With consistently great weather and strong competition, more and more golf professionals are turning to the Desert Swing to open their season, says Steve Elling.
Abu Dhabi Golf Championship is 'the perfect place to start'
The colourful billboards dot the motorway as visitors approach the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, a series of photos that feature some of the most recognisable faces in the sport.
Interspersed every few metres, they certainly command attention.
Like many motorists, the stars are steering here, too.
Yet again, the three-tournament Desert Swing not only represents the best part of the European Tour schedule, but the most attractive global destination for the sport during the winter period as well. With the Nos 1-2 in the world - McIlroy and Woods - in the field the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship easily trumps the US PGA Tour offering this week, in the Palm Springs area of the California desert. Subsequent events in Qatar and Dubai also are, arguably, equal or superior to the American products in the two weeks to follow.
"I have always thought it was the perfect place to start," said McIlroy, who has played all three stops.
"The weather is always good and the facilities are great, you play three great golf courses.
"It's a great three-week stretch and a great way to start the year."
It probably grates on the US circuit, too. It is not a subjective assertion to state that the Desert Swing steals considerable thunder from American tournaments over the same span, particularly since 2006, when Abu Dhabi's tournament joined those in Qatar and Dubai.
Yesterday, McIlroy, Woods and the world No 5 Justin Rose lined up for a publicity photo with a camel near the 18th green, and tasted some Arabic coffee.
Equally, the Gulf has been a mouth-watering destination for golfers for a decade, thanks in part to the fact that the European Tour allows appearance fees to be paid, a practice banned on the US tour.
Rose said the reasons for playing are not quite that mercenary. With the US tour playing on the western coast of that country, where weather can be an issue, the Arabian Gulf is far less risky for players looking for sun while shaking off rust.
"When you are up there in the world rankings, you want to play in the best fields that offer the most ranking points," Rose said.
"You want to measure yourself against the best.
"The thing I like about the desert is you can get some great conditions.
"Palm Springs is like more of a shoot-out. Here you have to deal with the wind and it gives you a better indication of where you are with your game.
"These are all things that play a part in the decision you make about where to play."
As the Desert Swing has taken root, the "where" has been right here.
Among regular European events last year, the three Desert Swing stops rank among the tour's top six in attracting players ranked in the world top 30.
Abu Dhabi last year had 13 players from the top 30, more than any regular European Tour event including the flagship tournament at Wentworth, England.
The US tour event staged opposite Abu Dhabi last year, in San Diego, had eight.
The Qatar and Dubai events in the winter also hold their own against the PGA Tour, despite the difference in purse sizes.
In 2012, Qatar and Phoenix, staged the same week, had nearly the same number of players ranked in the top 30.
Dubai, the final leg of the Desert Swing, was a mirror image of the Pebble Beach event, with both drawing six of the top 15 and 11 of the top 30.
At the apex of the rankings, the imbalance is more pronounced this week.
Abu Dhabi includes four of the top 11 in the world, while the US tour event has one.
Next week, in Qatar, two players from the top five, Louis Oosthuizen and Rose, have committed.
Granted, it is not a completely fair comparison, because of appearance fees, but from a viewer's perspective this is where the action is.
What is an ardent golf fan to watch?
For the next three weeks, it's become a television tradition to point the remote control towards the Gulf.
"The course superintendent has done a great job getting this thing in perfect, prime condition, we've got an incredible field this week and it will be a lot of fun," Woods said.
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