 17 / 20 / 27 / MC / MC / 23
Joost Luiten: - / - / - / - / - / 23 / 42 / 6
Matteo Manassero: - / - / - / - / 73 / 37 / 6 / 23
Gareth Maybin: - / - / - / - / MC / 5 / 14 / 39
Rory McIlroy: - / - / 11 / 5 / 3 / 2 / 2 / MC
Thorbjorn Olesen: - / - / - / - / - / - / 8 / 2
Alvaro Quiros: - / 50 / 17 / 26 / 11 / 23 / MC / -
Robert Rock: - / 59 / - / 47 / MC / MC / Won / Wd
Henrik Stenson: 2 / 8 / 2 / MC / 21 / 42 / MC / 23
Anthony Wall: 45 / 29 / 17 / 4 / 37 / 11 / 35 / MC
Steve Webster: 30 / 20 / 17 / MC / 21 / 46 / - / 32
Chris Wood: - / - / - / - / 19 / 23 / MC / 70
PLAYERS with POOR to MEDIOCRE FORM at ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB
Full Tour History
(No Top-40 Finishes from three or more starts)
Player: '06 / '07 / '08 / '09 / '10 / '11 / '12 / '13
Darren Clarke: - / - / 61 / - / 56 / MC / MC / MC
Michael Hoey: - / - / - / - / MC / MC / 48 / 61
James Morrison: - / - / - / - / - / MC / MC / MC
Jose Maria Olazabal: - / - / - / - / - / MC / 69 / MC
Lee Slattery: - / 75 / MC / MC / - / - / MC / MC
Peter Whiteford: - / - / - / - / - / MC / 42 / 48
Fabrizio Zanotti: - / - / - / - / MC / 67 / MC / 56
TOP-25 Finishers at ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB in 2013 (Not Already Listed Above)
Ricardo Santos: (4th)
Branden Grace: (5th)
David Howell: (T-6th)
Jorge Campillo: (T-9th)
Jbe Kruger: (T-9th)
Michael Campbell: (T-17th)
Craig Lee: (T-17th)
Marcus Fraser: (T-21st)
Bernd Wiesberger: (T-21st)
Danny Willett: (T-23rd)
LOWEST 15 STROKE AVERAGES at ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB
(Last Four Years 2010/13)
68.57: Martin Kaymer (14)
69.07: Rory McIlroy (14)
69.25: Thorbjorn Olesen (8)
69.50: Sergio Garcia (8)
69.69: Jamie Donaldson (16)
69.75: George Coetzee (8)
70.17: Paul Casey (12)
70.42: Soren Hansen (12)
70.43: Peter Hanson (14)
70.50: Joost Luiten (12)
70.57: Thongchai Jaidee (14)
70.60: Alvaro Quiros (10)
70.63: Rafael Cabrera-Bello (16)
70.67: Steve Webster (12)
70.69: Richard Green (16)
Min. No. of Rounds = 8
LOWEST 15 AVERAGE TOURNAMENT POSITIONS in GULF STATES *
(Last Five Years - Since Jan 1st, 2009)
12.88: Sergio Garcia (16)
13.53: Rory McIlroy (15)
20.00: Martin Kaymer (19)
21.13: Alvaro Quiros (16)
22.55: Peter Hanson (20)
27.07: Paul Casey (15)
28.82: Robert Karlsson (11)
29.44: Rafael Cabrera-Bello (18)
33.71: Anthony Wall (17)
35.20: Soren Hansen (15)
35.55: Thongchai Jaidee (20)
38.00: Stephen Gallacher (19)
38.18: Chris Wood (17)
38.22: Miguel Angel Jimenez (18)
38.82: Thorbjorn Olesen (11)
Min. No. of Events = 10
* - European Tour events staged in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Qatar & Bahrain
LOWEST ROUNDS at ABU DHABI GOLF CLUB (All-Time)
62: Henrik Stenson (2006)
63: Chris DiMarco (2006)
63: Philip Archer (2007)
63: Paul Casey (2009)
63: Rick Kulacz (2010)
64: 10 times
Note: The lowest final round score at Abu Dhabi Golf Club is 64 - carded five times.
Abu Dhabi: Par 72; 7,600 yards
Winning Totals (Last Three Years):
2013: 274 (Jamie Donaldson)
2012: 275 (Robert Rock)
2011: 264 (Martin Kaymer)
The top three in the betting - Rory McIlroy, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia - all look to be genuinely likely winners so, unlike some weeks, it's hard to just dismiss the favourites.
But, at the prices, you really have to pick just one and that looks hard to do. How do you separate them?
With that the case, let's look further down the betting to two players who are tournament sharp after fine displays in the Volvo Golf Champions.
Branden Grace was sitting on a one-shot clubhouse lead on Sunday before Louis Oosthuizen birdied the final two holes to pip him in Durban so he's clearly in excellent nick.
Add to that a fifth place in this event last year when he closed with a 65 and he should be full of confidence.
Encouragingly, Grace's verdict on his runners-up finish on Sunday was more excitement than disappointment. "I thought I played some superb golf today," he said. "If you told me my first event, start off with a second place, coming this close, I would have taken it. I'm really stoked with this beginning."
Take the four-time European Tour winner at 33/1.
Joost Luiten also had a close brush with victory in Durban and just appears to go from strength to strength.
A bit like Jamie Donaldson last year, the Dutchman looks ready to win an event of this magnitude.
Two of his last three starts in the UAE have produced fine finishes - a fourth in the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai in November and a sixth place here last year - so everything looks in place for Luiten to be right up there.
Victory in his home KLM Dutch Open last year proved he can handle the pressure and that forms part of a sequence of results which shows a win and three other top fours in his last nine starts.
Even with a lack of winter practice, he finished third last week (the second round albatross helped of course) so, with the rust off, he's well worth a punt at 28/1.
Finally, it may pay to take a risk on Thorbjorn Olesen.
As with many young players, he has a tendency to blow hot and cold and go off the boil but his record in this part of the world is extremely eye-catching.
In this event the 24-year-old Dane finished eighth on debut in 2012 and then runner-up last year after rounds of 68-69-69-69.
He was also third in the Dubai Desert Classic and overall his record in the UAE shows six finishes of 21st or better in his last seven starts.
Olesen is a massive talent so ignore the poor displays in the second half of 2013 and back him at 60/1 to make a fast start to 2014 here.
2pts e.w. Branden Grace at 33/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
2pts e.w. Joost Luiten at 28/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)
1pt e.w. Thorbjorn Olesen at 60/1 (1/4 1,2,3,4,5)