Golf's big guns are set to make their European Tour season debut at the Abu Dhabi Championship, which gets underway on Thursday.
The fact that Tiger Woods (17/2 Tournament Outright @ Betfred
) is going into a high-profile event such as this as just the third favourite shows how far his star has fallen in the past couple of years, with Rory McIlroy the 6/1 favourite and Martin Kaymer next in the betting at 13/2.
But there were signs at the end of last year that the 14-time major winner might be about to emerge from his two-year slump to challenge for honours once again. A couple of decent outings Down Under were followed by his first victory in two years at the Chevron World Challenge – although it should be pointed out that his success was in a limited-field event. But the competitive juices still appear to be flowing and the 36-year-old has made it clear that he is finally injury free and ready to prove to the world that he is far from a spent force. The saying goes ‘beware of the wounded tiger’ but the rest of the golfing world should maybe beware of the healthy Tiger because, at his best, he will still be very hard to beat.
In his absence the Europeans have taken over the rankings and world number one Luke Donald will put away the nappies after the birth of his second child and dust off the clubs to begin his assault on glory in 2012. The 34-year-old may not have won a major in 2011 but the fact that he won the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic proves that he deserves to be called the best player in the world on current form. The Englishman’s consistency was nothing short of sensational and he will surely be a major player this week with the sight of some of his Ryder Cup buddies in the field and the big prize on offer. If he keeps up his form then there is every reason to expect Donald to win one of the big four events this year and he would love to kick off the year with victory in the Middle East.
McIlroy enjoyed his best year as a professional in 2011 but, despite the fact that their careers are overlapping, the Northern Irishman has not played too many tournaments with Woods, the man he has replaced as ‘the name’ in world golf. But they will get up close and personal over the first two rounds as they have been paired with each other on Thursday and Friday, with Donald making up the three-ball.The Holywood-born star has had a few words to say about Woods’ decline as a player while he has been on his sick bed and it will be interesting to see how the US Open champion responds to having the great man literally breathing down his neck (McIlroy 6/4, Woods 7/4, Donald 2/1 1st-round 3-ball).
Kaymer finished last year strongly after a mediocre season by his own very high standards and will want to impress early on in the campaign and, the German ace has ‘owned’ this event in recent years, winning in 2008, 2010 and last year, as well as finishing as runner-up in 2009, and he will take some stopping over the week.
But the man who might beat them all is Lee Westwood. The 38-year-old ended last year in sensational fashion and put on a record-breaking display to win the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa, coming close to carding a 59 during the event. Like Donald, he has yet to win major and time could be running out as there are not too many players who win majors after the age of 40 – although Darren Clarke might have something to say about that. Westwood is a big-match player and while this week’s event is not a major, the good and great of European golf will tee it up on Thursday and Westwood loves a scrap.
Charl Schwartzel proved that his season debut was just a blip when he atoned for missing the cut at the Joburg Open to finish just two shots off the lead at last week’s Volvo Golf Champions event, but if anyone is looking for a decent outside bet then look no further than the man who is red-hot at present – Schwartzel’s compatriot Branden Grace (Grace 4/1 Top South African). The 23-year-old had not won in 49 starts before claiming back-to-back titles and at 60/1 to win the event outright, he may be worth looking at.
Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts looked in great form last week and would have won but for one poor round and he will be desperate to add to the one European Tour title that he won in China last year, with the Ryder Cup looming large at the end of the season.
Sergio Garcia, Jason Day and KJ Choi are all more-than-capable of taking this event, while Simon Dyson will be looking to make up for a disappointing showing in South Africa last time out.
It looks set to be cracking event and the match-up that the public and golf fans everywhere will want to see is Woods and McIlroy going head-to-head over the back nine on Sunday – it could be the first of many times that it happens over the next few years.