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Rory-Tiger battle looms
Last updated: 17th January 2013
With two of the planets biggest golfing stars back for the first time this year, there's a good chance we'll see a Rory McIlroy-Tiger Woods battle royale at this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship .
Of course, golf being the game of uncertainties that it is, there is always the possibility that both McIlroy, the standout World No 1 last year, and Woods, the World No 3 and a 14-time major winner, as well as other high-flyers like England's World No 5 Justin Rose and the US's World No 11 Jason Dufner, will all be surpassed by a lesser mortal like English journeyman Robert Rock.
Last year, at Abu Dhabi, Rock stunned the golfing world when he coolly held off the likes of Woods, 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell and an in-form Thomas Bjorn to claim the biggest win of his life.
This year it will be as the defending champion that he'll be trying to bring down the big guns again.
However, the World Rankings are based on averages over two years, so the chances of the highest ranked players coming out on top are always greater than they are for those lower down the scale and on this fact alone, McIlroy is clearly the favourite this week - even though there are questions surrounding his form.
He's had a break of almost two months since his victory in the 2012 European Tour-closing DP World Tour Championship in Dubai, a fair bit of it with his girlfriend Caroline Wosniaki on the women's tennis tour, and while being away from the stress and strain of tournament golf can be a good thing for a high profile world sports celebrity of his calibre, it might also have left him a little rusty - just as it may have done for Woods.
There are also questions being asked about McIlroy's highly publicised switch from Titleist, the brand of clubs he's always used up until now, to Nike, the giants of sporting sponsorship who have come up with an offer he couldn't refuse - it's reported to be worth something like $150 million over 10 years.
While some leading pundits like six-time major winner Nick Faldo have expressed concern over McIlroy's equipment change and the effect it might have on his game, McIlroy himself said recently that he was confident he will have found Nike clubs he was comfortable with by the time he tees off for the first time with them at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club on Thursday
Meanwhile he is champing at the bit to get back into competitive golf after a dazzling 2012 when he topped the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic and won his second major at the PGA Championship as he scampered up to the top of the World Ranking list.
"I've had a nice break over Christmas and the New Year, but it's back to business now," a very businesslike McIlroy told the media this week.
"Abu Dhabi is a great place to start the season, as it's one of my favourite tournaments. This is the sixth time I will have played in it, and I've always done pretty well here in the past. In the last four years, I have had two second place finishes, a third and a fifth, so I know it's a golf course that really suits my game.
"I'm looking forward to getting my 2013 season up and running, and hopefully I can carry my momentum over from last year into this one. Last year was obviously an amazing season for me and it's going to be tough to top it, but I feel refreshed and excited about the year ahead."
Woods, in the meantime, has been keeping a pretty low profile, but being the man he is, you can bet your bottom dollar he has been working like a beaver at his game ahead of a season in which, I imagine, he hopes will take him closer to Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 major victories.
Certainly Mighty Mac would be making a big mistake if he underestimates the Tiger.
It would also be a good idea if he keeps a weary eye on the likes of Rose and Dufner who last year each made it clear that they have both the game and the temperament to continue making an impact at the top.
Rose, whose last performance on The European Tour earned him the runner-up spot behind McIlroy at the DP World Tour Championship and who also finished second to McIlroy in The 2012 Race to Dubai, has never looked better.
Nor has Duffner whose trademark, pre-shot wiggle, waggle at address helped him earn two and nearly three PGA Tour titles and a Ryder Cup berth in 2012.
Due partly to a skiing injury, Martin Kaymer, the 2010 US PGA Champion, has slipped from a brief spell as World No 1 in February, 2011, to No 28 right now, but the talented young German's crucial winning putt in Europe's breath-taking fightback at last year's Ryder Cup at Medinah seems to have sparked a revival of the form that has seen him win at Abu Dhabi, not once, but on three separate occasions in the space of only four years (2008, 2010 and 2011).
With this kind of history in this championship, it might also be extremely unwise to write off his chances at Abu Dhabi
Rejuvenated Englishman Paul Casey is another on-the-mend-from-injury course specialist with multiple wins in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship (2007 and 2009).
He tied with Ernie Els for 18th place at Durban Country Club last week and it will be interesting to see whether he can get up among the front runners this week.
Els, who last year came away from a frustrating spell in the doldrums, found his lost putting form and won his second Open Championship, will most likely be disappointed with his 18th place for he had won the SA Open at Durban CC on two occasions and was hoping for better there.
However, the 40-something veteran looked a little sluggish and had clearly not had enough time to have shrugged away all of those Christmas cobwebs, but this week things could be different.
Up and coming younger guns with a chance? Yes, there certainly are a few.
Scott Jamieson, who won the inaugural Nelson Mandela Championship at Royal Durban in December and then finished second behind Louis Oosthuizen at the Volvo Champions at Durban CC last week, is certainly one of them.
Italian teenager Matteo Manassero is another and so too are England's Tom Lewis, Swede Thorbjørn Olesen and Frenchman Julien Quesne, who looked especially promising in Durban last week.
And finally let's not forget about veterans Thongchai Jaidee of Thailand and Irish icon Padraig Harrington who finished in third and fourth places respectively last week.
In that kind of form, they could well get back among the front runners this week..
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