World number one Dustin Johnson began his year in form befitting the rank he occupies and the American comes to the UAE capital this week hoping to go one better than his tie-for-second finish at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship last year.
Johnson dominated the No. 1 spot in 2017, leaping to first place as early as February 19 following his win at the Genesis Open in California and never letting go.
Genesis is an interesting name for a tournament that really saw the birth of Johnson as a true world beater.
Consistency has long been a trait for the 2016 US Open champion – he has not dropped outside of the world’s top 25 since entering it for the first time in February 2010. He has taken up permanent residency in the top 10 since breaking into it in March 2015.
It was a victory that cemented a place in history as he joined Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the only three golfers in PGA Tour history to win a title in each of their first 10 seasons.
It was no flash in the pan either. It was part of a calendar year in which he carded four victories – including a hat-trick of titles with the WGC Mexico Championship and WGC Match Play following in straight succession.
But even though he started this year in fine fashion with victory in the PGA Tour season-opening Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago, Johnson isn’t participating in the hype that surrounds him.
“That (victory in Hawaii) was two weeks ago so it really doesn’t matter what I did there,” the 33-year-old said at his press conference ahead of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship getting underway in the UAE capital on Thursday.
“This is a completely new week and everybody starts at even par and so I’ve got to start over again.”
Johnson finished a shot behind Tommy Fleetwood in Abu Dhabi 12 months ago, tied second with Spain’s Pablo Larrazabal.
It’s a course he feels comfortable on and one he is more familiar with, which might spell trouble for the rest of the field this week.
“I didn’t start too well on the first day (last year) but played very well the last three,” he says.
“I felt like this golf course suits me pretty well and I like the set-up of it. Last year was the first time being here. This year, I know the course a little bit better, so we’ll see. Hopefully I can play as well as I did in Hawaii.
“I obviously want to, I would love to win. But it’s four rounds. So when it comes to Sunday, I just want to be in a position where I have a chance to win.
“If I do all the right things for the next few days, then I definitely will have a chance Sunday. It’s hard to say I’m going to go out and win. That’s really tough. It’s a very good field. There’s a lot of great players.”
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) January 20, 2017
Despite his meteoric rise and sublime year, Johnson is realistic enough to know that even his form and progress in the last seven years can’t guarantee success.
“I could have a really good week and still lose, that’s just how golf is,” he added. “You lose a lot more times than you win, and it’s always going to be like that.”
Despite admitting he’s enjoyed a “perfect” start to the year, things don’t always run smoothly, even for world number ones.
After his sublime early success last year, he was headed to the Masters – the first major of the year – confidently. But, at Augusta, he fell down a staircase in the home he was renting for the tournament and suffered a back injury which ruled him out before even teeing off.
And he admits that incident gives him more motivation going into this year’s tournament – played from April 5-8 – seeking a second major title.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it this year,” said the South Carolina native.
“I was very disappointed I didn’t get to play last year, but things happen, you’ve just got to roll with it.
“But it’s a place where I always love going to play. I really like the golf course. The last two Masters I played in, I did very well, so I’m definitely excited to go back.
“Since Augusta, I struggled for a little while. But I finally felt like the game is starting to get back to the form it was, to this time last year where I had a really good run leading into Augusta.
“I’ve been working hard on the game, the swing feels like it’s finally getting back to where it was.”
The golf world is once again abuzz with the name of Tiger Woods, following the 14-time major winner’s return to competitive action at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas last month.
Woods finished eight under in a tie for ninth, his world ranking rocketing from 1,199th to 668th. The 42-year-old is expected to be in the field at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines next weekend, which would be his first official PGA Tour event in a year.
Sharing, or even giving up the limelight though, is not something that affects the current number one.
“It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s good for the game, him coming back,” said Johnson. “It brings a lot more attention to us, a lot more people are watching, talking about it. He’s very good for the game.
“He has been for a long time, so him not being really involved too much the last few years, it’s definitely made some room for other players to step up and take on a role.
“But he’s done so much for the game and will continue to do a lot for the game of golf. You only hope he plays well and if he does play well, it definitely is very good for us and for the world of golf.”
The rankings may state that Justin Rose is the sixth best golfer in the world at the moment but it’s difficult to argue whether there is a better player on form in the last four months than the Englishman.
Since missing the cut at the PGA Championship in August, the 37-year-old has had ten consecutive top-10 finishes and sealed three victories, along with a runner-up finish in the BMW Championship.
It was undoubtedly the most successful run of his 20 year professional career and one that should certainly add confidence as he embarks on a new season, starting on Thursday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.
“That was a really solid, consistent run of golf,” said Rose. “Then to throw three wins in there and have a couple of other chances where, as a player, you look back at tournaments you win but then tournaments you feel like you could have won, that was a really strong run of golf, and looking forward to just keeping that momentum going as soon as possible.”
His Olympic and US Open titles are an enduring mark of his quality as a player, but there were moments during the first half of last season, where Rose’s game looked to have faltered.
The Birkendale native and his swing coach Sean Foley spent countless hours over the summer together as they looked to rectify some minor putting issues that curtailed his game earlier in the season.
“I think often when you make subtle changes, there’s a bit of a lag effect. And I think after the PGA at Wentworth, that was really when I made a few subtle changes, and through the summer, they didn’t really pay off,” he said.
“I wasn’t able to win in the play-offs (on the PGA Tour) but I came close, finished second at the BMW Championship. But that set things up, and it was then really, really nice to get that sort of winning, get the monkey off my back there in China and keep it going for the remainder of the season. It was a lot of fun.”
After winning the Indonesian Open by eight shots in December – his third tournament victory in seven weeks – the 37-year-old set off to the Bahamas with his family for two weeks on the back of a gruelling season.
25 tournaments over an 11 month period would take a toll on anybody’s body – and coupled with his tremendous success – it was a well-deserved break for the most in-form player in the world.
“It was really important in order to protect and preserve my form, was to do nothing. I feel like – to basically reinvest in myself. I stayed in the gym all Christmas, kept the body moving didn’t really focus too much on the golf side of things,” he said.
“I think it’s really important to miss the game. I kind of like to have that itch to play again, then I know it’s time to go. So that’s normally my formula.
“I knew that I needed to take some time off, but I’m not taking a prolonged break just to keep the momentum up.”
With The Masters less than three months away, Rose is surely one of the names pursed on most people’s lips after his outstanding run of form.
After losing to Sergio Garcia in a play-off at Augusta last April, the Englishman – gracious in defeat – said he will one day walk out of the course in Georgia as a Masters champion one day.
But if Rose can continue playing to these elevated levels then there is no doubt that he will be up alongside the elite names come Sunday of the Masters.
“Your clubs do the talking at the end of the day, so you turn up on the week, the golf course doesn’t recognise who is No. 1 in the world. You’ve got to build a new body of work every single week. There’s no point in talking about it,” he said.
“It’s just a matter of trying to do it. Under the radar is good, and if I am No. 1 in the world going into majors, then that would be my same mind-set is the course won’t recognise that; the fact is it’s just every single week you’ve got to focus on your game and your process no matter what.”
Rory McIlory will play his first competitive round of golf in more than three months when he tees it up at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship on Thursday – but the world number 11 is adamant a first win in nearly 16 months isn’t far away.
The Northern Irishman hasn’t tasted victory since the Tour Championship in September 2016 and hasn’t won a major since the 2014 PGA Championship.
He curtailed his 2017 season in October following the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, citing a rib injury, although it transpired days ago that the issue was a more serious heart irregularity.
It followed him suffering a viral infection in China 18 months ago, but the four-time major winner insisted “it’s nothing” as he looks to get back on track following the longest break of his career.
“I’d love to win again. I don’t think there’s any better feeling than winning a golf tournament. But I don’t feel like it’s that far away,” McIlroy, 28, said at his press conference ahead of this weekend’s 13th Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
“I’ve practiced and I’ve played. Obviously not competitively in a proper tournament, but I’ve shot some really good scores over the past few weeks, it’s different doing that to being out here on Thursday and really having a card in your hand.
“But from everything that I’ve seen in practice and playing over the past few weeks, there’s no reason to think that it’s not that far away.”
Asked if he needed to return to winning ways in order to boost his chances of winning the Masters in April, McIlroy added: “I don’t need to but I’d love to. It would be ideal if I were to win one of these next eight events, it would be great for my confidence going into Augusta.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, hopefully I can take a lot of confidence from things that I’ve seen in my game, maybe even if the results don’t quite come my way, but I’d love to.
“It’s been, what is it, 14, 15, 16 months since I won, so I’d love to get back in the winner’s circle as soon as possible.”
Playing down the seriousness of his heart issue, McIlroy added: “I went for a checkup in April, just a regular ECG, they put you on the treadmill and your heartbeat has two big spikes, and then a tiny little spike at the end, and that little spike at the end was the other way, inverted.
“It’s nothing and once they ramped my heart rate up to 150 beats per minute, that started to go the right way again, so it was totally fine.
“They just said I have a bit of a thickening in the wall, not really a big deal, just something you have to keep on top of, and that was really it.”
But while he may play it down, McIlroy’s workload over the years has surely had an effect on both his mental and physical health.
Despite not yet 30, McIlory has been on tour a decade, having turned professional in 2007. And after enjoying a 104-day break including a road trip through Italy in a 1950s convertible Mercedes with wife Erica Stoll, Wee Mac insists he’s now ready for the next 10 years.
“Honestly, I was excited to be done,” he said of cutting his season short after the Alfred Dunhill.
“I could have shut it down after the PGA Championship very easily and taken the rest of the year off, but I didn’t. I played six events after that and played okay. I had a chance to win one of them.
“But I was just excited to take that time off and get myself just sort of reset. After that 3 1/2 months of a reset, I’m very happy to be back.
“I felt like I needed it physically and mentally. I’ve been out here for 10 years and it just felt like it was a little bit of a sabbatical. I’ve been out here for 10 years, get ready for the next 10, and I will feel like I’ve done that which is really nice.”