McIlroy's comeback and Fleetwood's defence among Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship talking points
The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, presented by EGA, tees off this Thursday. Here we look at some of the main talking points heading into the week
Health in check and batteries fully recharged, beware McIlroy
This time last year, Rory McIlroy had just announced his withdrawal from the tournament.
The four-time major champion, also a four-time runner-up in Abu Dhabi, had sustained a rib injury and was forced to pull out. He described his omission as "bitterly disappointing”.
That would probably cover McIlroy’s 2017 on the course, if only because the injury meant golf’s most talented exponent did not capture any titles in a calendar year for the first time since 2008. Consequently, he has slipped to world No 11.
However, McIlroy returns to Abu Dhabi having taken almost four months away from competitive action and declared this week he is fully recovered and intent on a successful 2018.
Playing an unprecedented eight tournaments in the build-up to the Masters, Abu Dhabi represents the first stop on McIlroy’s comeback. He has been close in the capital so many times and has "unfinished business" there.
Refreshed and refocused, he should be a real threat this week.
Dominant Dustin looks prepared and poised to go one better
Dustin Johnson arrived in Abu Dhabi last year not really knowing what to expect. Granted, as world No 3 and reigning US Open champion, many would have anticipated a strong showing, but the American was making his tournament debut.
Beginning slowly – he was level par after the first round – Johnson soon found his groove. Eventually, he finished joint-second, one shot shy of Tommy Fleetwood. All in all, it was not a bad bow.
Not long after Abu Dhabi, Johnson won three times in a row, climbed to world No 1 and appeared set to dominate golf for some time.
An injury on the eve of the Masters knocked him back, but signs are that Johnson has returned to his best. Last week, he won the Sentry Tournament of Champions by eight shots to open 2018 in pretty ominous fashion. Atop the rankings, he appears there to stay.
No longer a National course novice, Johnson is favourite for the Falcon Trophy.
Rose’s late bloom in 2017 can continue through the New Year
Given its make-up, the golfing season can feel never-ending. It straddles years, is both tiring and taxing, and therefore demands dedicated downtime in December to recharge batteries and go again.
Still, perhaps just a small part of Justin Rose did not want the break to come.
The world No 6 enjoyed an incredible conclusion to 2017: in his final 10 appearances, Rose won three times, finished in tied-second and registered six other top-10s. In November, he missed out narrowly on the Race to Dubai title.
Back in action this week, he will be looking to continue that remarkable run.
Rose has competed in Abu Dhabi only twice before, but finished second in 2013 and 12th two years later. Last year, he came agonisingly close to sealing a second major title, when he was beaten in a play-off at the Masters.
Another top-notch performance in Abu Dhabi would set the wheels in motion for another genuine tilt at the Green Jacket.
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Defending champion out to prove 2017 was no fluke
Last year’s victory set Tommy Fleetwood on his way to achieving one of his professional life goals.
Winning by a single stroke in January - only his second European Tour triumph - by November he had added the Race to Dubai crown. Anointed Europe’s No 1, the Englishman spoke of a desire to be the best golfer in the world.
Better still, DP World Tour Championship winner Jon Rahm said that day: “We’re just about to find out how good Tommy Fleetwood is.”
That would mean backing up his breakout year. For Fleetwood, the next step is obviously the majors, and there is a Ryder Cup debut to factor in, also.
Thankfully, he finished a hugely credible sixth in Hong Kong the week after his Dubai high, then emerged from a well-earned break to win all three matches at the EurAsia Cup.
Clearly, Abu Dhabi could spark another stellar run. Retaining the Falcon Trophy would reaffirm a star on the rise.
Captain runs rule over Ryder Cup contenders
So far, so good, Thomas Bjorn.
Europe’s Ryder Cup captain passed his first test with flying colours these past few days, as blue eventually dominated the board at the EurAsia Cup in Malaysia. Needing a fast start on Sunday, Bjorn’s side won eight of their first nine matches to help Europe on their way to 14-10 victory.
Now Bjorn’s focus shifts to reclaiming the Ryder Cup from the United States in September.
Abu Dhabi provides a perfect opportunity to lay groundwork, with Bjorn getting a close-up look at some potential participants. The likes of Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton excelled in Malaysia, winning all their matches.
But Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Danny Willett and Graeme McDowell represent former Ryder Cup stars seeking to muscle in on a place in France later this year. Last week, Poulter reminded that, even having just turned 42, he has “plenty left in the tank for Paris”.
The engine revs up in Abu Dhabi.
Updated: January 14, 2018 09:03 PM