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Martin Kaymer, the US PGA chapion, in action on the final day of the Abu Dhabi Championships last year.
Martin Kaymer, the US PGA chapion, in action on the final day of the Abu Dhabi Championships last year.
Martin Kaymer, the US PGA chapion, in action on the final day of the Abu Dhabi Championships last year.

A leading American presence

Adding Phil Mickelson to a top-class line-up puts the Abu Dhabi Championship firmly atop of the Desert Swing.

When Abu Dhabi gained a tentative first foothold on the world golfing map nearly six years ago, the European Tour event at the National Course was welcomed as an appealing new brother to the well-established Dubai Desert Classic and its solid Gulf companion the Qatar Masters.

Now it has become the big brother. The Abu Dhabi Championship has grown at a remarkable rate, racing past its Dubai rival and outstripping Doha and newly introduced Bahrain in terms of what it can offer to the world's leading professionals.

The addition of Phil Mickelson to what is emerging as a top-class line-up for the tournament, to be staged on the National Course from January 20 to 23, destroys any lingering objections to Abu Dhabi declaring itself as the No 1 event on the Desert Swing.

Mickelson will bring to Abu Dhabi most of what Tiger Woods, still unrivalled as the top attraction in the sport, brings to Dubai.

A leading American presence is a hallmark of a leading European Tour event.

Mickelson, four times a major champion and so close this year to rising to world No 1, will be the icing on the cake for the tournament organisers.

What a billboard it will be for fans in the capital when Mickelson goes on advertising hoardings alongside the other three major champions, Graeme McDowell, Louis Ooothuizen and Martin Kaymer, who are regular visitors to these parts. With Lee Westwood, the new world No 1; Rory McIlroy, so close to winning last year's Race to Dubai; and the dual previous champion Paul Casey also contributing world top-10 pulling power, the 2011 Abu Dhabi Championship promises to give the now four-week Desert Swing a blistering take off.

Even with a significantly increased prize fund of US$2.7 million, (Dh9.916m) however, the Abu Dhabi tournament is still massively outgunned by the Dubai World Championship (DWC) and its Race to Dubai sidekick, both of which will be resolved by the end of this month.

Westwood stunned the golfing world a year ago by winning a big-money double which was worth a total of $2.75m to the Englishman, and launched his assault on the world's top ranking.

It is becoming increasingly unlikely that Westwood will repeat that feat this time around, having ruled himself out of the $6m Singapore Open which starts today and next week's $2m Hong Kong Open.

That will give Kaymer, the Race leader, and McDowell, his closest pursuer, ample opportunity to move out of Westwood's range when what used to be called the Order of Merit concludes on Greg Norman's Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates between November 25 and 28.

Westwood's second-placed finish in Shanghai last week strengthens his hold on third place in the Race, but the man who edged him out in China, Francesco Molinari, is now occupying a menacing fourth place and is leading what will now be a three-pronged Italian attack on the DWC.

Who would have thought a decade ago that Italy would have three players in the top 50 on the European money list with Molinari's elder brother, Edoardo, and the very exciting teenager, Matteo Manassero, all making rapid progress.

Manassero, 17,who left the amateur ranks after the US Masters this year, booked his place among the 60-man field for the DWC with his first professional victory, in the Castello Masters in Spain. The youngster is already drawing comparisons with Seve Ballesteros when the legendary Spaniard was an emerging teenager.

Manassero has also been compared with McIlroy, the previous precocious newcomer to the paid ranks.

The Italian will be well advised to take note of this week's announcement by McIlroy that his challenges for the greater riches offered on the US PGA Tour will be short and sweet.

That about-turn by McIlroy on his fixture schedule is the latest indication that the European Tour has effectively bridged the class gap with what has always been regarded as its superior counterpart.

It was seen as a significant move last year when McIlroy promised to commit more of his time to American events and the decision was rewarded by a second career victory in the Quail Hollow tournament which he has pledged to defend next May.

McIlroy, the young Northern Irishman who notched his first professional victory in the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic, gives his main reason for a review of policy as homesickness.

That could be interpreted as much as a yearning to play with his regular rivals as a desire to see more of his family and friends because the world No 9 hinted at finding life more relaxed in events east of the Atlantic Ocean than on the other side.

 

wjohnson@thenational.ae

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