SPORTS

Woods, Donald, Westwood, McIlroy look to start season with bang at Abu Dhabi

01/25/2012 08:27 EST | Updated 03/26/2012 05:12 EDT
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates - The European Tour outshines the more lucrative U.S. PGA Tour this week when the world's top four golfers plus a resurgent Tiger Woods open their seasons at the Abu Dhabi Championship.

With 12 major winners and nearly 100 European Tour winners, it is a field more akin to a major, and the players said the quality of competition which begins Thursday will allow them to quickly gauge their game after the brief off-season.

"It's definitely not a quiet way to start the year," said U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, who has finished second, third and fifth in the past three years in Abu Dhabi.

"It's great, you get straight at it right away," he added. "You're playing with two of the best golfers in the world in the first two days, and you're up against one of the strongest fields probably that will be assembled this year. You want to try and get off to a good start."

The lineup includes top-ranked Luke Donald, No. 2 Lee Westwood, No. 4 and defending champion Martin Kaymer, Masters champ Charl Schwartzel, British Open champ Darren Clarke, Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell, Sergio Garcia, Miguel Angel Jimenez, and Branden Grace, the winner in the last two weeks of the Joburg Open and Volvo Champions.

Westwood said the field was a boost to the European Tour, which was often shaded by the U.S. PGA Tour.

"I think it's great for the European Tour that we can attract fields like this early in the year," Westwood said. "I think in all fairness between probably April and after the PGA (Championship), most of the golfing world is focused on the U.S. But I think, now, the rest of the world is where golf is big time really."

What makes Abu Dhabi so eagerly anticipated is that all of the top golfers are fit and coming off seasons where they played some of their best golf.

Woods has said he's making his healthiest start to a season in at least eight years and brimming with confidence after ending a two-year title drought with his dramatic victory at the Chevron World Challenge last month.

Donald made history as the first player to win money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, while McIlroy showed signs of being a legitimate successor to Woods by powering to an eight-shot win at the U.S. Open at Congressional. The win was that more remarkable in that it came two months after he blew a four-shot lead in the final round of the Masters in an epic meltdown.

Though McIlroy ended 2011 exhausted after contracting dengue fever, he said he was energized and ready to carry on with the success that saw him finish in the money in all 19 European Tour events he played.

"I definitely felt a little bit of momentum at the end of 2011 and it would be great to keep that momentum going at the start of this year," McIlroy said. "I feel like I played some good golf the last couple of months of the season, and worked on a couple of things. This week will be a good gauge to see how those things are coming along."

Westwood was among the most dominant golfers at the end of 2011, winning the Thailand Golf Championship in December and the Nedbank Challenge a few weeks earlier. He had a third-round score of 62 at Nedbank, and opened Thailand with a 60 — the lowest round of his career — and then a 64 to beat Schwartzel by seven strokes.

Thanks to a new putting prowess, Westwood hinted he might have the additional weapon to win an elusive first major in 2012.

"I think it's very difficult to win a major without making a few (putts) that are surprising, or bonuses which I haven't holed over the last few years," he said. "So if I can start rolling in a few 25- to 30-footers that I have not been making, that's obviously going to make a massive difference."

McIlroy and Donald will be teamed with Woods in the opening round, and were looking forward to an extra buzz from the gallery.

"There's a little bit more of an atmosphere. You're going to feel a little bit differently," Donald said. "Certainly my experiences over the last few years — and I have played with him quite a few times — that feeling of feeling intimidated certainly dissipates, yes. I'm looking forward to seeing his game again tomorrow and getting out there."

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