With 12 major winners and nearly 100 European Tour winners, it is a field more akin to a major, and the players say the quality of competition will allow them to quickly gauge their game after the brief offseason.
‘It’s definitely not a quiet way to start the year,’ said US Open champion Rory McIlroy, who has finished second, third and fifth in the past three years in Abu Dhabi.
‘It’s great, you get straight at it right away,’ he added. ‘You’re playing with two of the best golfers in the world in the first two days, and you’re up against one of the strongest fields probably that will be assembled this year. You want to try and get off to a good start.’
The lineup includes top-ranked Luke Donald, No. 2 Lee Westwood, No. 4 and defending champion Martin Kaymer, Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, British Open champ Darren Clarke, two-time Abu Dhabi winner Paul Casey, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Branden Grace, the winner in the last two weeks of the Joburg Open and Volvo Champions.
Westwood said the field was a boost to the European Tour, which was often shaded by the US PGA Tour.
‘I think it’s great for the European Tour that we can attract fields like this early in the year,’ Westwood said. ‘I think in all fairness between probably April and after the PGA (Championship), most of the golfing world is focused on the US But I think, now, the rest of the world is where golf is big time really.’
What makes Abu Dhabi so eagerly anticipated is that all of the top golfers are fit and coming off seasons where they played some of their best golf.
Woods has said he’s making his healthiest start to a season in at least eight years and brimming with confidence after ending a two-year title drought with his dramatic victory at the Chevron World Challenge last month.
Donald made history as the first player to win money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, while McIlroy showed signs of being a legitimate successor to Woods by powering to an eight-shot win at the US Open at Congressional. The win was that more remarkable in that it came two months after he blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters in an epic meltdown.
Though McIlroy ended 2011 exhausted after contracting dengue fever, he said he was energized and ready to carry on with the success that saw him win the Hong Kong Open and finish in the money in all 19 European Tour events he played.
‘I definitely felt a little bit of momentum at the end of 2011 and it would be great to keep that momentum going at the start of this year,’ McIlroy said. ‘I feel like I played some good golf the last couple of months of the season, and worked on a couple of things. The last couple of weeks, I felt like there was some things I could do a little bit better and felt like they were clicking into place and this week will be a good gauge to see how those things are coming along.’
The third-ranked McIlroy said his goal for the season was only ‘to improve’ upon 2011 and that he can’t worry himself about overtaking Donald for the top spot.
‘The rankings are sort of a byproduct of what you do,’ he said, when asked about the long-running expectation that he would one day be No. 1. ‘So I’d rather just concentrate on trying to win tournaments and try to improve as a player. If I do that, then hopefully the rankings will take care of themselves.’
Westwood was among the most dominant golfers at the end of 2011, winning the Thailand Golf Championship in December and the Nedbank Challenge a few weeks earlier. He had a third-round score of 62 at Nedbank, and opened Thailand with a 60 — the lowest round of his career — and then a 64 to beat Schwartzel by seven strokes.
The key to his stellar form in Thailand and South Africa, Westwood said, was the work he has been doing with his new putting coach Phil Kenyon. And with his improved short game, Westwood dared to suggest he might win an elusive first major in 2012.
‘I think it’s very difficult to win a major without making a few (putts) that are surprising, or bonuses which I haven’t holed over the last few years,’ he said. ‘So if I can start rolling in a few 25- to 30-footers that I have not been making, that’s obviously going to make a massive difference.’
When we choose to look away for good, we are as complicit as those at the helm of this atrocity
Over 100 people in Lebanon have been reported killed during the hostilities started on October 7