It’s just as well that the organisers of Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship have binned their tagline ‘Expect the Unexpected’. The players were really taking it to heart. The last time this tournament saw a champion who was a pre-tournament favourite was way back in 2011 when German Martin Kaymer completed his third win in four starts.
Then started the series of upset wins. Robert Rock took down Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy in 2012, while Jamie Donaldson wasn’t really as established a name as he is now after winning the title in 2013. That was also the year when Rory McIlroy shockingly missed the cut, another unexpected event.
A two-shot penalty to McIlroy saw him finish runner-up again in 2014 to Pablo Larrazabal, while 2015 provided the mother of all shocks when Kaymer surrendered a 10-shot lead with 10 holes to play and 22-year-old Gary Stal barged in through the open door.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in a David standing up to a Goliaths and prevailing. In each of these four years, the winners were fully deserving given how well they played that week. Even Stal cannot be called lucky, because he shot a 65 in the final round and was actually protecting his lead over the tough stretch of the last four holes.
Yet, every tournament organiser secretly hopes for the biggest drawcard of the week to hold aloft the trophy on Sunday evening.
Especially in the case of Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship – given how hard they have worked to elevate the status of a tournament that is just 10 years old – it would be great if they finally get one of the pre-tournament favourites to win this year. That would mean either world No. 1 Jordan Spieth, or McIlroy.
If there is one man in the field who deserves to get his hands around the Falcon Trophy, it is McIlroy. In his last five starts, he has finished runner-up on four occasions. In those four years, he is 59-under par for the 16 rounds. Clearly, he knows how to plot his way around this golf course.
However, the question mark against the world No. 3 this year is that he has taken an extended break from the game and is playing his first event in nearly two months. There has never been a rust issue with McIlroy at the start of the season, but then he has never had so much time away.
The one aspect of McIlroy’s game that has helped him do so well in Abu Dhabi is his exceptional ability to drive the ball. To drive it long and straight is key and he does that really well.
Towards the end of 2015, McIlroy was frustrated with his putting. In fact, one of the reasons he decided to get laser surgery done on his eyes was to hopefully improve his performance on the greens. That is one area where Spieth scores over McIlroy, and millions of other golfers in the world. There is no doubt that the American is the best putter in the game. Whether it is rolling it in from the crucial 5-10 feet range consistently, to dropping the bombs at regular interval from 40-50 feet.
It could be said that Spieth has had a long flight and could face jet-lag, but he has shown over the last couple of years that his game travels well. He may struggle a bit with his hitting, but his strong short game always compensates for that.
It’s one clash that golf fans are eager to witness. Hopefully, it will be a running battle for four days and ends with one of them on top of the podium.
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