Task has not become easy for Fowler in Rory's absence

Joy Chakravarty 23:27 17/01/2017
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Rickie Fowler said the job of defending his crown hasn’t become any easier just because world No2 Rory McIlroy – the highest ranked player in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship – pulled out of the tournament with an unfortunate injury.

The 28-year-old American has been involved in several memorable battles with McIlroy, including the 2014 Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and then here at Abu Dhabi Golf Club last year, when he finished two shots ahead of a charging Northern Irishman on the final day.

McIlroy was diagnosed with stress fracture in his ribs after he hurt himself playing the first round of the South African Open last week, and even though he continued to play and eventually finished second to Graeme Storm, he pulled out of Abu Dhabi event on Monday night following consultation with his doctors.

And Fowler said: “It’s a bummer that Rory is not going to be able to play this week. He’s obviously one of the best players in the world. It was fun to have him in contention with me last year here.

“But the biggest thing is for him to take care of himself and make sure he’s healthy. He’s definitely a fan favourite, and I love playing against him. We’ve had a lot of good battles and good times together. Hopefully, he’s not out long and is able to get back soon. He’s obviously playing well. He played well last week.

“Does that make me look at the tournament any differently? No. It’s one less top player in the world I’m going to have to beat, but the field here is one of the best fields on the European Tour, and still have a lot of the top players in the world…three of the major champions from last year are here. It’s not going to be any easier to win.”

It was ironic that McIlroy hurt himself playing golf, while Fowler is one of the new breed of players often criticized for putting his health in danger while participating in Xtreme Sports.

An accomplished dirt-bike racer, Fowler revealed yesterday that he has almost given up on the sport though.

“Everyone has their own thing. You don’t really want to try and live too much in a bubble. Everyone’s been injured doing plenty of different things,” added Fowler.

“We do deal with a lot of injuries just from playing golf and the amount of stress we put on our bodies and how much we play and with the travel. Staying healthy is key.

“I don’t try and change my lifestyle too much. I don’t ride dirt bikes really much at all anymore. I wish I could, but that’s part of me trying to stay as healthy as possible to continue playing at the highest level.

“But part of rest and recovery is getting away and kind of freeing your mind and for me, I’m an adrenaline junkie, so that’s one of the things I need to do.”

And while the focus this week would be to get his year off to another winning start, Fowler admitted that majors are on his mind. Having had a sensational 2014, when he recorded top-five finish in each of the four majors, 2016 was disappointing as he missed the cut in the Masters and US Open.

“It’s definitely nice to be back here. I had a few good tournaments after this last year, but individually I didn’t play as well as I would have liked to. It was nice to get the win here to kick off the year. It would have been nice to kind of continue that form,” said Fowler.

“The last couple years, the majors have been kind of the No1 point to look at, especially after 2014, having the good finishes there. So yeah, the majors, for me, that’s probably the No1 goal.

“To see one of my best friends, Justin (Thomas), play the way he’s played the last two weeks, it’s inspiring and motivating to continue to push myself to play better. But winning is what I want to; win tournaments around the world but the majors are No1.”

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