Preview: Big guns McIlroy & Mickelson return for Abu Dhabi showdown

Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson are all set to make first appearance of 2014 in Abu Dhabi this week

Ryan Bailey
By Ryan Bailey
rory mcilroy
World No7 Rory McIlroy Photo: hubsterdisney/Flickr

In the past, the appearance of an array of the World’s top golfers on the European Tour was predominantly limited to the weeks leading up to the Open.

Now, however, it’s not an unusual occurrence. The lucrative ‘Desert Swing’ segment of the schedule has enticed some of the game’s biggest names away from America during the back-end of January – and this year is no different.

Following a sedate but entertaining start to 2014 on both sides of the Atlantic, the re-emergence of four of the top ten from their winter interlude at the Abu Dhabi Championship is indicative of the gulf’s increasingly appealing and rewarding glamour.

It’s important to start the year right and get in contention

Phil Mickelson

After some of the tour’s most distinguished names prevailed on the South African leg of the itinerary, all eyes will firmly be on those returning to the fairways for the first time since Christmas this week.

Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson headline a mouth-watering line-up as the race for Ryder Cup points intensifies. One man who is assured of a spot at Gleneagles is Race to Dubai champion and world number three Henrik Stenson, who is aiming to achieve a ‘Gulf Slam’ with victory at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club.

Having recorded previous career wins in Dubai and Qatar, plus the Race to Dubai victory last November, the Swede has the unique opportunity of triumphing in all four events in the United Arab Emirates.

However, he’ll face stiff competition for the £1.6m prize and Falcon Trophy. Three-time Abu Dhabi champion Martin Kaymer joins Italian superstar Matteo Manassero, England’s Luke Donald and three-time Major winner Padraig Harrington in a glittering field.

The Abu Dhabi Championship marks the start of the tour’s annual Middle East swing, which also includes the Qatar Master and Dubai Desert Classic.

12 months ago, Welshman Jamie Donaldson kick-started a remarkable run of victories for Britons on the European Tour. Following Donaldson’s second tour triumph, Chris Wood landed the title in Qatar a week later, before Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher won his first event in nine years at the Dubai Desert Classic.

There is no shortage of British and Irish interest this time around either. But the returning Simon Dyson will find himself in the spotlight before he even tees off on Thursday. The Englishman was banned for two months after being disqualified for signing for a wrong score during the second round of the BMW Championship in October.

Dyson failed to add a two-shot penalty to his card after touching the line of his putt by using the ball to flatten a spike mark. He was consequently found guilty by the European Tour and faces a frosty reception from his fellow professionals in the desert on his return.

Open Champion Mickelson, who is currently fifth in the world, will be making his second appearance in the tournament having finished tied for 37th in 2011. The American left-hander feels a strong performance in his opening event of the New Year will put him in good stead as he looks to add the fourth and final Major – the US Open – to his bulging trophy cabinet in 2014.

“I feel like to play well in the Masters, to play well in the US Open, it’s important to start the year right and get in contention,” Mickelson said. “You don’t want to be in the final group Sunday of a Major Championship having not been in that position earlier in the year.

“That pressure is unique and difficult and you need to be able to have confidence and recent experience to deal with that,” he said.

“So that’s why it’s important to play well on the West Coast on the PGA Tour and to play well here in Abu Dhabi on The European Tour.”

“I’m excited to be back here to Abu Dhabi,” he continued. “It’s a great city, country, and we are all excited with what HSBC has done to bring world class golf to Abu Dhabi and the UAE.

“From a player standpoint and to start the year it’s important we start with the fundamentals and get a good foundation for our golf game. We have got great practice facilities here, as well as a golf course that can identify your strengths and your weaknesses.

“It’s a world class course and in immaculate shape and you can easily identify where you’re playing well and where you’re not.”

I feel like I’m much better prepared heading into the first event of the season than I was last year

Rory McIlroy

Mickelson will play alongside McIlroy and defending champion Donaldson in the first two rounds after the draw was made at the traditional opening ceremony on Tuesday.

The Northern Irishman will be hoping to convert his strong form from the back-end of last year into the new season. He is yet to taste victory in Abu Dhabi but having spent the past few weeks in the Middle East, McIlroy – who is ranked seventh in the world – is well accustomed to the course and conditions.

“I feel like I’m much better prepared heading into the first event of the season than I was last year,” McIlroy said.

“My swing is in a much better place. I’ve done some really good work on that, at the end of last year, and in the couple of weeks that I’ve had here leading into this tournament.”

The Northern Irishman continued: “So things are really looking good. I’m in a really good frame of mind and I feel like I’ve built a lot of momentum at the back end of last year and I’m going to try to continue that into this season.”

Despite his last victory coming over a year ago, McIlroy is the pre-tournament favourite (11/2) with Paddy Power while Tommy Fleetwood (66/1) could be an outside bet among an abundance of stars after starting his year tied for third in Durban last week.

The Peter Harradine-designed venue has hosted this prestigious event since 2006 but the course has undergone several changes from last time. The most significant alteration is around the speedy desert greens while the 18th hole has a new tee box, making it slightly shorter.

Although it’s currently winter, temperatures are set to reach 24 degrees throughout with scattered showers forecast for Sunday. The first group tee off at 03:20 GMT on Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, some eight thousand miles west, the PGA Tour continues with the Humana Challenge. The event is played over three desert courses in California – La Quinta Country Club, the Arnold Palmer Course at PGA West and the Nicklaus Private Course at PGA West.

With Abu Dhabi attracting the best of those currently on tour, interest is somewhat waned for this stage of the PGA Tour.

Having said that, there are still a number of recognisable names on show with defending champion Brian Gay joined by 2012 FedEx Cup champion Brandt Snedeker, Bill Haas and past major championship winners Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley and Zach Johnson.

In other news, the European Tour have confirmed the 2014 Irish Open will take place, as expected, at Fota Island. The resort, which was recently purchased by Chinese investors, will become an official sponsor as well as host venue of the Championship.

The announcement has been met with overwhelming approval by the players, with the tournament set to take place from 19-22 June.

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