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Superpowers Clash in the Middle East
Can Phil Mickelson put one over the Europeans in Abu Dhabi?
What a statement Phil Mickelson could make this week. Tied for fourth in the world rankings, the Californian tees it up in the Middle East for the first time in his life, against an army of European superstars who last year collectively swung the balance of power in world golf back across the Atlantic to where it hadn't been since the continent's glory days of the 1980s and '90s.
Then, it was Seve, Sandy, Woosie, Bernie and Nick collecting a tidy haul of majors, Ryder Cups and weeks as world No. 1. Now it's Westy, Poults, G-Mac, Rory and Martin (the German's name doesn't really lend itself to a fun, knockabout nickname) blazing the Euros' trail.
Should Mickelson beat them all, however, and win the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, the European Tour's first big tournament of the year, he will likely set off several rounds of back-slapping and high-fiving among PGA Tour officials, and trigger a flood of speculation over whether or not the pendulum could conceivably shift back from whence it came.
Just imagine, with the upper hand most definitely held by Europe right now, the reaction in the U.S. to an American golfer (actually there are three with Todd Hamilton and Anthony Kang also playing) winning one of their Tour's most prized trophies and taking it back across the Pond. What a profound boost that could give the game in the States, where it is looking rather stagnant.
Unfortunately, America's last major champion - Mickelson in the 2010 Masters by three shots over Lee Westwood - isn't exactly considered a hot favorite. The last time he won his first event of the year was in 2004, and not since June's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach has he finished a tournament inside the top-five.
The typically unpredictable form that marred the second half of his 2010 season came after an August diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis that caused his considerable pain in the middle of the year but which, he says, now has under control. Having reached his fourth decade, however, Mickelson will need to remain in the best shape possible in order to compete with a surge of young players getting ever stronger, more athletic, and more eager for success, and arthritis is never going to make that easy.
Couple that with the mental challenges he faced while watching his wife and mother simultaneously battle breast cancer, and one wonders how much fight and desire Mickelson has left in him. He's so talented, Lefty can surely expect several more wins before calling it a day, but you have to doubt they'll come quite as frequently as they once did.
Far more likely winners in the United Arab Emirates' second largest city can be found among the handful of Europeans who excelled in the latter stages of last year, surging into the world's top 20 and becoming part of the established elite. Chief among them, of course, is Westwood who, after a barrage of top-10 finishes on his home Tour, five top-threes in majors over the last three years, and a win at the FedEx St Jude Classic in Memphis, deservedly made it to number one in the world in November.
The Englishman missed the cut at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club 12 months ago after a second-round 78, but he did finish tied for second here in 2008 so it's not as if he has an aversion to the highly-acclaimed Peter Harradine-designed course. Looking the part with his new set of pearly whites, Westwood will be seeking to consolidate his lead of 1.52 points over No. 2 Tiger Woods who, incidentally, is the only player among the world's top-five not in this week's strong field.
Westwood's main concern will probably be No. 3 Martin Kaymer, a two-time winner of the Abu Dhabi Championship who is an incredible 56-under-par over his last 12 rounds on the 7,590-yard layout. The 26-year-old German hasn't played against world-class opposition since the WGC HSBC Champions in China in November, but his affinity for the course should make him an obvious threat.
Also on Westwood's list of rivals will be fellow Englishman Ian Poulter with whom he's paired for the first two rounds. A drawn-out, good-natured war of words between the two will no doubt play on Twitter in the run-up to Thursday, and it will be all the pair can do to deny themselves their devices while actually playing. Watching the "Brothers Tweet" will be a fascinating tournament within a tournament, the victor surely earning the right to needle the other player 140 characters at a time for weeks to come.
Then there's "Tweet the Younger" Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman, now 12th in the world after having rising as high as No. 7 last August, has only been a professional for three years, but most people who know anything about golf will tell you this is the year the 21-year-old wins his first major. There's no telling which major it will be, but you can be fairly certain it will be one of them. The consensus seems to have him pegged for the Open Championship at Royal St. George's, but he appears just as capable of doing it at Augusta National, home of the Masters, after what he did in Charlotte last May (closing 62 to win the Quail Hollow Championship). McIlroy has finished third, tied-fifth and T-11 in the three times he's played in Abu Dhabi, so it's probably safe to assume he'll either run the winner very close or emerge victorious himself.
Lastly "G-Mac," Graeme McDowell, the other Northern Irishman who some commentators believe might actually be the best player in the world right now. The 2010 U.S. Open winner at Pebble Beach is the player with whom Mickelson is tied for fourth in the world rankings. But while the American's sparkler may be slowly fizzling out, McDowell's is shooting sparks all over the place, becoming almost too hot to handle.
Victories at the Andalucia Valderrama Masters in October, a dramatic playoff victory over Woods at the Chevron World Challenge in December, and a final-round 11-under 62 at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions in Hawaii two weeks ago suggest he is very much the real deal and that his first major victory may not be his last. The Hyundai performance also confirmed that his new Srixon equipment would not be the hindrance some might have anticipated.
I say "lastly," but to limit the potential winners in Abu Dhabi to Westwood, Kaymer, Poulter, McIlroy and McDowell is to forget the rest of what must be one of the better fields in European Tour history. You simply cannot discount the likes of Ross Fisher, Francesco or Eduardo Molinari, Matteo Manessero, Miguel Angel Jiménez, Paul Casey - who has won here twice, or Padraig Harrington, who has bought 15 or more winter swing changes with him. And you'd be equally ill-advised to discount the mass of South African talent that has just enjoyed a four-tournament stretch on home soil going back to the second week of December.
The winners of three of those tournaments were Springboks. The last two, Charl Schwartzel (Joburg Open) and Louis Oosthuizen (Africa Open), are in this week's field and seem capable of winning any tournament anywhere, anytime, and by surprisingly wide margins if Oosthuizen's win at last July's Open Championship is anything to go by. Fellow South African Retief Goosen is also on the tee sheet. And in a field as deep as this, there are a dozen others you wouldn't be upset about drawing in a sweepstakes.
You might not want Mickelson though. The man's a great player obviously, and in a position to have an enormously positive effect on golf in America this year. But the Arabian Gulf in the middle of January? At age 40? Bothered by arthritis possibly? Several thousand miles from his wife and kids? Up against the current might of European golf?
It's hardly the greatest set of circumstances for this popular American player making his debut in Abu Dhabi.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.