x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Top golfers take one final swing at getting it right in the desert

Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer lead strong field for Dubai Desert Classic.

Rory McIlroy takes a shot during the pro-am event in Dubai.
Rory McIlroy takes a shot during the pro-am event in Dubai.

DUBAI // The ancient struggle of man versus golf has found its way back to another Omega Dubai Desert Classic, which this morning will begin the four-day merger of 138 career trajectories.

The No 2 player in the world, Rory McIlroy, who won the 2009 event at Emirates Golf Club, arrives fairly fresh off his second-place finish 11 days ago in Abu Dhabi, so lately has specialised in tweaks. "I don't want to bore you with too much detail," he said, "but a little more width with my driver on the way back," which calls for "a little bit less release from my hands. Just a few little bits and pieces."

The No 3 player in the world, Lee Westwood, arrives after his 17th in Abu Dhabi and 12th in Qatar, and seems to like his ball striking, his short game and his putts, maybe especially the putts.

"But just been sloppy," he said, "just early-season sloppiness really, making too many bogeys and not making birdie when I should, and wedge shots haven't been quite as sharp as they ought to be, not as close."

The No 4 player in the world, Martin Kaymer, arrives after his surprising missed cut in Abu Dhabi and his improvement to a joint-ninth in Doha, where the howling wind forced him to practice his putting inside.

"I was practising a little bit in my hotel room," he said, "because I really want to win again, and I think the only thing that was distracting me from winning was my putting."

And the greens in the hotel room?

"Like a carpet. Very nice."

For this sixth tournament of the 2012 European Tour and Race to Dubai, they converge in the 23rd running of this event with the usual array of other subplots, including those concerning golf's wide acceptance of ages, which extends even to people born in the 1960s.

The 43-year-old, 1999 British Open champion Paul Lawrie arrives, after not only winning the Qatar Masters to become the second-oldest winner on the European Tour but contending stoutly in Abu Dhabi before winding up eighth.

"I feel my ball striking has improved immensely since I turned 40," he said in Doha, soon adding: "I'm a far better player now that I ever was in 1999, tee-to-green."

For connoisseurs of mid-life form, there is the pairing today at 12.40pm of 45-year-old John Daly, who won majors in 1991 and 1995; 48-year-old Colin Montgomerie, the Best Player Ever Not To Win A Major In A Cruel Sport; and 52-year-old Fred Couples, a major winner in 1992 and the champion here in 1995.

"I would love to play with their top players, Robert Rock or Rory or Lee Westwood," the American Couples said yesterday, "but for me personally those days are a little bit gone, and I think the European Tour knows that by putting Montgomerie and I together, they're figuring it out quickly, in a polite way. Maybe Monty does, but I certainly don't need to come over here and play with Martin Kaymer and Rory McIlroy on the first two rounds. I don't deserve that pairing."

But ...

"Maybe Saturday."

Apart from that trio, the one that might start with the most starshine would be 20 minutes prior, also on the No 1 tee and featuring McIlroy, Alvaro Quiros and Rock.

Where he once grabbed a photographer's pass to snap photos of Woods in 2006, McIlroy has become a gallery magnet here, an idea solidified by last year when he started off 65-68 before finishing 10th.

"Yeah, I always think back to the first time I played here," he said. "This is the seventh time playing a tournament, as a 22 year old. It's pretty funny."

Rock, meanwhile, transformed himself 11 days ago from a 34-year-old journeyman who finally had wrung out an elusive title in June 2011, to the guy who held off a harrowing field with Tiger Woods in it, won at Abu Dhabi and said, "It's pretty hard to believe that I managed to win today."

As of the moment, the 29-year-old blaster Quiros counts as the afterthought in that group, yet to hike his career victory total from four to six last year, he mined Dubai Sunday spectacles.

He won this event last February with help from a hole-in-one, and the Dubai World Championship just two months ago with a boost from a 40-foot eagle putt.



Mena Tour bolstered from four to six events, s4