01/18/2016

As the European Tour kicks off in Abu Dhabi, we think about star power.

In the early to mid-2000’s, there were two kinds of tournaments: those that Tiger Woods played and those that he didn’t.

Tiger’s mere presence legitimized an event regardless of when or where it was. On the flip side, any tournament he skipped—and there were plenty—carried an asterisk. Those events weren’t Tiger-worthy and therefore they were lesser endeavors for professionals.

No one has matched that cache just yet. But the current crop of superstars aren’t far off; not on individual levels, rather as a collective. Anytime the top three players in the world, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day, tee it up, it’s news worthy.

And so it is this week at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Day won’t be in the United Arab Emirates, but Spieth and McIlroy will. Suddenly, a tournament dismissed as a quasi-exhibition on the European Tour has real star power.

Let’s not ignore the importance of the Spieth-McIlroy budding rivalry to this event. Early season golf is the equivalent of other sports’ preseason. The campaign doesn’t start until the Masters in April. Until then, all you can look for are signs of who might play well when it counts.

It would be too much to say winter golf is a farce. What we can say is that the European Tour is becoming a misnomer. The tour travels to South Africa, parts of Asia and yes the Middle East more than it does Italy, Germany and France. Part of that is growing the game, but it’s also a brazen attempt to pull in dollars at the expense of the core fans.

And so, it’s difficult to take the tour as seriously as the PGA. That goes for the fans as much as the players.

Which is why Spieth’s attendance, as well as Rickie Fowler’s, is so crucial. Abu Dhabi just gained the best player in the world, and in doing so became a must-watch affair.

If there’s one criticism that’s been levied at McIlroy, it’s that he’s often coasted through the early season only to dial it up when it “matters.” One can’t say the same of Spieth. He won the Hero World Challenge. He won the John Deere Classic last summer. He won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions to start 2016. All are tournaments that for various reasons are thought of as secondary.

The question then, is will McIlroy match Spieth’s intensity? I believe he will, and we’ll have for the first time since Tiger’s prime, relevant golf all year round.

TV Times

Screenshot 2016-01-20 09.52.35

The Course

When the UAE emerged as an oil-rich nation, golf, a sport for the affluent, sprang up despite the less-than-ideal climate. Now, multiple world class courses dot the region, which has influenced the European Tour to take up permanent residence there.

Abu Dhabi Golf Club is a fairly straightforward track with now standard features. It’s a par-72 course, measuring in at 7,600 yards. Martin Kaymer, a three-time winner here, holds the scoring record. He fired a 24-under, 264 in 2011 to beat second-place McIlroy by eight strokes.

Kaymer’s performance, although noteworthy, is not an aberration. Four of the 10 winners of this event have reached 20-under. Last year, France’s Gary Stal won with a -19 mark, after catching Kaymer and his 10-stroke lead.

Last Five Winners

2015: Gary Stal (in amazing fashion!)

2014: Pablo Larrazabal

2013: Jamie Donaldson

2012: Robert Rock

2011: Martin Kaymer

Action from last year:

The Picks of Abu Dhabi

Three from the Fairway (Contenders)

Jordan Spieth

Read all about Jordan's putting technique, click the image.

Okay, I get it. Nothing creative here. But what can you say? The guy contends wherever he goes. I expect him to do the same in the UAE.

Henrik Stenson

stenson

Similar to Spieth, although not at that level, Stenson always seems to be in the hunt. His ball-striking is second-to-none in the world, which allows him to compete at a wide variety of courses. The soon-to-be 40-year-old Swede is primed for one last run of glory in 2016.

Matt Fitzpatrick

matthew fitzpatrick

The 2013 US Amateur champion could be the Europeans’ answer to Spieth and co. at Hazeltine next fall. For now, Fitzpatrick, still just 21, is making his mark on the European Tour. With one win to his name, the Northwestern product has climbed to No. 46 in the Official World Golf Rankings. He’ll take a leap in 2016.

One from the Rough (Sleeper)

Byeong Hun An

Screenshot 2016-01-19 10.23.38

Of the growing collection of young, Asian stars, perhaps South Korea’s Byeong Hun An is the least heralded. Somehow, he failed to make the International Team for the 2015 Presidents Cup held in his home nation. That hasn’t discouraged the 24-year-old (and former US amateur champion) An, though.

In his last four starts on the European Tour he’s finished top-four three times. Like Fitzpatrick, he’s made a sudden climb up the OWGR with his win at Wentworth last year in the BMW PGA, one of the European Tour’s flagship events.

An is ranked 29th in the world, which makes him hard to consider a sleeper, but in American terms, he still is.

Winner

Rory McIlroy

rory

Let’s not make this any more complicated than it needs to be.

Rory will be motivated this week whether he admits to it or not. He’s playing side-by-side with Spieth and Fowler through the first two rounds and will want to put on a show. I expect him to. Besides, he’s been as good at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club without winning as one can be.

Rory has finished second four times in the last five events.