ABU DHABI, UAE, January 26 – The 2012 golf season kicks into top gear at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week with a fit-again Tiger Woods going up against the European quartet who dominate the world rankings.
The 36-year-old American is hoping in the next 12 months to return to the forefront after a nightmare year of injuries and personal problems stemming from the sex scandal that wrecked his marriage.
In that time, he plummeted out of the world top 50 and witnessed a European power grab led by world number one Luke Donald, US Open champion Rory McIlroy, and former top rankers Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.
They are all present this week in Abu Dhabi and the stage is set for a mouthwatering appetiser that should set the stage for an intriguing year of golf.
Woods arrived in the Gulf to start his season with renewed confidence stemming from his improved performances at the end of last year which culminated in a win at his own World Challenge tournament in California.
That was his first win for two years and this week he is aiming to take top honours in a full-field tournament which would could vault him back into the world top 10 and provide the perfect start to his campaign for a 15th major title at the Masters in early April.
Fitness, he said, was the key to his mood of renewed confidence and optimism.
“It’s been quite a few years since I’ve been physically fit,” he said.
“So I’m looking forward to getting out there and then playing and give it a full season, which I haven’t done in a while.
“I’ve never played here before … and this is an incredible field that they have assembled here. So looking forward to getting out there and playing.”
To further whet the appetite of golf fans, tournament organisers have grouped the big mames together for the first two rounds with Woods going out in the company of McIlroy and Donald and Westwood partnering Kaymer and Sergio Garcia.
Ulsterman McIlroy, who many tip to be the next player to top the world rankings, said that he relished the early-season challenge he was facing this week.
“It’s definitely not a quiet way to start the year,” the world number three said.
“It’s great, you get straight at it right away. 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, so you want to try and play well.”
Westwood, who won back-to-back tournaments in Thailand and South Africa to round off his 2011 season agreed that it was “one of the best fields ever on The European Tour.”
It was the Englishman who dislodged Woods from the world number one spot in October 2010 before the mantle went to Kaymer and then to Donald, and he hopes that his new putting coach Phil Kenyon will provide him with the final piece of the jigsaw he needs to win a major title.
“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 25-30-footers that I have not been making, that’s obviously going to make a massive difference.”
Woods and the rankings top four apart, the impressive Abu Dhabi field contains two other top tenners in the shape of Masters Champion Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Australian star Jason Day.
Kaymer, meanwhile will be aiming to pull off the rare feat of winning a EPGA tour title three times in a row following his victories here in 2010 and 2011.